Filling a Minor League Baseball stadium in May is pretty rare for a Northeast Triple-A team. Teams might draw 5,500 on a 60 degree Friday night, but that’s as good as it gets until mid-June. In fact, many advertisers don’t start their campaign with the team until the summer months. Many of those advertisers are likely regretting holding back on early-season ads with the Rochester Red Wings. If only they’d known the kind of excitement Major League Baseball’s No. 2 prospect (as ranked by MLB.com) would bring to the city.
The Red Wings, who are well below .500, learned they had hit the jackpot last week when the Syracuse Sky Chiefs (the Washington Nationals Triple-A team) announced that the 2009 No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg would start Tuesday, May 18. More than 400 tickets sold the in the hours ensuing the announcement of The Chosen One’s arrival, more than 1,600 sold the next day. These tickets range from $6.50 to $10.50. Keep in mind the numbers begin at 2,100, accounting for season tickets. When Strasburg made his Triple-A debut in Syracuse, the team’s attendance was 13,766. That’s pretty close what the Cleveland Indians draw for 2010.
The May 18 date had to be moved back due to a rainout. Which, didn’t exactly have to be a rainout, but since Strasburg would not have pitched in a light drizzle due to fear he might get hurt, the Red Wings called the game. Luckily, the teams were scheduled to play a day game the 19th. So, the teams agreed to play a double header with Strasburg pitching in the night game, thus allowing the fans to use their May 18 tickets for the 19th night game. The delay also gave the Wings another day to sell tickets.
It looked like the Red Wings might repeat Hideki Irabu’s appearance (Irabu was a major prospect of the New York Yankees) in late June 1997 when the Wings drew 13,485. The largest crowd in team history is 13,723, a feat that general manager Dan Mason doubted Strasburg would beat. “The Irabu game was in the summer and school was out,” he said. Strasburg’s appearance came close. The team drew 12,590, the 11th largest in history and about 8,000 above their average for a game in May.
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In the days leading up to Strasburg’s appearance, sports talk shows, sports segments and sports sections were all Strasburg all the time. A 20-game hit streak by third baseman Danny Valencia went directly to the back-burner of Red Wings conversation. Even the appearance of another much-talked-about prospect Alroidis Chapman went undetected in the midst of Strasburg mania. The team only drew 7,725 for the Cuban defector. No major media arrived for Chapman, in contrast to Strasburg’s start, which was covered by the Washington Post, MLB.com and Sports Illustrated. The team had to create a makeshift second press box to handle the overflow of media.
Red Wings director of media relations Chuck Hinkel said the team did not increase its marketing strategy; instead they let the media do the heavy lifting. “We didn’t change anything for Strasburg’s appearance,” Hinkel said. “When you have newspapers saying ‘holy crap, this guy is the next Cy Young,’ that is what really gets you the attention you want.”
Hinkel noted the rarity of seeing such a high rated prospect, in addition to the coverage by media created the buzz on its own. “It (coverage of prospects) is different than it was 10-years ago,” he said. “But, usually players of his caliber go right up. Just look at Joe Mauer, he went right from double-A.”
The Wings did everything possible to take full advantage of the one-day event that is Strasburg. The team has even resorted to selling “Strasburg 37” jersey-type tee-shirts for $19.99, and sold out all 144 they had in stock. A move Red Wings beat writer Jim Mandelaro took exception to, “Jerseys commemorating Red Wings legends Joe Altobelli and Cal Ripkin Jr. are selling for only $15,” Mandelaro said in his blog. “A better idea might have been ‘I saw Stephen Strasburg Pitch’ shirts with ‘5/18/10’ and ‘Frontier Field’ below.”
Mandelaro also didn’t appreciate fans cheering for Strasburg, saying they should cheer for the Red Wings to beat him. From the team’s viewpoint, who they cheer for is a moot point. Hinkel said creating an atmosphere for the casual fan is what is most important in the long run. “I’ve had people come up to me and tell me how much fun they had,” he said. “It’s those invaluable impressions that bring people back. Younger fans especially won’t remember if the Wings won, they’ll remember the experience.”
Strasburg pitched 6.1 innings giving up just three hits and no runs and left to the standing ovation of all 12,590. "I've never had a standing ovation [on the road] before in my whole life," Strasburg said after the game.
Matthew Coller is a senior staff member of the Business of Sports Network, and is a freelance writer. He can be followed on Twitter
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