When Mobile BayBears general manager Chris Morgan gauges the team’s first-half season performance, he does so in two ways — the part over which he has control (stadium and game operations) and the part he doesn’t (on-field play). That’s how all minor league baseball GMs have to approach the game.
With the first half of the Class AA Southern League season coming to an end Sunday, it seemed a good time to check in with Morgan to see how he rates the the team’s first few months of play — from both perspectives.
On paper, the BayBears finished the first half in second place in the Southern League’s South Division with a 34-35 record, finishing behind the new Biloxi Shuckers (43-25), formerly the Huntsville Stars. The move of the Huntsville team to Biloxi has added to the intensity of the rivalry. Mobile was the first team to play the Shuckers in their new stadium on June 6, which is located across the street from the Beau Rivage.
Attendance at home games has not been a highlight of the season thus far. The BayBears are last in the league, averaging 1,665 per game, which is a few folks down from the average of 1,687 last season, a figure that ranked ninth in the 10-team league (ahead of Huntsville). Summer is the time when attendance usually reaches a peak for minor league parks and the BayBears’ numbers are expected to increase in the coming weeks.
Following a three-day All-Star Game break — the game was played Tuesday night in Montgomery and featured four BayBears on the South Division roster: pitchers Aaron Blair and Adam Miller, infielder Brandon Drury and outfielder Socrates Brito — the BayBears will open a five-game homestand at Hank Aaron Stadium June 24 against the Tennessee Smokies. Games start at 7:05 each night with the exception of Sunday’s game, which starts at 5:05 p.m.
The homestand will be followed by three games in Jackson, Tennessee, with the BayBears returning to The Hank on Saturday, July 4, to start a five-game, holiday homestand against the Pensacola Wahoos.
Despite the low attendance numbers — which may have been affected by rainy weather early in the season — Morgan said he is pleased with operations the first half of the season.
“There were a lot of things we wanted to get accomplished and we accomplished some of those,” he said. “The game-day operations and experience was significantly better and I think the fans would tell you the same. We’ve ramped up the level of service that we provide to the fans and I think it showed … across the board. … The overall experience, it’s better. Now the second piece of that is we’ve got to do a better job in getting more people to the stadium to see it. I’ve said all along, if we can get more people there to see what we’re doing, the likelihood that we’ll get them coming back and getting more people to come with them is real good. That’s our goal in the second half.”
Morgan said media coverage of the team, a priority heading into the season, has greatly improved. He added that the task now is to “do a better job internally” to get more people to attend games.
“One thing that we can’t control is the dang weather. We had an unusually rainy April; our opening game was postponed because of rain and eight of the 32 home games we had — you’re supposed to have 35 — were either postponed or suspended due to weather. That’s a challenge. We can’t control it, so we can’t worry too much about it. It’s just the way it is.”
The upcoming homestands, especially the one beginning July 4, are important for the BayBears. As usual, each homestand will feature fireworks shows — the usual show following Friday’s game and one that Morgan promises will be twice as big as “the usually big” fireworks shows following Friday games for Independence Day. Thirsty Thursdays continue to be popular at The Hank, Morgan said, as are Sunday FunDay games, which also feature Bark in the Park.
“If you’ve seen a fireworks show after a Friday night BayBears’ game, and they’re huge, just double that. That’s what you’re going to see on July Fourth,” Morgan said.
On the field, the BayBears’ roster will undergo some significant changes in the second half, Morgan said. That’s often the case following the first half of a season as the parent organizations — in Mobile’s case, the Arizona Diamondbacks — shuffle their minor league rosters in the second half, promoting players while also moving some players to lower-classification teams.
“The team, they had their ups and downs, and we’ll see a lot of changes in the second half … that should make them better,” Morgan said. “They finished the first half strong, winning four of their last five. Hopefully that momentum carries over.”
The BayBears have had good success in recent seasons on the field and Morgan said the Diamondbacks’ organization places an emphasis on the success of their minor league teams throughout their system.
“The Diamondbacks, across minor league baseball, have done a really good job,” Morgan said. “Five or their six teams were in the playoffs last year and we had four guys who made the all-star team this year. The director of player development, Mike Bell, he wants the teams to win. He doesn’t just want to develop players. He wants to see the teams in the Diamondbacks’ minor league organization win games and he’s willing to make moves in order to do that.”
Morgan said there will be a lot of moves within the organization over the next few days that will shape the look of the rosters throughout Arizona’s minor league system, including Mobile.
“Our team is going to look different in the second half than it did in the first because we’re going to have a lot of new players,” Morgan said. “Their Class A team, Visalia, won the California League hands down in the first half. It wasn’t even a close race … We’re going to get quite a few of those players. It shows the willingness of the organization not only to develop players, but for their teams to win games.”
The BayBears placed fourth in the Southern League in team pitching (based on earned run average) in the first half (3.69) and sixth in team batting (.252). Mobile must win the South Division second-half crown to qualify for the playoffs at the end of the regular season, or if Biloxi also wins the second-half crown, have the second-best record in the division.