For Dayton, The Next Non-Sellout Will Be The First

DAYTON, Ohio—The Dayton Dragons know better than to think baseball is solely responsible for the record sellout streak that is now theirs.

"It's like, 'Oh, and there's a baseball game going on, too,' " is how team president Bob Murphy, the boss for the Midwest League franchise since the stadium was a parking lot, likes to describe the feeling at Fifth Third Field.

During inning breaks, an energetic troupe called the Green Team performs skits with mascots named Heater and Gem (a nod to the city's "Gem City" nickname) to the delight of screaming children and impressed adults.

Fans consider themselves lucky to have tickets, period, and luckier still on a night when the baby race or tricycle race is taking place. Or to be on hand when the costumed character known as Roof Man rains t-shirts upon the crowd from atop the two-tiered structure.

Groundwork for all of this was laid in the 1990s by civic leaders who thought Dayton needed something to awaken a sleepy downtown in the summer and keep local sports fans engaged between University of Dayton basketball seasons. Naysayers, including a couple of prominent newspaper columnists, contended a minor league team stood little chance in the giant shadow cast by the Cincinnati Reds, who played their games less than an hour from Dayton's south suburbs.

Such concerns seem sillier than ever in light of what happened on July 9, when the Dragons, midway through their 12th season and by this point a true family entertainment juggernaut, broke the North American professional sports record of 814 consecutive sellouts established by the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers from 1977-1995.

The next Dragons game that isn't a sellout will be the bigger story. It will be the first.

Uncommonly Loyal

More than six million fans have passed through the gates since the Dragons debuted in 2000 as the Reds' low Class A affiliate. The players don't particularly care why.

"It's always exciting playing in front of this crowd," said Drew Hayes, a 23-year-old relief pitcher from Tennessee who converted his first 14 save chances this season. "All of us are fortunate to be playing in this environment."

The stadium offers 7,230 fixed seats, plus three lawn areas that are often packed but don't count toward a sellout. A season-ticket waiting list, which the team says numbers about 8,000, would seem to guarantee future success despite a sluggish economy, job losses and companies abandoning the region.

"It's sold out no matter what," marveled first-year Dragons manager Delino DeShields, a 13-year major league veteran who in 2010 saw nothing like this as manager at Rookie-level Billings in the Pioneer League.

"It's like Wrigley Field," DeShields said.

And it looks just as good today, if not better, than the day it opened.

"One thing they've done a fantastic job with has been the upkeep of that stadium," said Mike Vander Woude, the Dragons' lead broadcaster for their first eight seasons. "They didn't wait until something was broken and beyond repair before it got fixed."

Fan loyalty was tested last season when the Dragons shattered a Midwest League record by losing 24 consecutive home games. Nobody knew for sure, but it was believed to be the longest such stretch of futility at any level of baseball since at least the early 1950s.

As the losing streak grew, rather than stay away in protest, some fans made an extra effort to be there in hopes of seeing it end, which it finally did in late August.

Baseball does have its place in the equation. While the ultimate prize of a Midwest League championship has eluded them, the Dragons have made the playoffs five times and given fans plenty of future big leaguers to watch. Shortstop Zack Cozart recently became the 50th former Dragon to wear a big league uniform, joining the likes of Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Adam Dunn, Drew Stubbs, Austin Kearns, Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto.

Strong At The Top

Front-office stability is often not the hallmark of minor league operations, but the good ones bank on it.

Murphy, vice president Eric Deutsch and general manager Gary Mayse—the only area native among the three—were installed by Mandalay Baseball Entertainment more than a year before the team's first game.

Customer service has been a particular focus. The Dragons treat their season-ticket holders like gold—checking in if tickets go unused and offering them first crack at other events the stadium hosts, such as concerts and boxing shows. And they extend some of the same privileges to those on the waiting list.

"We wanted (the list) to have value," Murphy said.

From the beginning, Murphy said the Dragons decided their policy would be to treat fans as they would want to be treated if the roles were reversed. Deutsch, who accompanied Murphy to Dayton from Triple-A Las Vegas, where they also helped run a minor league hockey team, said another key has been matching fans with the right ticket plans.

Deutsch likes to tell the story of a call he received in 2000 from a fan seeking to buy three 70-game season tickets. He said he talked the man into purchasing 17-game plans instead because he didn't want him "to open a drawer at the end of the season and have unused tickets."

Smaller plans have kept tickets moving and, ultimately, exposed more fans to the product, the Dragons say. Even a five-game plan, introduced recently, has been a hit.

 The Record Falls

With an average crowd of 8,400 since they first took the field, the Dragons consistently rank in the top 10 in attendance across minor league baseball. They are leading Class A teams for the 12th consecutive season.

But what's more impressive, selling out 814 NBA games over 18 years, as the Trail Blazers did, or 815 low Class A minor league baseball games over 111/2?

DeShields, an NBA fan who grew up playing point guard and idolizing Magic Johnson (a Dragons part owner), says it's been his experience that minor league teams work harder at the game-day experience.

"I think it's much more difficult to do it here," said DeShields, who knew the streak was a big deal when he looked up from his desk recently to find a New York Times columnist in his office.

On the night the record became theirs, the Dragons painted "815" and their "D" logo in front of each dugout and halted their game with the South Bend Silver Hawks after five innings to release streamers and balloons and show a tribute video on the scoreboard. As fans and Dragons executives high-fived, players and coaches tipped their caps to fans as an "815" sign on the outfield wall was unveiled.

Cheering from his seat in the second deck was Dayton resident Mike Belcher, who showed up for the inaugural game on April 27, 2000 and has missed six since.

Talk about loyalty. Belcher did not miss a game until a blood clot in his leg landed him in the hospital in 2003. He was absent for four others while out of town celebrating his mother's 60th birthday. But he listened on the Internet—from the Virgin Islands.

"This city's love affair with the team," Murphy said, "is really something special."

Sean McClelland writes for
 the Dayton Daily News