As he welcomed baseball fans to the Hank Sauer Room at NBT Bank Stadium during an open house in early March, Syracuse Mets general manager Jason Smorol said his staff is “interested in seeing what the Mets’ effect will be in Syracuse.”
So far, so good.
For the open house, the stadium parking lot was packed with cars. For Smorol’s annual Q&A in the Hank Sauer Room, the Mets (formerly the Chiefs) had to turn fans away because you couldn’t turn left or right without bumping into another fan.
Then on March 26, the Triple-A Mets’ parent team, the New York Mets, visited Syracuse University’s Carrier Dome for a two-hour workout between the end of spring training and Opening Day in Washington, D.C. Mets star pitcher Noah Syndergaard ripped his team for scheduling the extra travel just before the start of a long season, and he said he wasn’t looking forward to making the trip “not even in the slightest bit.”
But whether Syndergaard had a change of heart or was given an earful by the Mets’ brass and PR staff, he made amends; Syndergaard closed the workout and delighted the crowd by running around the Dome with a large Syracuse University flag and stopping at midfield to wave it around. Snydergaard’s stunt capped a festive event on a workday afternoon before 4,296 fans — more than the Chiefs’ average of 4,202 per game in their last year as the Washington Nationals’ affiliate in 2018.
“It was awesome,” said first baseman Dominic Smith, one of several Mets who signed autographs, tossed balls in the stands and jogged around the perimeter of the field to slap hands with fans. “I know me and a bunch of my teammates, we didn’t know what to expect. But when we got here, we saw the stadium, we felt the energy from the crowd. We loved every second of it.”
Now the $18 million question: Will this enthusiasm carry over into the season and help revive baseball in the Salt City? The New York Mets, who purchased the Chiefs from stockholders for $18 million in 2017 and have since renamed the team the Syracuse Mets, are counting on it. This past fall, the Mets and Onondaga County agreed to a lease extension for NBT Stadium that should keep Triple-A baseball in town through at least 2043.
“This,” Smorol told the fans at the open house, “is going to become a Mets’ town.”
There are a lot of New York Yankees fans out there who might disagree. However, Chris Anderson, a Mets fan who was born in Brooklyn and lives in Baldwinsville, remembers the pre-Derek Jeter Yankees years in the 1980s, when the Mets were winning and the Yankees were floundering and the favorite team in town wasn’t so obvious.
“You used to see a lot of Mets fans in the ’80s and not a lot of Yankees fans,” said Anderson, who attended the open house wearing a No. 34 Syndergaard jersey. “There are more Mets fans here than people give credit for.”
Amy Buchanan, of Liverpool, is one of them. Buchanan, who was a Mets fan as a kid and then drifted away from baseball, works for the Romano Auto Dealerships, where she said she’s “surrounded by Yankees fans.” While watching a Mets-Yankees game in 2006 — and to zig while her co-workers zagged — Buchanan said she decided then to start rooting for the Mets again.
Buchanan said she attended her last Syracuse Chiefs game about 10 years ago to see them play the Mets’ Triple-A team, which was then in Buffalo. For this season, she purchased a Syracuse Mets’ Flex Plan with 10 tickets for $85.
“I’m just hoping,” Buchanan said, “Syracuse is excited as me to see the Mets.”
Syracuse opens its first season as a Mets affiliate — and its first non-community-owned season in more than 60 years — against the Pawtucket Red Sox on Thursday, April 4, 2:05 p.m., at NBT Bank Stadium. It’s the first $1 Thursday of the season (more on that later), and the first 2,000 fans will receive a Syracuse Mets trapper hat that will come in handy if it’s a little chilly.
The team plays Pawtucket three more times, Friday, April 5, through Sunday, April 7, 1:05 p.m., then takes on the Rochester Red Wings on Monday, April 8, 6:35 p.m., and Tuesday, April 9, and Wednesday, April 10, 1:05 p.m.
To get you ready for Thursday and the entire season with our local nine, here are nine things you should know about the 2019 Syracuse Mets:
1. Tebow Time!
It is the Syracuse Mets’ great fortune that their first year with the New York Mets coincides with Tim Tebow’s first year in Triple-A. Tebow, the former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback, has developed a cult-like following as an amateur and professional athlete, and his presence in Syracuse will no doubt boost attendance.
“Didn’t you know he has always been a baseball player; he just took about 10 years off to win a national championship (as a starter at the University of Florida in 2008) and a Heisman Trophy (in 2007) and play in the NFL (with the Broncos and Jets),” Smorol cracked at the open house. “We are super-excited about all of the good he does (with the Tim Tebow Foundation) and the positive attitude he has.”
This is Tebow’s fourth year in the minor leagues, and after being assigned to Syracuse by the New York Mets in spring training, he told The New York Post that he remains committed to baseball despite his side jobs as a college football analyst for the SEC Network and host of the obstacle competition show Million Dollar Mile on CBS.
“I think it’s just the love of the game, and it really being one of my first loves when I was a 4-year-old boy,” he said. “I had No. 35 just like Frank Thomas. You don’t know what opportunities you will have in the future, but this one I have now. I want to be all-in on the present and embrace it as much as possible.
“Those other things are awesome and I love them and there are so many things I want to go after in my life,” Tebow added. “But for this season, my life, this is it, playing this game that I love.”
