While the Mobile BayBears may be commemorating their past this season, they are also strongly focused on the present. The Class AA team opens its 20th season at 6,000-seat Hank Aaron Stadium Thursday, April 14.
It has been quite an impressive two decades for minor league baseball in the Port City. A farm club of the San Diego Padres at the beginning, Mobile brought home Southern League pennants in 1998 and 2004. After signing an agreement with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the BayBears followed up with two more championships in 2011 and 2012.
More than 100 former BayBears have earned a spot on a major league roster since “The Hank” opened on April 17, 1997. From last year’s squad alone, eight players were called up to “The Show.”
Despite these accolades, the BayBears saw their streak of five consecutive trips to the playoffs end. Robby Hammock, who is entering his second year as manager, plans to change that.
“We may not have as many players with big reputations this year, but we do have a lot of guys who know how to play the right way,” said Hammock, a former major league catcher. “Trust me when I say several of our players will make their big league debut this year.
“The greatest thrill I have as a manager is to see a player’s reaction when you tell them they have been called up. It takes a lot to reach that goal.”
Pitching coach Doug Drabek can agree with that. The 1990 Cy Young winner was recently given permission by the Diamondbacks to call his son — former first-round draft pick Kyle Drabek — and let him know he had been selected to join the Arizona pitching staff.
Meet the team
The BayBears have two pitchers on the roster with major league experience: right-hander Zack Godley and left-hander Keith Hessler. Anthony Banda, a southpaw who pitched at Class A Visalia in 2015, was the opening-day pitcher at Tennessee last week.
Returning to Mobile’s pitching staff are left-handers Daniel Gibson and Will Locante, plus right-handers Yoan Lopez, Adam Miller and John Omahen. Other right-handers include Matt Koch, Joey Krehbiel, Nick Sarianides and Matt Stites, while the remaining left-hander is Steve Hathaway.
Returning at catcher from last year’s club is Ronnie Freeman. Others looking to see action are Michael Perez and Dan Rohlfing.
Tom Belza is the only player back in the infield. He will be joined by first baseman Kevin Cron and second baseman Jamie Westbrook plus third basemen Gabriel Noriega and Ildemaro Vargas.
Gabriel Guerrero, the nephew of 2004 American League MVP Vladimir Guerrero, is back in right field for the BayBears. Also returning to the outfield is Todd Glaesmann. New to the roster are Mitch Haniger and Chad Oberacker.
Filling the seats
Despite the success on the field, the BayBears have been near the bottom in attendance the last few seasons. General Manager Chris Morgan wants to change that.
“We want to get more people in the seats,” he said. “We have a great atmosphere here, and the guys on our team deserve it.”
One new factor that could affect attendance is the opening of the McGowin Park shopping complex next to The Hank, making the ballpark adjacent to a multitude of potential fans.
“I get asked a lot how it will affect us,” Morgan said. “It can work for us, but we can’t expect people just to flock here. We will work with the retailers to promote ourselves.”
Morgan said when The Hank was constructed at the intersection of Interstate 10 and Government Boulevard, the original plan was to have shopping nearby. However, the only tenants until last year were a movie theater and a few restaurants.
“We have more or less been in a forest for 19 years,” Morgan said. “We got a few businesses in, and then it hit the wall. It will be great to have so many activities close to us.”
Little something extra
After having played on the road for the first week, the BayBears will host the Biloxi Shuckers — who were one win away from claiming the league title in 2015 — for a three-game series. Thursday’s game starts at 6:35 p.m., while action on Friday and Saturday begins at 7:05 p.m.
To mark the team’s 20th anniversary, the BayBears will feature special promotions. The list includes:
● Sunday Fun Day and Bark in the Park — Families can play catch on the field before the game, while children 12 and younger will be invited to run the bases. Fans can also bring their dogs to The Hank and take part in a canine parade between innings;
● Every Monday Matters — Fans can receive a free grandstand ticket with the donation of two books, two gently used clothing items or two nonperishable food items;
● 2-for-1 Tuesday — Fans get a free ticket to any Tuesday game with the purchase of a ticket;
● One Buck Wednesday — A new promotion this year will give fans the opportunity to enjoy $1 concession items throughout the game, including hot dogs, popcorn and sodas;
● Thirsty Thursday and College Night — Fans 21 and older can enjoy discounted adult beverages until the seventh inning. All 16-ounce Pepsi products will be $2 for the entire game. College students with a valid student identification card can attend the game with a fellow student for the price of one;
● Wind Creek Friday Nights — The most-popular promotion each year is the colorful fireworks show at the end of all 10 Friday night games. A special post-game fireworks display is also planned for Monday, July 4;
● Showtime Saturdays — Different themes are planned this season, such as Airbus Appreciation Night (April 16), 20th Anniversary T-shirt Giveaway (April 23), Paint the Park Pink for Breast Cancer Awareness (May 7), Armed Forces Night (May 21) and Star Wars Night (July 9).
For a complete schedule and roster, visit www.MobileBayBears.com. For ticket information call 251-479-BEAR (2327).