Editor’s note: Voices is a weekly column that provides a platform for Central New Yorkers to comment about the issues of the day. If you’d like to submit a column, email Larry Dietrich at firstname.lastname@example.org
Baseball is the national pastime. It’s a tradition. It’s a gift given from mothers to sons, fathers to daughters and coaches to players. It’s also an escape from the daily stress of our lives and the news of serious matters that have affected our community. Baseball is supposed to bring the community together to celebrate that national pastime, that tradition.
However, lately, baseball’s reality in Syracuse has been anything but a celebration. The sad reality of a struggling franchise has taken away from the fans’ ability to truly enjoy the experience of our national pastime in Syracuse.
In virtually all of professional sports, event management is the key to attendance. But the Syracuse Chiefs have often come up short when creating an event at the ballpark. There are exceptions, such as the occasional rehab appearance of a well-known player. When pitchers John Smoltz, Josh Beckett and Stephen Strasburg were pitching on rehab appearances, there was a true buzz of something special in the stadium. When honoring our troops or fighting for a cause, it was special for community members and casual fans. Syracuse is a passionate sports city, but it doesn’t show in terms of attendance outside of a few nights at the ballpark.
In markets similar to Syracuse, the casual and the most loyal fans are rewarded much more often. For instance, the Trenton Thunder, a past Baseball America Organization of the Year award winner and AA affiliate of the New York Yankees, have ticket packages exclusively for the appearances of past baseball players and giveaway nights that they feature. The Chiefs are virtually the only club that wouldn’t have a Bryce Harper bobblehead night. In Hagerstown and Harrisburg, where Harper also played, those clubs have already had a Harper bobblehead night.
Many clubs see boosts in attendance from paying homage to baseball’s great history. The Chiefs have only two retired numbers, which is unheard of for a franchise with such a long history. While they had two prominent players (pitchers Tommy John and Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry) come to the ballpark during the 2013 season, Rochester had at least five (Hall of Famer Rod Carew, Jim Kaat, Ferguson Jenkins, Perry and Dwight Gooden).
In 2013, the media coverage of the games became much harder to find. The lack of a radio broadcast of Chiefs games made it very difficult to follow the team. The Chiefs have 72 home dates and 144 games overall; one-eighth of the games (18) were available on television this year. While the Chiefs created the Syracuse Chiefs Radio Network, a broadcast available only via the Internet, the lack of a traditional radio broadcast made it even more difficult for the community to be able feel as that they were a part of the Chiefs.
It is important to praise the past management team for efforts that were exceptional. Certainly, there were nights when Chiefs baseball was an escape from reality. Armed Forces Night is annually a truly great tribute to our service members. Fireworks night brought families to the ballpark. Wendy Shoen’s commitment to Breast Cancer Awareness night and the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Research Fund are moving. Simple things that Tex and John Simone have done, such as greeting visiting players who used to play for the Chiefs or talk about Mickey Mantle and baseball of past generations, have brought smiles to Chiefs fans and our community.
However, due to anxiety over the bottom line and attendance, those smiles have become less frequent. Often, the Chiefs leadership searched for answers within the organization or through a third party, but fans had plenty of ideas to make the experience more enjoyable. But the fans’ opinions did not make much of an impact. Ultimately, that breakdown in communication between the Chiefs and its fans and the media is what led to the frustration between fans and the organization.
After the 2013 season, fans’ passion for baseball largely turned into passionate frustration. Let us hope that the next management team renews that communication with the fans with an open door and that baseball becomes fun again. The fact that new general manager Jason Smorol has slashed ticket prices and showed appreciation for our military members by giving them free general admission is a step in the right direction.
Hopefully, the Chiefs will take a page out of the playbook of very successful Syracuse Crunch owner Howard Dolgon and have town meetings with fans, the community and our community leaders.
Syracuse is a city of hard workers who are truly passionate about their sports, as well. Let us have our national pastime become our escape from reality and a gift to the community once again.