Photo | Shane Rice
Before the team rockets off to Madison and becomes the Trash Pandas, the Mobile BayBears are spending one more season in the Port City. While the front office has committed to making the team’s farewell season a success, questions about the future of Hank Aaron Stadium remain.
New General Manager Ken Clary said the team’s new owner, BallCorps LLC, has plans in place that should make the final season exciting for fans. Efforts to freshen up the fan experience start with concessions and new food items, such as barbecue ribs, a chicken and waffle sandwich and more.
“The owners wanted to show their appreciation to the city and the fans for the past 22 years,” Clary said. “You should always try to evolve and get better, and I think in the past the menu has gotten a little stale from listening to the guys talk here. This year our motto is going out with a bang, so we wanted to create some new menu items.”
Ralph Nelson, BayBears and Trash Pandas CEO, said he talked to the front office when BallCorps purchased the team to see what could be done to enhance the fan experience. Right off the bat, BayBears executives wanted the flexibility to do more promotions and add more nights with fireworks.
“I understand that when the team was for sale, the previous owners didn’t want to expend resources that wouldn’t increase the purchase price,” Nelson said. “They kind of had a lame duck mentality. I didn’t want to treat this completely like a lame duck season.”
By using more resources, Nelson wanted to see if the team could attract more fans for its final season.
“We just wanted to show the people of Mobile we still care,” he said. “The fans should not be punished by us making a business decision.”
BallCorps also increased bonuses and commissions for employees this season to help get them more engaged on the sales side of the business, Nelson said.
In addition to the classic promotions that visitors to Hank Aaron Stadium have become accustomed to—Thirsty Thursday beer specials, fireworks Fridays and Bark in the Park on Sundays—Clary said the BayBears have been working on new in-game promotions to liven up the entertainment value for fans.
“We’re always working on the in-game entertainment, rather than doing the same thing over and over again, game after game, which gets stale,” he said. “The promo team is working on new promotions, so anytime you come out here, you see something different from the last game. That keeps it fresh.”
In addition to in-game promotions, the BayBears are bringing back bobblehead nights throughout the final season, Clary said. It has been almost a decade since the team offered free bobbleheads to fans.
This season the team is offering bobbleheads of some of the most famous players to ever put on a BayBears jersey, including Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Max Scherzer, former all-star pitcher, Mobile native and Cy Young-winner Jake Peavy, current Los Angeles Angels’ outfielder Justin Upton and current St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Plus, a festive edition of team mascot Bay B. Bear in a Mardi Gras outfit, Clary said.
Kids cheer on the BayBears in the first home series of the season against the Pensacola Blue Wahoos at Hank Aaron Stadium.
The BayBears have been near the bottom of the Southern League in terms of attendance for as far back as the records go, according to the league’s website. In 2005, the Baybears averaged 2,930 fans per game at Hank Aaron Stadium, which was next to last in the league. In 2006, the BayBears were third from the bottom with some 3,009 fans per game. The team has been no better than fourth from the bottom in any season since 2005 and was dead last in average attendance in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 with less than 1,600 fans per game. The worst year to date was 2018, when the BayBears averaged 1,121 fans per game. That average is more than 500 fewer fans per game than the next lowest team average of 1,654 fans per game for the Jackson Generals in Tennessee.
Clary hopes the investment from ownership leads to more fan participation in the games. Following a rain-soaked first home series against rival Pensacola Blue Wahoos, Clary is encouraged.
“Considering the weather, I think it was on par with what we expected,” he said. “We had a good walkup on Saturday night. Friday night was really impacted by the rain too because it rained most of the morning and we even had rain during the first game.”
For that first series, which saw opening night rained out, the team averaged 1,119 fans per game, according to the Southern League website. For comparison, teams in neighboring cities such as Biloxi and Pensacola averaged many more fans. Through its first four games, the Biloxi Shuckers have averaged 3,062 fans. Pensacola’s Blue Wahoos have averaged 4,562 fans per game for their first five home games.
The focus for BayBears management this season, from an attendance aspect, will be Friday nights, Saturday nights, the Fourth of July and the final home game against the Chicago Cubs’ affiliate, the Tennessee Smokies, Clary said.
Hank Aaron Stadium
The overall goal for the team this year is to make the city’s decades-old stadium a clean and enjoyable place to watch a baseball game, Clary said.
“We want to put on a good show,” he said. “We want the fans to walk in and see a first-class facility, a clean facility, good food and beverages and they get entertained.”
The future of the stadium once the team leaves is in the hands of others.
Councilman John Williams, who represents an area that encompasses the stadium, said the future of the structure and what will happen to the land underneath it remains uncertain.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” he said. “I’ve talked to the mayor, but have heard nothing.”
As part of a land-use agreement with the owners of the property the stadium sits on, the city must find another sports or entertainment-related entity to house in the stadium, or the land reverts back to previous ownership.
That could be costly for the city, as Williams acknowledged the good amount of wetlands mitigation that went into building the stadium in the mid-1990s. He said the piece of property, with Interstate 10 frontage, is “highly developable.” The hope remains, he said, that it can remain an athletic complex.
“It needs to make money,” Williams said. “It needs to be something Mobilians can see as an increase in quality of life, whatever that is. It needs to be something the city can be proud of.”
Baseball is apparently not the right fit, right now, Williams said.
While Williams said the property belongs to the legal entity connected to the McGowin Park shopping center, city spokesman George Talbot confirmed that the Little family owns the tract of land in question.
Neither Joe Little Jr., nor Joe Little III returned calls seeking comment for this story, but Talbot said the city is working to bring in another tenant to avoid losing its claim to the property. Currently, the city has entertained interest from a few independent baseball teams, but is leaving open the possibility of leasing the stadium to a non-baseball entity, an action it believes will satisfy the terms of the agreement.
In previous years, the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars repairing the stadium and improving the drainage, sound system and other aspects to appease Major League Baseball and the Arizona Diamondbacks, the previous BayBears affiliate.
Starting in 2015, Mayor Sandy Stimpson and members of the council pushed forward the improvements, transferring more than $400,000 from city park funding to cover various payouts for the upgrades. At the time the team was behind on its quarterly rent payments, but as of the last update, the BayBears are current on rent, Williams said.
Progress in Madison
The new stadium in Madison should be ready for play by the start of the next Southern League season, “barring a disaster,” Nelson said in a phone interview.
“We are on track for completion by Jan. 11, 2020 at the latest,” he said. “That’s three months before opening day.”
Right now, Nelson and his team participate in construction meetings every week and progress is coming along. The only hiccup to date is that crews have been forced to backfill with gravel instead of dirt because it has been too muddy.
“We’re ahead of schedule,” he said. “New steel is going up every day. We’re at about 75 percent on the erection of buildings. More than half of the concrete has been poured.”
The team had originally planned to play in Madison this season, but Nelson moved the “tight” timeline up to avoid a similar situation to what the Shuckers dealt with when they moved from Huntsville in 2015. The team, which had been renamed the Shuckers, played the first home games of that season in Huntsville before the stadium in Biloxi was finished.
“We decided to kick it to 2020 in order to be ready,” Nelson said. “I promised Lori Webb, Southern League president, that would happen.”
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