Short-Season Freitas Award: Tri-City

ValleyCats attendance keeps building and building

If the admiration of your peers is the highest complement, then the Tri-City ValleyCats have plenty of reasons to be proud. For over the past few years, the club that moved from Massachusetts to New York seven years ago has become the toast of the New York-Penn League.

Tri-City, which moved to Troy, N.Y., from Pittsfield, Mass., in 2002 has won at least one league award in each of the past four years and has seen its attendance increase each season. The team averaged just 3,000 fans during its debut season. This past season they brought in over 4,200 per game.

"I think obviously the reason we've been successful is because we have a commitment from ownership to provide the resources we need to grow our business," said general manager Rick Murphy, noting the key behind-the-scenes role team owner Bill Gladstone has played. "We've become better at understanding our market and what our fans look for from us to provide in terms of entertainment, so we've been able increase and build off the entertainment experience from 2002 to 2009."

In 2008, Tri-City won the NYP's outstanding club award and was the circuit's nominee for Minor League Baseball's John H. Johnson award. That same year, Murphy was recognized as the league's executive of the year. The hardware didn't stop in 2009, when the ValleyCats won the league's Leo Pinckney promotional award for promotional excellence while two members of the front office were honored: ticket and merchandise manager Heather Lavine won the JoAnn Weber female executive of the year award, and assistant general manager Vic Christopher received the Sam Nader executive/staff member of the year award.

"They are hitting on all cylinders," New York-Penn League president Ben Hayes said. "They have an outstanding staff and have outstanding ownership. They keep doing better every year because of the effort they put into it."

"To be recognized amongst your peers is probably one of the greatest accomplishments someone in our industry can gain. It is one thing to work hard and get noticed within the organization, but to get noticed within the league and industry shows you're going above and beyond," Murphy said.

One trip to Joe Bruno Stadium shows just how hard the ValleyCats work to entertain their fans, as the club has done an impressive job of marketing the minors' target demographic: families. Affordable ticket prices and a variety of promotional packages make passing through the turnstiles an easy experience for families. Once inside, they are sure to be entertained.

For starters, the ValleyCats have six mascots who tour the ballpark. There's Southpaw—the cat who replaced his predecessor Pappy Southpaw, who also still roams the facility. Zoggy, the environmentally friendly mascot who used to be purple but has since gone green, picks up trash while entertaining fans. And then there is Spiedie The Chicken, who if you cheer loud enough may hand you a chicken sandwich.

"We try to create the Disney type of atmosphere with the characters," Murphy said.

The ValleyCats have helped make the ballpark an inviting atmosphere through a series of renovations. The most recent included taking out a section of 100 seats in the right-field corner and replacing it with a two-tiered deck for private parties called The Porch. The 4,500-seat facility also features a 40-person picnic area beyond left field called the Top of the Hill Bar and Grill, as well as 10 luxury suites.

The team has given The Joe some local flavor by signing deals with area vendors. They have a special concourse set up for Helmbolds Hot Dogs, a Troy staple. They also have a specialty area for Brown's Brewery along the first-base concourse. Making the park feel like home has also helped the ValleyCats, a Houston Astros affiliate, succeed in bringing fans to the ballpark despite playing a territory dominated by Yankees, Red Sox and Mets fans.

"It makes it difficult to promote your major league affiliate and we've recognized that," Murphy said. "We're trying to build ValleyCats fans in the local area. Whether we win or lose on the field is not as important. You're not consumed by winning or losing because we're bringing you to the ballpark to be entertained. If you want to build some allegiance, you can be a ValleyCat fan and still root for the Yankees or Red Sox."