The pickoff at first got the Tri-City ValleyCats out of a jam in the top of the fourth inning Wednesday. As the team walked off the field, the large crowd at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium reacted to the sharp play by . . . well, they didn’t react at all.
They weren’t really paying attention.
And when ValleyCat Daz Cameron hit a leadoff home run in the bottom of the fifth inning, it took a few moments for the fans — the vast majority were schoolkids there for an Education Day — to realize what had happened. Hey, that’s pretty cool. Let’s do a ValleyCats chant. . . .
It was only an exhibition game against the Albany Dutchmen, and the schoolchildren were there as part of a broader educational experience beyond what was happening on the diamond. But the truth is, a large reason for the ValleyCats’ sustained success over the years — they enter their 15th season in Troy tonight with their home opener at 7 against the Connecticut Tigers — is that a lot of customers enjoy being at the game as much if not more than the game itself.
That has always been the sweet spot the ValleyCats have sought: Currying favor with the people who come to the baseball games to watch, you know, baseball, and providing enough ancillary distractions — contests, giveaways, between-inning promotions — to keep casual fans engaged.
There are about 800 season ticket holders, and maybe a couple of thousand hardcore Tri-City fans in the market. These are the people who can tell you if the third baseman is slumping. Heck, these are the people who can tell you the third baseman’s name.
Because of the massive turnover of the roster year-to-year, affinity to individual players is a season-to-season thing. (Players are more permanently adopted if they later hit it big in The Bigs, such as Dallas Keuchel, Jose Altuve, Hunter Pence and Ben Zobrist.) The bond is with the ballpark experience as much as it is with the ballclub.
Through the years the ValleyCats attendance climbed, peaked at more than 4,300 per game in 2010-11, and has remained steady in the neighborhood of 4,250 per game, inching up to 4,269 last season. Even after 14 years, the Capital Region has not tired of the team.
No, the attraction of going to The Joe remains going to The Joe. It’s no longer new but aging well, conducive to both families and fans. Management does not allow for dull spots, without bombarding you. It’s an easy night out.
“We are in the entertainment business,” said Rick Murphy, who has run the franchise for more than a quarter-century. (His title as of last summer is chief operating officer/executive vice president.) “[But] we need to preserve the integrity of the game. If we relied specifically on the baseball purists . . . it would be difficult.”
Murphy has been with the franchise since 1989, when it played in Little Falls as an affiliate of the Mets. The next season it moved to Pittsfield, Mass., and he became the general manager. The franchise moved into the newly constructed Joe in 2002, switching affiliations to the Houston Astros.
The ValleyCats, of the short-season Class A New York-Penn League, have not only survived but thrived due to a host of factors, including:
THE CALENDAR: Tri-City starts its season just after local high schools finish competition, and five weeks before the beginning of the Saratoga Race Course meet. For the first half of the season the ValleyCats own the sports schedule, and much of the media’s attention.
THE SCHEDULE: The late start takes away a lot of bad weather that impacts April/May games that plagued earlier Capital Region pro baseball teams. April night games at Heritage Park in the Albany-Colonie A’s-Yankees era could be miserable slogs.
In addition, the limited amount of games — 38 regular home dates — makes season tickets more affordable.
GROUP SALES: Every game, you are going to see one-two-three large groups or more in attendance, taking up a large chunk of seats or picnic tables and guaranteeing sales.
If you go to a postseason ValleyCats game you will see thousands of empty seats. The reason? You can’t sell group tickets to a game that you don’t know if/when it’s going to be played.
PRICING: Individual tickets run from $5.75 to $10.75 — less than a movie. And do you want to compare that to a major league game? No?
There is another aspect of going to a game that can’t be dismissed: Free parking, It’s a big deal, especially in this market.
“I went to a Reds game three weeks ago,” Murphy said, “and it was $50 to park. FIFTY DOLLARS.”
Owner Bill Gladstone credits his front office team for the continued success: “We have good internal management who run the place with the fans in mind.” Murphy said it’s helped that in recent years the Astros have outfitted Tri-City with quality rosters, appearing in the New York-Penn League Championship Series four of the past five seasons, winning twice.
“Houston has given us a quality team over the years . . . which has allowed us to market the on-the-field piece,” Murphy said.
True, they actually do play some good baseball at The Joe. Whether you are paying attention to it or not.
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