Originally created 08/21/05

Can Ripken Baseball Group put new luster in Augusta's diamond?



ABERDEEN, Md. - Chris Livingston takes a new black baseball glove out of its bag and asks his son William if he wants to wear it.

"Yeah," says the blond 3-year-old.

It's a cool Saturday evening in this small town north of Baltimore - perfect weather for a baseball game. Ripken Stadium is filling up quickly for a New York-Penn League game between the Aberdeen IronBirds and Batavia Muckdogs.

A crowd of 6,369 - the third-highest in franchise history - is eventually announced.

Up in one of the sky boxes, William works to get the too-big glove onto his too-small hand, while his father explains how he got the tickets for the game through his job. That's one of the few options available if you want to see a game at Ripken Stadium, which has been sold out for every IronBirds game in the team's nearly four-year existence.

The sky boxes, the packed stadium, the air-conditioned club level - this isn't the Minor League Baseball experience Mr. Livingston and his wife, Jamie, who have lived in nearby Belcamp since 2002, are used to.

Tickets to Augusta GreenJackets games at Lake Olmstead Stadium, where the Livingstons had one of their first dates in 1998, were never such a hot commodity when they were growing up in North Augusta.

That might change in the next few years. On Oct. 1, the GreenJackets will come under the same ownership group as the IronBirds.

The Ripken Baseball Group, led by Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr., announced in June that it had agreed to purchase the GreenJackets from brothers Michael and Jeffrey Savit, who have owned the team since 1998.

The GreenJackets will be Ripken Baseball's second minor league team. There really is no way to know how the Ripken brand of Minor League Baseball will go over in Augusta. But Mr. Livingston thinks fans should check out Lake Olmstead Stadium next season.

"It's going to be nothing but first-class," he says.

Top of the line

The descriptions "first-class" and "first-rate" poured out of so many fans and staff members during two recent IronBirds games, they began to sound more like they were in fictional Stepford, Conn., than Aberdeen. General Manager Jeff Eiseman swears these fans were neither brainwashed nor planted by his staff to feed rave reviews to a couple of out-of-town visitors.

Apparently, they are just telling the truth.

"Cal has always been known to be a first-class player and person, and it translates into this," says IronBirds head usher Bob Slagle.

The evidence is everywhere. The expansive youth baseball complex Mr. Ripken and his brother and former teammate, Bill, have created adjacent to Ripken Stadium includes Cal Sr.'s Yard - the venue for the Cal Ripken World Series. The stadium is named in honor of the brothers' father and will eventually look like a mini-Camden Yards, complete with a warehouse beyond the right-field wall.

Three smaller stadiums named after Chicago's Wrigley Field, Baltimore's old Memorial Stadium and Boston's Fenway Park are across from the featured stadium.

Inside Ripken Stadium, the amenities rival many Major League Baseball stadiums. There are two restaurants - Open Air Cafe behind home plate and Crab Shack down the right-field line. Programs are free for fans and include player features and updated statistics.

There is an enormous digital scoreboard behind the left-field wall to help fans keep up with the status of the game if they get a little distracted by all the amenities.

The most impressive thing in the whole $24 million stadium, though, is probably the full-color video board behind the right-field wall. The staff presents a pre-game show on it each night, complete with interviews and game highlights.

"Look at it right now, we're watching a baseball game," IronBirds catcher Kyle Dahlberg says as he looks up at the Orioles-Texas Rangers game playing on the video board two hours before his game is set to start. "But all the interviews that they show up there, that just adds to all the fun and adds to the atmosphere."

Added value

About four hours before a Saturday game, a van is backed up to the gate at Ripken Stadium. IronBirds staff members busily unload boxes and stack them inside the concourse.

Gloves, like the one on William Livingston's little hand, fill the boxes. They are a giveaway item for that night's game. But the IronBirds don't offer these gloves to the first 1,000 people through the gates to draw people to the ballpark. They've already sold out all available seating.

This giveaway item is a perk available only to season-ticket holders.

"Season-ticket holders are the backbone of our franchise," says Amy Venuto, the director of sales.

So they get rewarded.

"We're really about adding value to our season-ticket holders," says Mr. Eiseman, who will oversee both baseball clubs as vice president of Ripken Baseball.

"Our season-ticket accounts, they have very high expectations of us, because each year we keep making it harder for ourselves."

It seems they keep delivering, too, because 93 percent of their season-ticket holders from this past season renewed for 2005. And the other 7 percent?

"Death and moving - that's pretty much it," Mr. Eiseman says.

Work gets in the way for a few others, but Mr. Eiseman says he rarely hears a customer isn't returning because of something the IronBirds did or did not do.

And there is always someone in line to take the available tickets. The waiting list for season tickets stands at about 1,500 people.

Bill and Kathy Frock, of Dundalk, Md., have been on the list for two years, but they are among the lucky few who attend games regularly, despite being in a perpetual holding pattern for tickets of their own.

Mr. Frock says they have their "bases covered pretty well" by knowing enough people who have tickets, which allows them to see about 15 games a year.