2. Tebow’s Teammates
While Tebow will get most of the attention, Syracuse’s Opening Day roster includes several accomplished Major League veterans like two-time All-Star outfielder Carlos Gomez, 2016 World Series hero Rajai Davis, and two-time World Series champion Gregor Blanco. Overall, 21 of the 25 players on Syracuse’s Opening Day roster have played a combined 7,006 games in the majors.
Other prominent former major-leaguers include infielders Danny Espinosa and Adeiny Hechavarria and catcher Rene Rivera. Twelve of the 13 pitchers on the Syracuse staff have played in the majors, and eight of them are on the Mets’ 40-man roster, meaning they are among the best pitching prospects in the organization.
The Mets’ top prospect, shortstop Andres Gimenez, is starting the season at Double-A Binghamton and may get promoted to Syracuse this season. Another top prospect to watch is pitcher David Peterson, the Mets’ No. 1 draft pick in 2017, who will start this season at Single-A Port St. Lucie but could move fast through the system because he’s an older player (24) who came from college.
3. The Coaching Staff
The Syracuse Mets manager is Tony DeFrancesco, who piloted New York’s Triple-A team in Las Vegas last season and has spent 24 years and won more than 2,000 games as a minor-league manager. In 15 years as a Triple-A skipper, DeFrancesco has won eight division titles, four Pacific Coast League championships, two Triple-A championships, and he was named Baseball America’s Minor League Manager of the Year in 2015. He also managed the Houston Astros on an interim basis for the final 41 games of the 2012 season.
“Being a New York guy with our New York team, it just seems like a great fit,” said DeFrancesco, who was born in the Bronx. “Having us be so close to Binghamton, (the Single-A team in) Brooklyn, and the big-league club is great for our fans, our players and our organization.”
Rounding out the Syracuse coaching staff is pitching coach Glenn Abbott, who played 11 years in the majors with Oakland, Seattle and Detroit; hitting coach Joel Chimelis; bench coach and former Pirates and Astros outfielder Benny Distefano; trainer Grant Hufford; and performance coach Josh Fields.
4. $1 Thursday
Syracuse general manager Smorol calls $1 Thursday the “greatest invention in the history of baseball,” and who can argue, other than the guy who put the mound 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate and the bases 90 feet apart? Every Thursday when the Mets are home, including Opening Day, fans can purchase $1 Hofmann hot dogs (up to four per concession stand visit), $1 Coca-Cola products, a $1 souvenir and $2 drafts of Saranac, Labatt, Coors or Budweiser products or 1911 Hard Cider. Smorol said the team has created more hot dog and beer locations to speed up the service and get fans back to the game.
5. Amazin’ Promotions
The Mets’ promotional schedule features 22 fireworks nights, 10 national entertainment acts, 24 giveaways and discounts on food and beverage on six of the seven days of the week. One can’t-miss game is Armed Forces Day May 18, when the first 1,000 fans will receive a Tim Tebow camo jersey bobblehead and WWE legend Sgt. Slaughter will make a special guest appearance.
“I love all of the unique and exciting promotions we have to offer our fans,” Smorol said. “In addition to having some of the highest-caliber athletes and fantastic baseball, we offer an event every night. We are truly, the most Amazin’ show on dirt!”
For the complete list of promotions, visit syracusemets.com.
6. The Triple-A Subway Series
The Syracuse Mets and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders — the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees — will play three Triple-A Subway Series at NBT Bank Stadium from May 3-5, May 24-27 and July 11-14. For the record, the big-league Mets and Yankees will play four games this season split between Yankee Stadium June 10-11 and Citi Field July 2-3.
“I’m looking forward to watching the Triple-A Subway Series right in my backyard,” said Anderson, the Baldwinsville resident who grew up a Mets fan in Brooklyn. “You’re going to pay a lot less for tickets to watch them here than if you go to New York.”
7. Improved Fan Experience
The Mets have added several new features to improve the fan experience at NBT Bank Stadium: new ticketing platforms (Tickets.com and Groupmatics); a LiveSource mobile app for live jersey auctions and raffles; VIP parking; and more food options (The Hops Spot, 50-cent wings on Wednesdays, Lupos Spiedies, Budweiser products, and kids 12 and under eat free on Sundays).
“We always listen to what our fans say, and we do our best every year to adapt to make their experience here at NBT Bank Stadium the best it can be,” Smorol said.
For more information about these new features, visit syracusemets.com.
8. You Butter, You Butter, You Bet!
On July 13, the Mets will partner with the New York State Fair to bring butter sculptures to NBT Bank Stadium. The sculptures will be similar to the ones featured at the fair each year, and the team will wear special Butter Sculptures jerseys and hats that night.
The jerseys will be auctioned to raise money for Griffin’s Guardians to benefit pediatric cancer patients and research, and the first 1,000 fans will receive a Scooch Butter Sculpture bobblehead (yes, a new-and-improved Scooch is back as Syracuse’s top mascot).
9. If You Go
Tickets for all Syracuse Mets games are available at the Onondaga Coach Ticket Office at NBT Bank Stadium, over the phone during regular office hours ((315) 474-7833, Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), or online anytime at syracusemets.com. In additional to individual tickets, fans can purchase Flex Plans, Flex Plan Plus packages and season tickets.
Wednesday, April 3, is the last day fans can purchase the Flex Plans at pre-season prices. They’ll go up from $85 to $100 for the Flex Plan (10 undated vouchers for any Level 100 or Level 200 ticket), and $160 to $175 for the Flex Plan Plus (10 undated vouchers, 10 parking passes and a $50 food voucher).