… and crackerjacks

… and crackerjacks

Oh yeah, and baseball too!

By Rusty Pate

Photo: [above] A summer evening at Fifth Third Field; [right] Roof Man interacts with fans; photo: Dayton Dragons

Donald Campbell takes his passion for Dayton Dragons baseball very seriously. 

His car is what he calls “Dragons green,” sports a back window tint of Fifth Third Field and his license plate reads “DDFAN1.” The retired City of Dayton corrections officer recently celebrated his 65th birthday by turning his basement into a Dragons man cave/museum, which he estimated cost about $50,000 and features a wealth of team memorabilia. That passion stretches back to the team’s earliest days, when their office sat at 500 E. First St. – the current home of Brixx Ice Company.

“I was going to pick up an application for tickets and was going to go home and think about it,” Campbell said. “I didn’t even leave the building. I put my credit card down and got a 17-game package that first year to see what it was like. I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Fifteen years later, Campbell has attended 741 games. He and his wife even follow the team for two road games a year and have attended every stadium in the Midwest League. They have been shooting photographs nearly every year, taking anywhere from 400-600 shots a game. They develop their favorites, getting their personal copy autographed and presenting another copy to the player pictured. Perhaps no one loves the team more than Campbell, but the city as a whole has embraced the minor league baseball club in a way that is unprecedented in the 239 other cities that field a team.

Undoubtedly, the club’s biggest claim to fame is their ongoing consecutive games sellout streak. It currently sits at 983 – the longest in North American sports history. When they broke the previous record, held by the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers, on July 9, 2011, virtually the entire national sports media descended on the city. USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, ESPN and CNN were just a few of the major names that featured stories on the accomplishment.

Tom Nichols serves as director of media relations and broadcasting, and through 26 years in minor league baseball, he knows this type of success doesn’t come easy.

“I think it goes back to the commitment here to a high standard of quality family entertainment, customer service, community involvement and so forth,” Nichols said. “There’s really no place like Dayton, Ohio when it comes to minor league baseball.”

Nichols expanded on what the team calls its “five points of light,” which at first glance seems like standard corporate fair: providing quality family entertainment and unsurpassed customer service, cultivating community involvement, returning on investment for business partners and keeping the product affordable. It’s true that virtually any customer-based corporate mission statement will sound similar; the trick is implementing that structure in the real world.

One only needs to look at the hard data to realize the Dragons’ approach is working.

Put the sellout streak aside for a moment. In every year of the team’s existence, they’ve led all of single-A baseball – typically where the youngest prospects begin their pursuit of getting to the big leagues – in attendance. The Dragons have sold more tickets than all of the teams below triple-A for the past eight seasons. They have finished in the top-10 of all Minor League baseball every year, and last season finished fifth, with the only four ahead of them being triple-A clubs – the last stop for most prospects before hitting the majors.

While the numbers tell a large part of the story, Executive Vice President Eric Deutsch thinks there’s an even simpler metric: the smiling faces in the stands.

“I think that’s been kind of the equation – to make sure when people come to the ball park each and every night – whether it’s a Monday in April or a Saturday night in June – it’s fun, it’s packed, it’s different and it’s entertaining each and every night,” Deutsch said.

Deutsch has been with the team from the very beginning. He has worked with Mandalay Baseball Properties, the ownership group behind the Dragons and five other minor league clubs, for 21 years. In 2000, the group began discussions to purchase a team from Rockford, Ill.

Deutsch said converting that team to the Dayton Dragons and making the deal a reality required many moving parts, all working in concert.

“A lot of groups, both public and private, community and business leaders, who were in favor of the project worked very hard and very long to get it moving forward,” Deutsch said. “It was a collaborative effort of something that was brand new in the heart of a downtown area and it worked out very well.”

A big part of that success stems from perhaps the biggest star in the organization: Fifth Third Field.

The $23 million stadium is an aberration for single-A ballparks. The club works hard to improve it every year and it consistently ranks as one of the top stadium experiences in the minor leagues.

Deutsch said the park has become more than just a place to watch baseball.

“I think the stadium has become sort of an icon for Dayton and downtown,” Deutsch said. “When people think about events in the community or downtown, they’ll think of Fifth Third Field. We take really good care of it as being stewards of the facility. It’s great for sightlines, it’s easy to get in and around, a lot of points of sale for concessions, the lines are very short. It’s a great minor league ball park.”

Nichols added the park has aged well – or perhaps hasn’t noticeably aged at all.

