Another season

It has been a long, long time since I posted here. Since I didn’t have anything to say, I didn’t force it – even though that is contrary to most of the bloggers in the universe.

The AirHogs are in the next phase of “let’s destroy the team” – the owners have decided to co-locate the team between Grand Prairie and Amarillo. So, now they are the Texas AirHogs.

This is quite possibly the stupidest move in the history of organized sports, other than just giving up and having a traveling (no-home) team. A team with two home fields that are 354 miles apart. WTF?

Reminder to the owners and league: Texas is not New Jersey. You can’t just drive across it in an hour. If Southwest flies between the cities, only crazy people are going to drive it. 

We gave up our season tickets last year, because we just didn’t have the time any longer. I was back in the office across town, and by the time I got home, I just couldn’t face another half-hour on the highways to get to the game.

Now, I’m back home-officed, and half the time they’re playing away games, and half of the home games are in Amarillo. I thought driving to Grand Prairie was bad. I wonder if this year’s season tickets package includes a hotel room in the other city. Maybe you can just ride on the team bus.

Why not just kill the team and get it over with?

To fill the gap in home games, the Great Southwest Collegiate League was invented. It’s a wooden-bat, college-level league for college players around the State. Their games are played in whatever stadium the AirHogs are not in that day.

I may go to a couple of their games. They seem to have two games per day, since they don’t have access to the stadium for a full season.

The AirHogs have done almost everything they can to kill fan support. I guess having someone show up in Grand Prairie with a sign “Tonight’s Home Game is in Amarillo” is the final step in the plan.

Sports Marketing

I don’t understand sports marketing, specifically the AirHogs. They changed mascots this year, from Ace Bacon (a fighter pilot pig) to Scout, a blob that’s supposed to be a fighter pilot pig. Apparently, a realistic fighter pilot pig scared children. WTF?

Scout looks like Dodger, the Ft Worth Cats old mascot. Allegedly, it’s the same person inside. He is an asshole. He seems to think people come to the game just to see him. While this is probably a requirement if your job is to look like an idiot in a blob suit, it is contrary to reality.

Sports should not need additional attractions – it is the attraction. I understand baseball is a lengthy game, and there are many details, but that’s what baseball fans expect. If your kids get bored, there should be attractions for them away from the action. Out of sight, out of mind.

Scout is for the children. He needs to take the children Pied-Piper style out of the way. However, since Scout’s human inside thinks he is the center of the universe, he leads the children by running up and down the home dugout with a t-shirt. All the children are screaming for the t-shirt. Scout is the center of attention. His life is fulfilled.

There’s only one problem. It’s the bottom of the ninth, and the home team is behind. This is when the fans want to watch the game. The most expensive seats? Just behind the home dugout. The seats where you can’t see or hear? Just behind the home dugout.

This is obviously a disconnect. The front office is trying to get people to the game, and then prevents them from actually enjoying it.

If you think a blob chasing children is required to sell tickets to a baseball game, you either spent too much time in marketing classes, or you have no faith in your product. Either can be deadly. It’s why Shreveport has had so many teams fail.

The Metroplex has the Texas Rangers, the Frisco RoughRiders, the Grand Prairie AirHogs, the Ft Worth Cats and probably more smaller teams.

How do you sell minor-league, unaffiliated baseball in a town that has a pro team that’s been to the World Series twice lately?

Here’s my thoughts:

Can you meet Rangers manager Ron Washington after the game? Probably not. The AirHogs manager will be in the bar by left field after the game. He lives baseball. Ask him what you want to know.

Want to meet the players? Frisco players sign autographs at given times. AirHogs players (and many opponents) eat dinner in the bar after games. They’re very gracious with their time. Buy them a drink.

Can you sit in a front-row seat for less than $15? You can in Grand Prairie. Try that in any pro sports in the area.

Grand Prairie has affordable, accessible professional baseball. Nobody else (except the Cats) has all three.

Why isn’t that the marketing plan? Why aren’t baseball games being marketed to baseball fans?

I never went to major league games with any regularity because it was too expensive to get good seats, and getting in and out of Arlington is painful. We went to a RoughRiders game and it was fun, but the traffic was horrific. In Grand Prairie, we found a team that was accessible both personally and geographically.

