by Todd Traub
Posted 9/30/2013 12:00 am
Updated 7 months ago
It began with a rainout. It ended with a championship series.
In their first season after a front-office shakeup in November, the Arkansas Travelers endured some highs and lows.
On the surface, things looked much the same under new General Manager Paul Allen as they were under Pete Laven, the former Texas League Executive of the Year who was fired almost a year ago in a surprise move by team President Russ Meeks, with the support of the team’s executive committee.
Professional, wood-bat baseball was played. Future major leaguers came and went. Special events and promotions drew their usual, larger-than-average crowds.
But it is clear the Travelers are in the midst of a transition.
“You’ve got to always be looking for that next step,” said Allen, who was promoted from assistant general manager after Laven was sacked.
Allen faced one of his toughest decisions on opening night, when he was forced to call the game because of rain and play a doubleheader the next evening.
The rainout was a sign of things to come as the Travelers lost five dates to rain, the worst rainy season in the Texas League.
“Thursday was always rain day,” said Allen, who began as a Travs intern in 2005.
The rainouts contributed to a drop in attendance, from 308,109 and an average 4,531 last season to 293,749 this year and an average 4,519, second-worst in the Texas League.
“If we’d had two more games, that would have been huge,” Allen said. “It affects your overall attendance, but in the end, if people come out and have a good time, that’s all that matters.”
The San Antonio Missions drew a league-worst 294,346 and averaged 4,329.
As it happened, it was the Travelers, under manager and former Boston Red Sox coach Tim Bogar, and the Missions that met in the league championship series, which went the full five games before San Antonio took the championship with a 5-0 victory on Sept. 15.
The on-field success and sometimes spotty turnouts illustrate the split personality of minor league baseball, in which future major league players compete but clubs can’t count on talent being the sole draw.
With that in mind the Travelers this year played with different ideas that included a watermelon giveaway and built suspense for their 15,000th game with a mystery gift that turned out to be free tickets for those present on Aug. 14.
“Some of those are testing the waters and seeing how people react,” Allen said. “I have a general philosophy that if you think it’s fun, we think it’s fun.”
The Travelers offset some attendance losses Aug. 3 with a mighty turnout of 9,132 for Faith & Family Night, with a concert by “American Idol” contestant Colton Dixon. It was the biggest crowd for a Travelers game since Dickey-Stephens Park opened in North Little Rock in 2007, though more have come for the Arkansas Razorbacks games played there each spring.
Allen noted that the Travelers’ average attendance was in line with the 4,531 last year and 4,625 the previous season. The club has never been an attendance leader since joining the eight-team league in 1966.
Markets like baseball-mad Springfield, Mo., and Frisco, Texas, which is in the Dallas metropolitan area, traditionally do better.
“We’re not the largest city in the league, by no means are we,” Allen said. “Average attendance was right were it was in 2012. It was right there. That said, next year, with the plan we have in place, attendance will increase.”
Team officials have never given a specific reason for firing the popular Laven. Veteran ticket manager David Kay was also dismissed and now holds the same post at Tulsa, a club the Travelers sometimes point to as a model for doing things the right way.
Meeks discussed the changes with Arkansas Business in December but declined an interview request for this story and directed questions to Allen, in whom he expressed his confidence and support.
Laven, now president of Salvi Sports in the Chicago area, was a protégé of longtime Travelers General Manager and Executive Vice President Bill Valentine, who led the club from 1976 until stepping into his executive role and passing the general manager’s chair to Laven in 2007.
Some longtime fans severed ties, some veteran ballpark employees loyal to Laven did not return, and there were grumblings about the nature of Laven’s dismissal and suspicions voiced over the direction Meeks might be taking the club. But Allen said he didn’t hear any dissatisfaction from those who turned out this year.
“All the fans that were here were very positive,” Allen said, noting the club has persevered through numerous front-office changes over the decades. “Travelers Baseball, 1901. It will be here long after us.”
