Oklahoma City Dodgers Freitas Award
OKLAHOMA CITY (PACIFIC COAST)
The Oklahoma City Dodgers have found a recipe for success by complementing on-field winning with a front office that continues to drive its organization forward.
“It traces back to making sure that we’re very intentional year over year with how we implement strategy,” team president Michael Byrnes said, “and how we build the culture of our team, our team members and how we celebrate those success stories.”
Byrnes is particularly proud of the Dodgers Rookie League, which began in 2018. The program provided equipment and uniforms (Dodgers, of course) to 20 teams around the area. Those gifts allowed for a full, eight-week season a year after the league was canceled because of a lack of participants. For those efforts, the Oklahoma City Dodgers of the Pacific Coast League are winners of the Triple-A Freitas Award.
“They were able to wear Dodgers uniforms and have the equipment provided to really minimize the cost of participation,” Byrnes said. “Going out on some Saturdays and seeing those games was a lot of fun. To see people engaged with our brand and learning the game and doing it in an environment where kids can learn the sport . . . I think that’s going to be a lasting legacy.”
Committed to the city that voted years ago to see Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark built, the Oklahoma City organization aims to open its doors as much as possible, creating brand awareness and new relationships in the process.
Beyond high school, college and minor league baseball games, the stadium also hosts a team fan fest, a snow-tubing event, a Major League Baseball-sponsored Play Ball event, and much more.
“There are a variety of ways for us to program the space and keep the ballpark active, whether it’s on the field, on our concourse, or utilizing our plaza spaces,” Byrnes said. “We’ve been given a great asset in this ballpark, so we really try to take advantage of that.”
TENNESSEE SMOKIES (SOUTHERN)
Since Chris Allen arrived in the Tennessee Smokies’ front office in 2013, the team has been a model for obtaining corporate sponsorship. The Cubs’ Double-A affiliate in the Southern League has generated close to $1.5 million in sponsorships that has allowed them to make significant upgrades to Smokies Stadium.
For their efforts off the field and achievement on it, the Smokies are the winners of the Double-A Freitas Award. Allen, the team’s president and chief operating office, and his front office have overseen the remodeling of an on-site restaurant, upgrades to the locker rooms and corporate suites. The most recent undertaking was the replacement of the field at 6,412-seat Smokies Stadium, which opened in 2000 at a cost of $19.4 million.
The club has a season-ticket base of roughly 1,000 fans and benefits from its location near Knoxville and its proximity to Dollywood, a nearby theme park that honors country musician Dolly Parton.
Allen’s arrival with the Smokies coincided with the acquisition of the team by Boyd Sports, a Knoxville-based group that also owns Appalachian League franchises in Greeneville and Johnson City.
The Cubs and Smokies recently announced an extension to their Player Development Contract for a two-year term, keeping the relationship through 2022.
Since beginning their affiliation with the Cubs in 2007, Tennessee has posted a 858-809 record (.515). Seven of the 12 seasons have ended with a winning record, and the team has made five playoff appearances, including three straight finals appearances from 2009 to 2011.
At the end of the 2022 season, the Smokies will have been affiliated with the Cubs for 16 seasons, which would mark the second-longest stretch for the club. Tennessee was affiliated with the Blue Jays for 23 seasons from 1980\ through 2002.
The Smokies’ front office staff has grown from 12 employees to 30 over the past several years.
“We’ve seen tremendous growth,” Allen said. “Having the Cubs is fantastic. You don’t hear that in a lot of other ballparks.”
In a state that’s a hotbed for minor league baseball, the Winston-Salem Dash have established themselves as a frontrunner. One of the 13 options in North Carolina, the Dash led all of high Class A in attendance with 292,774 fans going through the gates of the downtown BB&T Ballpark.
Those figures and more are why Baseball America chose Winston-Salem, the Carolina League affiliate of the White Sox, as recipient of the Class A Freitas Award, which is given to a team that has demonstrated sustained excellence beyond the field.
The success of the Dash goes far beyond the playing field. They host 200 events year-round, not including home games. That includes nine high school proms and various holiday parties.
Just before the 2018 season, NBA star and hometown hero Chris Paul of the Houston Rockets became a minority owner of the team. Paul grew up in Winston-Salem and played collegiately at Wake Forest.
“(Paul) grew up a baseball fan,” Dash president C.J. Johnson said. “Having him as a part-owner is just another connection to our community. “From what I could tell, he kept pretty close tabs on the team.”