The whole point of playing unaffiliated ball is to get moved to affiliated, then to the majors. So, they actually play ball. There are more triples than in any other level of baseball because its all out.

So, accessible, affordable, professional baseball played by people with something to prove.

Why again do I need a blob to excite me?

First Game

The AirHogs dropped the first game of the season to Winnipeg last night. It was a close game, with good pitching and decent offense – the AirHogs need to put some hits together. The best part of baseball is that they can try again tonight.

Plus, El Paso has already lost two games, so we’re not even in the cellar.

Day three – Is this really cricket?

So, today is day three of Friday’s AirHogs – Diablos game, and hopefully, it will get finished this afternoon. Unfortunately, we have the same umpiring crew, so it could be a long afternoon. Friday’s game was under threat of spraying for West Nile virus (actually, against West Nile virus), so there was a hard stop in place – no inning could start after 10:15pm. (The usual curfew for the American Association is midnight, and I think we’ve hit that twice in four years.) As the game went on, I thought “What a stupid announcement. I haven’t seen a game go past 10pm all season and I’ve been to almost all the home games.” Oops. This was not a good thought to have.

AirHogs are leading going into the bottom of the seventh, 9-8. There’s lightning in the sky. We’re about to have chemicals dropped on our heads by our local government. Surely, the umpires will just call the game due to poison. Nope.

AirHogs are leading going into the bottom of the eighth, 9-8. There’s still regular lightning. The poison planes are in the air, according to WFAA’s text message. Surely, the umpires will call the game. It was legal a long time ago, and the home team is winning. Nope.

Top of the ninth. Diablos have men on base, two out, two strikes. Justin Dowdy throws strike three. Game over!! Wait. The umpire says it’s a ball. WTF? Then, it happens AGAIN. Apparently, you need five strikes to get some batters out. The tying run comes in. Dowdy makes a gentle suggestion that the home plate umpire might want to visit PearleVision (I’m assuming.) He’s ejected. Hmm. Maybe he wasn’t talking about glasses.

Then, AirHogs are set down in the bottom of the ninth. Tie game. Still, we have a bit of momentum going. Oh, wait. The 10:15pm rule. Game suspended.

No problem, the Diablos are in town all weekend. So, continue game at 5:00pm Saturday to get it finished before the 7:00pm game is scheduled to start. On the bright side, it should be easy to park, since nobody will know that baseball starts at five and not seven.

Saturday, the heavens over Dallas open. Rain. If it were raining frogs, I would assume the umpires were just the first plague of many, but this is just rain.

The bar does good business. The snack stands do good business. Just after 8pm, everyone is told, “By the way, we’re not playing tonight.” Thank you, Captain Obvious.

The last time this happened, the team got a really nasty letter sent to them, the league and posted on their Facebook page. Apparently, some fans don’t know that baseball is not played in the rain, but they will wait until the absolute last moment to announce this. (The absolute last moment being about an hour to an hour and a half after the scheduled start.) If it is sprinkling, they may play. If it is pouring, have a beer and head for the exits. Trust me.

So, this afternoon at 1pm, the AirHogs and Diablos are finishing Friday’s game. Then, they’re playing Saturday’s game. Then, they’re playing Sunday’s game. Even Ernie Banks would say that’s a bit too much.

Let’s hope they get them in before the spraying (also suspended) starts up again. I would hate to see umpires melting as the pest spray rains down on them. No, wait, I wouldn’t mind that much, at all.

Diablos vs AirHogs, day three. A unique phrase, indeed.

One piece in place

Although some of us have known this for a while, the AirHogs finally announced this week that Skipper Ricky VanAsselberg has signed a two-year deal to continue managing the team. So, the skipper will be back from the championship team. Now, we just have to wonder how much of the crew will return. The transaction log has been relatively silent (for the AirHogs, anyway), but I assume that will be changing as the countdown to the start of the season begins in earnest.

The Humane Society of Baseball

As someone who has been involved in pet rescue for over ten years and an AirHogs season ticket holder for three, some of the parallels are striking.

Why are pets dumped at the shelter? The usual reasons (regardless of validity): “it’s not trained”, “it’s too expensive”, “it doesn’t get along with our other pets”, “we just don’t want it anymore”, “it bit me.” How many people-centric variations of these do ball players hear when they’re cut?