Creating demand

If all the fans on the IronBirds' waiting list for season tickets showed up on an average game night at Lake Olmstead Stadium, they'd almost double the GreenJackets' attendance. With those 3,536 people in the stands, the GreenJackets would be 786 shy of a sellout - something they've accomplished only once this year, and that was for the South Atlantic League All-Star Game.

The GreenJackets have about 400 season-ticket holders this year, meaning they sell about 80 percent of their tickets on game days.

"If people know they can just walk up and buy tickets, they're never going to necessarily have incentive to go do anything," Mr. Eiseman says. "So we know we have to create that incentive."

It's already there in Aberdeen, despite having a team in a lower level than the GreenJackets in baseball's hierarchy. It's the kind of demand the group hopes to replicate in Augusta.

"To create that demand," Mr. Eiseman says, "you've got to make your product interesting enough for somebody to want."

That doesn't mean you have to field a winning team. The IronBirds have never finished a season with more wins than losses, but the park remains sold out. The GreenJackets have one of the best records in the South Atlantic League this year, but their average attendance of 2,036 ranks 10th in the 16-team league.

A new stadium, popular giveaway items and exciting promotions are the driving force behind high attendance in the minors. The IronBirds offer all three regularly, while Lake Olmstead Stadium is 10 years old, and the GreenJackets have offered the other two items only occasionally this season.

GreenJackets General Manager Nick Brown sees that changing with the ownership group. He envisions better giveaways to get people through the gate - caps, T-shirts, maybe Cal Ripken Jr. bobblehead dolls - and livelier promotions to keep their attention between innings.

Aberdeen's Saturday game started with the gloves. Two separate T-shirt launches, a hula hoop contest, a race around the bases, Let's Make a Deal, a dizzy bat race and foam balls thrown from the press box followed.

Mr. Eiseman says the T-shirts and foam balls are staples each night, but the other promotions vary from game to game so season-ticket holders don't get tired of seeing the same thing. Fans can expect a similar philosophy at Lake Olmstead Stadium in 2006.

"We don't need to reinvent the wheel," Mr. Brown says. "We just need to bring the wheel to Augusta."

The resources

It is almost a certainty that no other Minor League Baseball general manager has uttered the following with a straight face:

"I'm actually looking forward to taking my vacation, and getting back to work."

Getting back to work? This coming from Mr. Brown, who put on the SAL All-Star Game in June with three full-time members on his GreenJackets office staff, and has since seen that staff shrink to two and an intern. That's how excited he is to work for Ripken Baseball.

For a general manager who has battled a small budget and a smaller staff for most of his three years in Augusta, knowing Ripken Baseball will become his employer has made Oct. 1 feel like Dec. 25.

"I've been secretly counting down the days," Mr. Brown says.

Ripken Baseball has already provided Mr. Brown a glimpse of what is to come. He is looking at new office furniture and upgrades in technology, and Ripken Baseball has already padded his staff.

Tom D'Abruzzio started working in Augusta on July 20 as part of the new owner's staff and will be the director of tickets and operations for the GreenJackets. He worked for Mr. Eiseman for about five years in Las Vegas and started working for Ripken Baseball as a consultant in October 2004.

Mr. D'Abruzzio has already started interviewing job candidates to build up the GreenJackets sales staff, and on Sept. 8, IronBirds corporate marketing manager Adam Piede will join Augusta's staff as the ticket sales manager. More staff is expected to be added as Oct. 1 gets closer.

"The potential is here," Mr. D'Abruzzio says. "When you have three or four people doing everything, it's hard to stay focused on sales. ... We're looking to bring in people who are 100 percent dedicated to sales."

Once Ripken Baseball takes over, the reinforced staff will begin an all-out attack to bring in more season-ticket holders and pack Lake Olmstead Stadium.

"We know that we're not going to sell out every night in Augusta," Ms. Venuto says, "but we're going to try to make certain nights really fun, really impactful and really focus our energies on that."

The sales staff will start by focusing on Friday and Saturday nights. Partial season-ticket packages will be developed and marketed to get people to commit to going to some games next year. Once the staff gets the fans in the park, the next step becomes making them return, and maybe even bringing someone new with them.

As the fan base grows, so will the GreenJackets' profits, which will lead Ripken Baseball to reinvest in Lake Olmstead Stadium.

"We don't know what we've got," Mr. Eiseman says, "but we believe we've got something pretty special that just needs nurturing, and we've got to nurse it back to health. And as we do, we'll continue to do more and more and more with it."

The new owners hope to create a fan base and atmosphere similar to the IronBirds'.

"We want to put the old Augusta GreenJackets in the witness protection program," he says, "and unveil a new Augusta GreenJackets."

Reach Kristy Shonka at (706) 823-3216 or kristy.shonka@augustachronicle.com.

Why Augusta?Ripken Baseball thinks Georgia is an untapped market for Minor League Baseball. Of the four Georgia teams in the 16-team South Atlantic League, only Rome is in the top 10 in attendance. Augusta is 12th, Savannah is 15th and Columbus is 16th. We take a look at how the Augusta and Aberdeen stadiums stack up/12A