The Dash benefited from another big name in 2018 when iconic shortstop Omar Vizquel was hired to manage the club. Vizquel, an 11-time Gold Glove winner during his 24-year big league career, was voted the Carolina League manager of the year in his first season as a skipper.
By going 84-54 in the regular season, Vizquel guided the Dash to their second-highest win total in team history. The 84 victories were also tied for the fifth-highest in Winston-Salem franchise history, which includes a place as a charter member of the Carolina League, which dates back to 1945. Winston-Salem posted the fourth-best winning percentage (.609) among full-season minor league clubs.
“To have a manager who’s so recognizable to our fans and our staff is fantastic,” Johnson said.
The ballpark has helped revitalize downtown Winston-Salem, and the Dash have benefited from the foot traffic. The club has finished either first or second in high Class A in both overall and average attendance since the ballpark opened in 2010. Over the first nine seasons at BB&T Ballpark, 2,713,684 fans have entered, an average of 301,520 per season.
“The ballpark has been a big reason why the whole downtown is thriving,” Johnson said. “There’s so much going on outside the ballpark. It’s an entertainment destination, not just a baseball destination. There’s something to say about sitting in the lower bowl and seeing the downtown.”
The success of the Dash filters above the field. Jessica Aveyard, the club’s director of entertainment, has been named one of four recipients of the Women in Baseball Leadership Event Scholarship. Aveyard oversees all in-game promotions from music to visuals to between-innings skits.
“She makes sure that everyone is having fun,” Johnson said. “We’re fortunate to have some bells and whistles we can use to make it fun for the fans. But ultimately it come down to all our staff, from food and beverage to sales, to game-day promotions. Everybody has to be at high level.”
Konnor Pilkington Providing Promising Results
A third-round pick out of Mississippi State in 2018, Pilkington has 70 strikeouts in 56.2 innings this season.
When the Spokane Indians, the Rangers’ short-season Northwest League affiliate, decided that they should have a rally mascot, it turned into much more than a creature stuffed into a jersey— it became another chapter in the club’s unique partnerships with its community.
“I didn’t want to introduce just some new animal or some new thing that didn’t have depth, that didn’t have a relevance to the team,” Spokane senior vice president Otto Klein said.
Klein, an avid fly fisherman, had the idea to highlight redband trout, a subspecies native to the Spokane River that flows through the city. The fish were also once a staple food for the team’s namesake, the Spokane Tribe of Native Americans. Redband trout had reached historic lows because of pollution and habitat destruction, but river cleanup efforts have help stabilize the redband population.
“I went to the tribe first with the concept,” Klein said. “They loved it.”
Working with marketing firm Brandiose, the team turned the mascot, Ribby the Redband Trout, into a new brand identity for the club. Fans coming into Avista Stadium in Spokane could pick up free “redband headbands” for use during late-inning rallies. The flat cardboard band wraps together like a Burger King crown and lists the history of the redband trout on the inside.
“No one has done them before in baseball,” Klein said. “We know they’re going to come up in other places because they’re so popular.”
The team also sells Redband merchandise, including a set of jerseys and caps that the team wears on the field for select home games. The light blue of these uniforms, which is one of the club’s accent colors, is set off by a distinctive red stripe and dark blue spots along the sides that mirror the fish’s markings. A trout logo adorns the cap.
“When someone purchases a hat or a jersey or a polo with the Redband logo, we let the customer know that they’re also supporting redband habitat,” Klein explained. “The first day that we had the Redband hats, we sold out in one day.”
Like all the team’s other uniforms, the writing on Spokane’s Redband alternates is in the Salish language of the Spokane Tribe.
The club started featuring Salish script on an alternate set in 2015, then on all their home uniforms the next year. Now, even their road grays are in the fast-fading language of their partners—there are only about a dozen people left who are fluent in Spokane Salish, Klein said.
“Even if we do a throwback uniform or a Star Wars uniform, anything we wear on-field has the Salish writing,” he said. “We feature Salish words around the ballpark, where there’s a translation in English and a translation in Salish. It can be found in various places around the ballpark. That’s by design. We want to tell the story of the Spokane Tribe.”
Whether it’s trout habitat restoration or indigenous culture and language, using baseball to support and promote key aspects of their community is just part of a day at the ballpark for Spokane