A lot of Mobilians consider our little slice of heaven a “baseball town.” What’s a baseball town? It’s a town that embraces the national pastime, supports the local team and produces great talent.
While it can’t be argued that Mobile has produced some of the greatest ballplayers of all time, the rest of that baseball town equation isn’t quite adding up. And that’s why, once again, there is talk of the BayBears leaving town. In fact, this time the talk is a lot more than the usual whispers and rumors, as multiple news reports say the team is indeed for sale and an alleged stadium deal near Huntsville is in the offing.
All of this leaves Mobile’s leadership and its citizens in quite a quandary. If the BayBears leave, what does it say about us as a city, and what the hell do we do with an empty baseball stadium sitting right on Interstate 65 next to our shiniest new shopping center?
The word is an Arizona company is seeking investors to buy the BayBears and move them to a “state-of-the-art” stadium in Madison County just outside Huntsville. While the team still has a contract to play through the 2018 season, Madison’s stadium would reportedly be ready in 2019. We spoke with the BayBears’ owner and he rather cagily claimed he’d never spoken with Huntsville and just guaranteed the team would be in Mobile next year.
But the Southern League has confirmed the team is for sale, and the story is that a new group of owners would move the team, so the current owner’s quasi denial isn’t really much solace.
And frankly, when you look at the numbers it’s hard to believe the BayBears won’t be leaving the Azalea City. Currently the team has drawn just 75,334 fans this season — last in the league by a good bit. The second-lowest team — the Jackson Generals — have had just over 100,000 butts in seats this season so far, while the attendance-leading Birmingham Barons have had 304,675. That’s right, the Barons have notched four times the BayBears’ attendance.
And this isn’t a new story. Crunching the stats since 2005, the BayBears’ best year saw 232,000 people walk through the gates at The Hank, but the team was still third from the bottom of the league in attendance. The league leader that year — the Jacksonville Suns — outdrew them by 164,000.
For the past four seasons the BayBears have been last in attendance three times — assuming this year’s trend holds — and second to last once. The BayBears have never been in the league’s top half in attendance, and over this decade the Huntsville Stars were the only team ignored nearly as much as ours. Of course the Stars now play in Biloxi.
The only season the BayBears drew more than 300,000 fans was their first — 1998 — but after that the team quickly settled into averaging in the 3,000s per game in attendance.
So the urban legend that the BayBears were really well supported for several years after they came into the league is really about as hollow as Sammy Sosa’s bat. But from 2005-2011, the team did average more than 3,000 fans per game. Since the 2012 season, though, they’ve averaged an anemic 1,815 per game. So what happened? Did Mobile just “fall out of like” with baseball in 2012?
As I said, our connection with the BayBears was never all that strong to begin with, but late 2010 and early 2011 is when former Mayor Sam Jones revealed to the public that the team was more than $800,000 behind in paying its rent — a secret he’d kept from the City Council. In the early part of ‘11 he cooked up a plan to forgive the debt in return for the team making needed roof repairs by 2017. Although the repairs had been estimated at $500,000 just two years before the deal, Jones pitched it as an even trade for the city and the council stamped it.
I don’t think this deal ever sat well with the citizens and was a contributing factor in where the team stands now. While it’s true the 2011 season averaged just over 3,000 a game in attendance, the next season attendance plummeted 31 percent, and two seasons after that the BayBears were drawing in the mid-1,000s.
I’ve heard a lot of armchair diagnoses of the BayBears’ attendance woes, but none ever seem to take in the citywide anger generated by this flim-flam deal. We always hear about it being too hot, or that it’s too expensive to park, or that the food isn’t good, but those issues all existed prior to “the deal.”
A lot of people have complained The Hank shouldn’t have been built in Wragg Swamp along I-65 and instead should be downtown. I can’t necessarily argue that the stadium’s current location is terrific, but downtown Mobile was also significantly less exciting in the late ‘90s when The Hank was built.
The argument du jour is that people don’t go to the games because we don’t have a brewpub attached or exciting food, and maybe that’s the truth. But the Biloxi Shuckers play in a really cool, brand new stadium along the beach and have proven to only have warning track power when it comes to drawing fans. They’ve been stuck at 2,600 a game for all three years they’ve been on the Mississippi Coast and are currently third from the bottom of the league.
Then again, Pensacola’s Blue Wahoos, who also play in a newer stadium near the water, have averaged well over 4,400 a game since 2012 and are fourth in the league in attendance so far this year — in a much smaller city. I don’t know what to take away from the disparity between the Shuckers and Wahoos, other than to say a brand new stadium on the water isn’t obviously a silver bullet.
One thing people here have to understand is it’s the team running the show at The Hank, which means they’re responsible for uninspiring food, staffing with underage workers who have to wait for help selling beer and for a lack of marketing. Those decisions are also top-down from the owners in Boston, who I understand place a much larger emphasis on profit margin than fan enjoyment.
Still, I’ve been to some games this season and think the overall experience has improved. While The Hank perhaps isn’t “state-of-the-art,” it’s a nice ballpark and the games are fun. This all reminds me of the most famous baseball song ever — prior to John Fogerty recording “Centerfield” — and a line I’d like to butcher to make it fit the situation — “Let’s root, root, root for the home team, oh, it’s a shame if they leave!”
Maybe Mobile isn’t really a baseball town, but it’s going to be tough to drive past Hank Aaron Soccer Complex.