Independent baseball thrives on community

One of the proudest moments in Tom Whaley’s career as Executive Vice President of the St. Paul Saints happened on what turned out to be an unbelievable night.

An unusually large crowd filtered into Midway Stadium, the home of the Saints nestled between office buildings and the signature railroad tracks where trains interrupt the sounds of the ballpark with blasts of their horns delighting the fans.

Much to the chagrin of religious groups and delight of journalists looking for controversy, an atheist group holding a convention in town agreed to put on “An Unbelievably Fun Night,” and the fans were excited.

Not only was Whaley pleased with the turnout and enthusiasm for his business, but it was one of his proudest moments because of the pride he felt each time he was thanked by an atheist fan, grateful for a place where their community was welcome.

While the night was a bit of a gimmick to draw fans in, from the play on words in the title, to the jerseys that were missing an “S” to make the home team the “Aints”, the importance of the team to the community is anything but a gimmick.

For independent baseball teams, professional squads that are unaffiliated with a major league team, their business revolves around the ability to create strong bonds within their city.

Hometown ties

President and General Manager of the Wichita Wingnuts Josh Robertson understands the importance of family and community in the business of independent baseball.

Raised in Wichita, Robertson played for the Wichita State Shockers in college and the now relocated Wichita Wranglers, a minor-league affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. He now runs the Wingnuts with the help of family and teammates from his hometown and appreciates the relationship that Wichita has with baseball.

“Wichita is considered a baseball town,” Robertson said. “There are a lot of die hard fans and I saw that when I was with the Wranglers.”

Robertson saw that there was a market for baseball if only he could provide the stability and accessibility that an affiliated team lacked.

“With each player having an agent and having big time money and contracts it is hard to get them to get out in the community to do things,” Robertson said. “I handle each player’s contract with our club so they know it’s part of the gig to get involved in the community and sign autographs after every Saturday game. It has made all the difference in the world to fans.”

Tom Whaley has similar feelings for St. Paul, the city that has embraced the Saints and the town where they will stay when they open a new stadium in 2015. St. Paul often plays second fiddle to Minneapolis when talking about the Twin Cities with only one team from the four major sports leagues compared to three in Minneapolis.

Whaley believes this builds a stronger sense of pride for the Saints as the one team that identifies exclusively with St. Paul.

“St. Paul has become comfortable with being sort of younger brother to Minneapolis and now it is cool to be different,” Whaley said. “That is a huge part of being hyperlocal which is really important for independent teams. We are St. Paul’s team.”

Luxury versus leisure

One of the biggest separations between major league teams and independent clubs is the demographic of fans. Families and young adults make up the bulk of a crowd on a given day for the Wingnuts or Saints a far cry from the wealthy season ticket holders and the business owners that pay sometimes over a hundred dollars a ticket for a single major league game.

  • For an audio piece on benefits of independent baseball click here.

Mark Scherer owns a partial season ticket package for the Minnesota Twins that he uses to entertain customers or potential clients for Scherer Bros. Lumber. Scherer’s tickets are in the Champion’s Club, an exclusive area just behind home plate with tickets that run between $185 and $295 each, according to Twinsbaseball.com. Scherer is willing to pay that price for the amenities of a big-time organization like the Twins.

“There isn’t anything quite like the experience in the Champion’s Club with the delicious, catered food, the ambience and the World Series trophies,” Scherer said. “The event is not just a baseball game. You want to see still-playing legends like Jeter and Ortiz.”

Independent baseball teams cater to an audience that is less interested in the fanfare and pageantry of a major league team which makes it popular for families and groups unwilling to hand over a small fortune but are still looking for outdoor entertainment during the summer.

  • For a comparison of prices at sports events click here.

For Whaley, the thanks he received for the team’s atheist night is more than just gratifying. It is what propels his business. In order for the team to get the $25 million in state money to help build its new stadium he had to show that the Saints are good for the community.

“We really had to make the case the stadium is about more than just the Saints, it is about the community,” Whaley said. “We ask questions about what people want and then we need to be real about what we’re giving back. While the Saints account for most of the attendance at Midway, they only account for about a third of the events.”

While atheists do not have faith in a higher power, they showed faith in the “Aints” that night and the state backed them up by approving the money for the stadium. For guys like Whaley and Robertson, both of whom are very passionate about their community, it is anything but “unblievable” that they rely on the community to keep their businesses going.

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