“Our ballpark is one of our greatest sources of credibility,” Nichols said. “It still looks new. It’s going into its 15th year, and yet people step into the ballpark for the first time and come away saying the stadium looks like it’s three or four years old. We’ve made a substantial financial investment as the years have gone by in keeping the ballpark looking new.”

In 2011, the playing surface itself was renovated, including improving the irrigation and drainage systems. That allows for not only shorter rain delays, but also a smoother field of play. This offseason, the focus was on gutting and completely renovating the luxury suites.

While the average fan may not even notice these changes, it speaks to the overall commitment of the ownership to provide a seamless experience for the patrons. The team also realizes not everyone that comes through the gates is a hardcore baseball fanatic.

The Dragons appeal to the casual fan with other forms of entertainment. They have two mascots: Heater and Gem. They have three stadium characters: Wink, Roof Man and ATMO. They have sing-a-longs, karaoke and various contests.

“I’m sure fans attend games for different reasons,” Nichols said. “There are certainly those fans who are most interested in the entertainment – the fun family atmosphere in the ball park – and are not as interested in the baseball side. Certainly we have a fan base that does come out and root for the team, stay to the very last pitch of the game.”

For the latter, the Dragons have been a part of a Cincinnati Reds farm system that in recent years put a concerted effort into growing talent internally. The MLB major market clubs like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers can afford to splurge on high-priced free agents, but smaller markets must scout and develop players in their minor league system.

And the current Reds major league roster is littered with former Dragons.

From stars like the 2010 National League MVP Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey to role players such as Chris Heisey and Zach Cozart to top prospects and potential future stars such as Billy Hamilton, Devin Mesoraco and Robert Stephenson – they’ve all worn Dragons green at one time or another. All told, 63 Dayton players have gone on to play in the major leagues.

While fielding a competitive team certainly figures into the equation, the number one goal remains to make players better. Yet, that presents a problem for a single A club like Dayton. The great players will likely advance to higher minor league classes very quickly, sometimes staying only a year or less. A top prospect might start in double A and in rare cases, such as with Reds pitcher Mike Leake, they may never play in the minors.

That means rather than selling stars, teams have to cultivate a relationship with the fan that focuses much more on the name on the front of the jerseys than the name on the back.

And the best way to do that goes back to keeping those faces in the stands smiling.

“We try to add new things every year, from new entertainment skits to new capital projects within the stadium to repair and maintenance projects to new food and beverage items,” Deutsch said. “What is going to be neat, what is going to be cool, what is going to be different?”

Beyond that, community outreach becomes important. Our society puts a high value on sports. While some might say that spotlight is too bright, many athletic organizations attempt to give back in some way, and the Dragons are no exception.

Nichols said the team has several initiatives, from a close involvement with the Wright Patterson military base to working with Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield’s Home Run for Life to honor children who have dealt with a severe medical condition. Perhaps the most wide-reaching program for the past eight years has been the Classroom MVP.

It offers fourth and fifth grade students in 900 Miami Valley classrooms a chance to get the Dragons VIP treatment. Each teacher selects three classroom MVPs from his or her class. Those three are brought to a Dragons game with their families. The day even includes such perks as being taken on a special tour around the ballpark and interacting with the mascots.

“In some cases they actually come on the radio with me and do a half inning of radio,” Nichols said. “We talk about the things they’ve accomplished to get selected as classroom MVP, in an effort to reward those who have succeeded.”

Teachers are given a good deal of latitude in choosing their winners. Nichols said it could be the student that makes the most improvement over the course of the year, the best grades, the best attendance, a student that was successful in assisting other students in the classroom with their work or it could be citizenship. In short, it could be anything the teacher wants it to be.

The idea is to shine a light on the local youth that goes above and beyond. It is a principle close to the organization’s core values.

Other minor league clubs and cities accept their second-class status to the big boys of the MLB. The Dayton Dragons have become more than that. It has sparked a community that fosters fans like Donald Campbell and gives an identity to a city.

Ultimately, the story of the team’s success boils down to the age-old adage of always attempting to exceed expectations by keeping it simple.

“I think that each night you come out,” Deutsch said, “you’ll see a great baseball game and you’re spending a good quality three hours with family, friends, co-workers, clients, prospects and it doesn’t matter if the home team wins or loses, you know you had an easy time getting in, an easy time getting out and you’re treated well when you’re in the ball park.”

 

The Dayton Dragons 2014 season opening game is Thursday, April 3 at Fifth Third Field, 220 N. Patterson Blvd. The team plays 70 home games with the final game on Aug. 29. For more information on tickets and the Dragons community programs, please visit Daytondragons.com.

 

Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at RustyPate@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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