Once a pet is dumped or a player is released, the parallels continue. I think much as many people consider pound puppies “broken”, they also don’t take independent ball seriously.

This is a major marketing issue that independent ball has – people are not going because it’s “not pro ball”, but they’re not necessarily going to the majors, either. This means they really don’t like baseball, or they don’t want to bother going to see it live. Maybe it’s pricing – the majors cost too much to go regularly, and the minors don’t cost enough for people to take seriously.
 
Here’s a news flash – the independent-league players are paid (not much), but it’s pro ball. Also, in the minors, they’re trying to get out, so they’re trying to get noticed. I’ve always thought a lot of people in the majors are more concerned about their longevity than championships. Depending on their contracts, most are paid win or lose, so why risk injury?

So, you can spend a lot of money on major-league tickets just like you can spend a lot of money on a designer mutt. In both cases, it may not be worth the money. What if you get a heartworm-positive ill-bred dog? What if they’re Mets tickets?

The next time you want a real dog, visit your local rescue. The next time you want real baseball, find a minor-league or independent-league park near you.

Halfway there

The AirHogs are 34-16 at the halfway point. Since the season was extended to 100 games this year, there is no All-Star game, so the regular season continues.

If we were still playing a split season, the AirHogs would be in the playoffs, since they are dominating their division. (They have the best record in the league.) Without the split, they have to keep it up – which I think is a better situation. In the past, winning the first half seemed to take a lot of the fire out of a team.

So, the summer is half-over and the season is half-over. It’s time to get through another fifty games and into the playoffs.

Pass The Bucket

One of the interesting (charming?) traditions at QuikTrip Park is the passing of the bucket. There is actually a hand-out for new fans explaining the practice, since many have never seen it done before.

When an AirHog batter hits a home run or an AirHog pitcher tosses a three-up, three-down inning, the ushers wander the park and collect donations for the batter or the pitcher, respectively. On a good night, a player could probably bump his  salary, or at least cover his bar costs after the game. We know it’s important to the players, because if the press box forgets to announce it, they complain in the dugout. We’ve had to text the announcers or Tweet Ace Bacon to get it announced before. (This may be a bit crazy – we actually are asking that they come take money from us.)

The first season, the team only passed the bucket for home runs, but the pitchers must have complained, since after that, someone added 3-up, 3-down which is as close to a home run as you will find for pitchers.

I usually try to give $2 or $3 depending on the number of singles in my wallet, although I’ve given $5 or $10 for critical RBIs or pitching performances. Some of the players are still talking about the $20 somebody [my little brother] dropped in one night.

[A side benefit – you can have a load of singles in your wallet and your wife won’t ask where you’ve been.]

I was rather surprised that they didn’t pass the bucket in the Frontier League, since it’s basically the same level as the American Association – when one of the Lake Erie team hit a home run, I instinctively reached for my wallet, and then realized I was alone.

It’s not done in the affiliated minor leagues, which says the players are paid reasonably well. I guess.

That said, tt seems to me this is a great motivator for any baseball players, and it could be used on more levels of the sport.

Specifically, it occurred to me that if Derek Jeter hit a home run at Yankee Stadium, there would probably be 50,000 fans to pass a bucket around. (I looked it up just now and there are 52,325 seats.) So, figure a quarter of the people donate an average of $2 each – some of the people are cheering for the opposition, some are just cheap, some will ask if they take plastic. Still, that’s over thirteen thousand people donating to the home run buckets. That home run just made Mr. Jeter over twenty-six thousand dollars.

At that level of income, this could be quite a motivational tool. (Plus, I’d just like to see the usher tossing a roll of cash that big into the dugout for delivery!) It not only motivates the players, it could lower the salary cap. Owners? A plastic bucket costs $10. Figure you need 50 of them in Yankee Stadium. $500 bucks worth of buckets and training some ushers to wander around – which they are supposed to do anyway. Jeter hit 24 HRs in his best season, he hit 10 last year and he probably averages 15 or so. Wouldn’t you like to pay him $392K less because the fans are paying him directly? You could almost pay off your boat. Well, one of your boats.