Meeks has said the Travelers are entering a critical phase and he sought a new direction as the club prepares to host the Texas League All-Star Game next season. Dickey-Stephens Park has lost the novelty of being new, and Meeks said he wanted to consider a number of changes during the just-concluded season he described as an evaluation year.
And there are changes afoot.
The Travelers have always been billed as family entertainment, and Allen said that would be the focus, even as the team sticks with its successful, more blue-collar events like Clunker Car Night and Midget Wrestling. Faith & Family Night can be seen as a step in that direction, Allen said.
New uniforms and logos are planned, and this year ballpark employees all wore nametags, putting a name to a face for fans and making the employees more accountable, Allen said.
Longtime mascot Shelly, the cartoonish horse whose name is derived from former advertising sponsor Shell Oil, announced his “retirement” in a handwritten letter this season. In fact, Shell pulled out of its sponsorship prior to the season, though Allen rebutted rumors that sponsors were deserting en masse and said “99.1 percent” of those rumored to have left had not.
“There’s a natural kind of falling off and a renewal,” said Allen, the club’s former director of group sales. “Every year partners come and go for a number of reasons.”
Allen said that to help boost sales, the Travelers want to build interest and remain relevant through the offseason. The search for a new mascot — interested parties can apply through the Hughes Agency, headquartered in North Little Rock — is part of that strategy. Allen said the story line will be updated on social media throughout the winter and culminate in a mascot unveiling sometime in the spring.
It all points toward next season and the All-Star game, the Travelers’ once-in-eight-years chance to put their best foot forward in front of the entire league and region.
Arkansas last hosted the event at Ray Winder Field in 2006, the final season in the Travelers’ former home.
The Tulsa Drillers drew an overflow 8,047 to their 7,833-seat ONEOK Field in 2012, and that club has drawn raves from the Travelers for its production. From crowd flow to guest speakers to the pre-game gala to player availability, the Travelers will be attempting to borrow what went right from the Drillers.
“You want to walk in the gates and have it be a big production,” Allen said. “It only happens once every eight years.”
Allen said the Travelers want to include wrinkles like “jazzing up” the home run derby. He hopes to involve a number of charities, perhaps through a sale or auction of donated, high-dollar memorabilia.
When it comes to the actual game, Allen said, that should be the one night in the minor leagues where the talent on the field speaks for itself. Typically players who are named All-Stars for the first half of the season are on the fast track to the majors, and many Texas League All-Stars wind up with their big league team by the season’s end.
“It’s a special game in the sense where you have a lot of talent of the field,” Allen said.
The Travs are closing in on the remaining $1.26 million the team owed the city of North Little Rock as of December. North Little Rock helped fund Dickey-Stephens Park with a 1 percent, two-year sales tax approved by voters in 2005.
In December, Meeks said he expected the Travelers to retire their debt during the next two years.
In April, according to published reports, the team paid $800,350 based on revenues from 2012. The Travelers did for the first time hold back $120,000 for operation reserves, which is allowed in the contract with the city.
The withholding went to front-office improvements and is a sign the Travelers are thinking about the age of their seven-year-old ballpark.
Along with the standard aging issues, the club is looking at possible fix-ups to the batting cage, restrooms and suites. Allen added that, given the intensity of the Arkansas summers, the team was looking at installing misters on the concourse to help keep fans cool.
“You have your issues,” Allen said. “You have your air-conditioner issues; you have concrete that is cracked.”
Allen wouldn’t forecast whether the team would withhold money for upkeep and upgrades again next spring. When the fiscal period ends Nov. 30, he said, such a decision will be in the hands of the executive committee.
But of all the changes afoot, Allen said, there are no major changes planned for the ballpark. “There is no big wing going out in left field,” he said.
With all that is planned, from uniforms to mascots to All-Stars, Allen said, 2014 will be here before you know it. “It will be here and it’s going to be exciting,” he said. “There will be some visible changes, and we can’t wait to share.”