The last time I attended a BayBears baseball game at Hank Aaron Stadium it was a strange experience to say the least.
The team has been a winner for the past few years, regularly producing Big League talent, but you wouldn’t know it from looking around the stands. By the Seventh Inning Stretch it seemed like there were more people scratching on the field than stretching in the stands.
Fortunately for the fans, though, the world’s most obnoxious heckler was providing a show verbally riding the other team’s pitcher, deriding every pitch as lacking in masculine qualities — among other things.
The pitcher came to the plate and Mobile’s finest fan started in on the guy’s mother. At some point I figured that 6-foot-5 pro athlete was probably going to come into the stands and the real show would begin. But instead all I got was a chance to try to explain to my children why someone would act like such an a-hole just for kicks. (“It’s kind of like what daddy does for a living, kids.”)
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy baseball. I played it through my teens and might even have tried to walk on in college if not for alcohol and a lack of talent. And while I can’t say I watch it much on TV, going to a game has always been a fun experience.
Prior to the BayBears landing here, Mobile had the Bay Sharks and both of my younger brothers worked at Stanky Field as part of the BS squad. I would frequently come over from Pascagoula, drop by the Brick Pit for some tasty BBQ, then hit Stanky to watch the game. Once my youngest brother even had to dress as the Bay Shark and that was an especially memorable evening.
When I lived in D.C. — prior to the Nationals — Baltimore Oriole tickets were always floating around Capitol Hill and I frequently availed myself of those freebies so we could head up there to spend $200 on two hamburgers and six beers. So I enjoy a ballgame.
But even with a 12-year-old son who loves going to the games, I still find myself not really thinking about seeing the BayBears more than a couple of times a year. And I keep wondering why.
Actually, why is probably pretty easy. Generally I’ve rarely ever thought about going to a game until hearing about the score on the late news because the team has never seemed to do a very good job of getting the word out. A couple of times we have even worked out a deal to get them free advertising in the paper, primarily to help see the team do better, only to have the deal just fade away as the season began. Even free advertising didn’t seem to be worth the bother.
Then former Mayor Sam Jones finally revealed the team hadn’t been paying rent for several years and came up with some kind of flim-flam deal to let them trade the $900,000 owed in exchange for repairing the roof. That probably didn’t give many people the warm and fuzzies either.
So now the Arizona Dimondbacks — parent club for the BayBears and their hecklers — are practically demanding the city spend nearly half a million dollars upgrading The Hank. D-backs’ Director of Player Development Mike Bell rattled off a letter to BayBears’ management in September grousing about the situation.
“It is our intention to establish and maintain a truly symbiotic relationship with each of our minor league affiliates and while we have consistently provided the BayBears with top-tier talent, our efforts have not been reciprocated with improvements to the facility.”
So here we sit, with Mayor Sandy Stimpson asking the City Council to move roughly $500,000 from the parks budget to fix up The Hank. The decision will come next week.
And despite the rude letter from Mr. Bell, who clearly seems to have overlooked the team’s record as a tenant, despite the poor attendance and the even poorer marketing efforts over the past several years, I’m going to fight every fiscally conservative urge in my body and say it’s worth giving baseball in Mobile one more shot.
Why would I say it’s worth spending money on The Hank while at the same time questioning the proposed building of a soccer complex just across I-65 or whether GulfQuest Maritime Museum really has a shot at greatness or even goodness? There are a couple of reasons.
First, we’re stuck. Like a cruise terminal, a baseball stadium is fairly mission-specific. Yes, you can have Renaissance fairs, car shows and Christmas lights out there, but it’s still a baseball field. If the team leaves, it immediately becomes an empty baseball field. In that regard Mr. Bell and the D-backs and the BayBears ownership hold the cards.
But for the first time in a long time there’s new management at The Hank, and from what I can tell new general manager Chris Morgan means business. Among the several media folks I know who have talked about the next year of BayBears baseball with Morgan, we’ve all come away expecting follow-through. Hopefully that’s the case when April rolls around, but at this juncture there definitely seems to be a different level of energy.
It’s true the relatively out-of-the-way location of the stadium is never going to help attendance, but with the birth of McGowin Park retail development nearby, The Hank may finally be in a bit more high-traffic area. Maybe families buying stuff at Costco will save enough to amble across the street and catch a game.
I’d be surprised if pumping half a million bucks into The Hank is something Mayor Stimpson and the council are excited about, but compared to the millions being tossed around for soccer complexes and maritime museums, the money isn’t huge. The alternative is probably watching the team eventually move and try to find a new name even worse than the Biloxi Shuckers. (I can only imagine what our resident heckler’s going to do when the Shuckers come to town. The possibilities are endless. If the Biloxi team doesn’t have the players’ mommas in for “Shuckers’ Mothers Night,” all their marketers need to be fired. But I digress.)
Begrudgingly it seems like we need to try to see if Mobile can ever become a true baseball town and The Hank can draw enough fans to let the team make its rent regularly. Hopefully if the city ponies up the dough for the improvements, Mr. Bell continues blessing us with big league talent and the team’s management gets aggressive with marketing, we’ll all make more of an effort to get out there this coming season and really enjoy minor league baseball while insulting the other team’s pitcher’s mother.
THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN
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