Maybe the bucket needs to be called up to the big leagues.

 

Magic

I’ve now been in three different ballparks in the past week. After missing AirHogs games because of a business trip, it occurred to me that the Metroplex is not the only place in the universe with minor league baseball.

So, last week, while I was in Nashville, I did a quick Google Maps search for “minor league” nearby the hotel, and found the Nashville Sounds. In a bizarre coincidence, they were playing the Round Rock Express, so there was actually a Texas team for me to cheer on. When I realized I was probably the only Texan in the crowd, I cheered quietly. They lost.

I got home in time to see the AirHogs sweep El Paso this weekend.

Now, I’m in Cleveland on yet another business trip. The AirHogs are in Shreveport, so I’m not missing any games, but I might as well find a game if there is one around. There are a number of minor league teams, but AA is having its All-Star game, so teams aren’t playing.

Then, I found the Lake Erie Crushers who play in the Frontier League and their stadium was about a half-hour from the hotel, so I bought a ticket online and headed out after work. They were playing the Windy City Thunderbolts, so since I had no obvious loyalties, I cheered for the home team. It’s safer.

The ticket was $14 online with a dollar service charge. Here’s the view from the seat:

My seat for the game

$15 Seat

I decided I might as well keep score since I was alone, so there were fewer distractions than usual. (If you have an Android, look at 6-4-3 for keeping score.)

Since I was keeping score, I had to get the lineups. While I was copying down player names and numbers, I saw an interesting fact on the wall – Windy City is leading the division. Guess who is in last? Maybe I was cheering for the wrong team after all.

The game started and I realized the Frontier League uses a two-man crew for umpiring. While this is one less person to blow a call, it’s a lot less coverage in the field.

Windy City scored two in the first to jump out to an early lead. Uh oh. Lake Erie added one in the bottom of the first to keep it close.

Three up, three down for Windy City in the second. Perhaps there was a chance. Lake Erie scored four in the bottom of the second and chased Windy City’s starter. Yes, there is a chance, indeed.

After that, the pitchers settled down. Windy City added two runs in the fourth to draw within one.

Now, the magic.

It’s difficult to get the soul of a team from reading lineups a half-hour before the game. So, you have to go by the sound of the crowd. Lake Erie was still leading 5-4 going into the ninth inning, and there was one last pitching change.

The PA said “Ruben Flores” and the crowd roared. It was the minor-league crowd equivalent of Mariano being introduced. Since the final Windy City pitcher had used only nine pitches to close out the eighth, I thought “This guy must be good.”

Three outs from victory.

First batter. Two strikes. Then, a foul. Then, a third strike that got past the catcher, so a man on first. Hmm.

Second batter. One ball. Pop-up – 1-3 for the out, but a man is now on second. Don’t you usually try to throw out the lead runner? No panicking. Yet.

Third batter. Strike. Lined to short, 6-3 for the second out. Tying run is now 90 feet from home. Again, lead runner, no? Ruh-roh.

Fourth batter. Thinking this would have been a good time for “three up, three down”, but so it goes.

The fourth batter is the one player I actually recognize – Chase Porch, who played for Pensacola last year. He’s 0-3 on the night, so he may be due. One good hit, and we’re going to extra innings. One really good hit and we lose.

Suddenly, I’m very involved emotionally.

Foul. Strike one.

Foul. Strike two.

The magic of baseball is that a great defensive play can win a ball game just as easily as a great offensive play. Sometimes, you get a great hit to win a game. Sometimes, you need defense. With two out and a man on third, you need perfect defense.

Third pitch. High foul pop-up behind the plate. I was sitting almost directly behind home plate, and I lost the ball, but I saw the catcher running towards the backstop, almost directly at me.

He fell into the backstop (which was mesh, so flexible), almost falling into the first row of seats. He came out of the mesh. The ball was in his glove.

Ball game.

Wow.

That is the first time a ball game ended because of something that happened literally three seats from me. I couldn’t get a photo because I couldn’t react that quickly. (So much for “baseball is slow.”)

Lake Erie wins, 5-4.

I’m a Crushers fan now. I’m especially a Kyle Shaffer fan, because that was one hell of a catch.

Here’s the box score, for posterity.