Richmond baseball: Checking in on the Squirrels

With the season just under a month old, it’s time to look in on our new Double-A baseball team.

I’ve been to two games, one in each homestand, and overall, I came away with the idea that the Flying Squirrels get it.

The positives I’ve seen:

  • Ticket-buying online is rather easy.  Pick your price level, and section, and then bring up a section map that looks a lot like an airplane seat-selection map… and works just as well.  And the convenience fee is respectable ($1.50) as opposed to Ticketmonster-style gouging.
  • Parking is just $3.  Contrast Coliseum parking at $5-$7, depending on the event.
  • The first really pleasant surprise comes when you enter the gates.  The program and scorecard are free.  Yes, free, as in “no cost”.  I can’t remember the last time I went to any sporting event where a full-sized program was free.
  • And then, there’s the seating.  It is so nice to sit in the lower bowl at the Diamond and be comfortable.  If you remember the old modified bench seating… at least in the lower bowl, that’s gone, replaced by plastic seating.   Fairly wide seating, as well, with cup holders at every seat.  The upper deck is still metal seating, but the top few rows at the top of the mountain (which are so high up you needed oxygen to reach them) are gone, replaced by large banner advertising.    The result was to bring capacity down by about 1500, which makes sense considering we’ve come down a level in play.
  • There’s a promotion or giveaway for every game.  Today, of course, was “Education Day”.  This has been a growing trend in minor-league baseball, as a way to bring young fans into the game – there were four such games of the six Eastern League games today.  We didn’t know about it in Richmond, because the Braves never really promoted – like many wrestling promoters (something I know a bit about), they figured they could open the gates and people would just magically appear.  The Squirrels understand you have to lure them in.  Today, it was done by the busload – literally, as schools from all over the area sent kids to enjoy the game (one assumes it was done as a reward for grades or attendance).  There’s another Education Day in two weeks, on May 20.
  • There is always something going on.  Live music on the concourse (except during today’s 10:35am matinee) before the game, and an on-field promotion or audience-involvement event during every half-inning break.  This is modern minor-league baseball… the game is only part of the presentation, you have to give the paying public more sizzle.  The Squirrels are doing well at it.
  • It also helps that the Giants organization is doing well – as mentioned in my preview a couple of weeks ago, this group has won before.  Several of them won the 2008 South Atlantic League pennant in Augusta and many of them made up the 2009 California League pennant-winners in San Jose.  After a rough opening road trip, the Squirrels have gotten their feet under them and are second in the Eastern League West, 2 1/2 games behind the leaders (Altoona).  History has shown that winning, or at least being competitive, does help attendance.  

There really aren’t many negatives, and even less in the control of the Squirrels.  The Diamond is outdated, but the Squirrels are taking the right approach – making the best of it for now, and once the economy rebounds, working on a multi-jurisdictional deal with Richmond and the collar counties to get a new ballpark built.  Quick aside: if we can get it built in the next few years, expect to hear rumors that the Triple-A Charlotte franchise is sniffing around… they’re currently unhappy with their stadium in the South Carolina suburbs of Charlotte, and the city of Charlotte doesn’t want to build them a ballpark, either… 🙂

The biggest complaint I had was a lack of vendors.  Now today’s game might have been tough, as I don’t know how many of the vendors could get out of their daytime committments, but on a hot, sunny day, there wasn’t a soda/water vendor until the 7th inning.  Yes, there are concession stands, but there are also crazy people like me who prefer to stay in their seat and avoid lines (admittedly, they’re not all THAT long, but still, I want to see the game, not the concession stands).  So there’s the one thing the Squirrels need to fix.  More vendors. 🙂

I should mention that the Squirrels ditched the ramshackle souvenir hut that the Braves used, and converted the old Diamond Club restaurant to sell souvenirs.  Honestly, if you walk into the Squirrels’ Nest and don’t walk out with at least one trinket, doo-dad, or souvenir, you may not be a baseball fan. 🙂

All in all, it’s great to have baseball back in Richmond, and better to have it in the hands of this organization.  Now, just secure the Nationals affiliation for 2011… 🙂

I’ll close with a punch-line that’ll take some time to develop… 🙂 My seat today was one row behind the “seat upgrade” contest seats, where a family is moved from the Uppy’s Deck (yes, Uppy’s sponsored the upper deck this season) to behind home plate.  Today’s family had a great day – not only did they get the seat upgrade, but their row was eligible for the Home Run Inning contest, and the little girl in the group won a free Ledo’s Pizza.  All I won was a sunburn, but I digress.  What I’ll take away from today, as much as a thrilling 2-1 extra-innings win, was one comment by that young lady…

During the game, veteran hecklers love to ride the home-plate umpire, and traditionally, they do so by calling him “Blue”, the long-time traditional color of the umpire’s garb.  In the last few years, Minor League Baseball has changed the umpire’s uniform to a black shirt and grey slacks.  After a few innings, the young lady in front of me turned to her dad and asked “Why are they saying ‘Hey, Blue’?  Shouldn’t they say ‘Hey, Black’?”  I’ll hope that he took a few minutes on their ride home to explain why I nearly fell out of my seat… she seemed puzzled. :)  Out of the mouths of babes…


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