Minor-league teams boost community spirits, economics

No two words carry so much history and so much hope in such a small package as the first shout of "Play ball!" in the spring.

You think of games of catch with people important to you. You remember fun times on the field and off, all the hours spent in ballparks ranging from a dirt field with bleachers to a multi-million dollar, major-league ballpark. And you look forward to the season yet to come, wondering what new memories will be added in the coming months.

Those are the feelings minor league teams hope to tap into as they bring a bit of that major league feel to their local fans--without all the driving and cost of the big-league experience. Doing so successfully adds to a region's economics while simultaneously boosting community spirit.

"Not only are minor-league tickets a fraction of the cost of big-league seats, but minor-league ballparks are more family-friendly in terms of interactive promotions and available room for kids to run around and be themselves if they aren't able to sit down and watch an entire game," says Craig Wieczorkiewicz of the Midwest League Traveler blog. The Illinois native is currently writing a book about his experience traveling around the 16 MWL ballparks in 2011, three of which are in Michigan.

"Minor-league ballplayers are a lot more accessible to their fans, and, for me personally, I love being able to watch the next potential superstar playing in the minors," he adds.

Michigan's two northernmost teams, Midland's Great Lakes Loons, the low-minors A-League representative of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the unaffiliated Traverse City Beach Bums, have enjoyed success for the past several years by providing just those kinds of memories.

The Loons are entering their sixth season in the Midwest League, having opened the doors to Dow Diamond in 2007. The Beach Bums are set to open their seventh season in the Frontier League in May.

Both teams play an important role in their communities, helping create community spirit and adding to the area's economic base.

The Michigan Baseball Foundation--the non-profit organization which backs the Loons--cites a study by Northwood University that puts the team's economic impact at $23 million. They employ 30 full-time staff members and 250 game-day staffers, while using local vendors whenever possible.

General manager and co-owner of the Beach Bums Leslye Wuerfel estimates her team's economic impact could be around $20 million as well, citing the team's payroll and the fact the team relies on local vendors.

Millions of dollars were spent on building the stadiums the teams play in, too. It has certainly paid off, as the Loons' Dow Diamond and the Beach Bums' Wuerfel Park have both received rave reviews from fans and experts alike.

Wieczorkiewicz calls Dow Diamond one of his favorite stadiums in the Midwest League, while the Beach Bums' home was given Digital Ballpark's  2008 Ballpark of the Year Award.

Thanks to affordable operations and beautiful home parks, both teams have been successful at putting fans in the seats.

"I think the community has embraced the team with both arms," says Cath Peters of Midland, who has attended games since the Loons' first season. "Their ballpark … is very nice, and the crowds in most games are pretty good. The park is extremely crowded when there is a popular promotion, or the weather is perfect for going to see a ballgame."

This year, one promotion expected to be popular is a figurine of Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw. The 2011 National League Cy Young Award winner played the Loons in 2007.

So why put professional teams in markets that you would never expect to find them?

The Wuerfel family, who owned several resorts throughout the Grand Traverse region, wanted to bring baseball to their community.  Leslye Wuerfel says watching her son--Jason, a former University of Michigan baseball player--in the Northern League was the  inspiration.

"I had the opportunity to stand in line with people and see how much hometown baseball meant to them," she says. "It was just a real social event. It drew people to take a break, relax, and watch a game of baseball, which is what it has been about throughout its history. It's what we wanted for the Beach Bums: For people to stop their hustle and bustle, bring their families out to the game and make a memory."

That goes right along with the Michigan Baseball Foundation's stated goal, "to bring affordable, family-friendly entertainment to Mid-Michigan. Through the Great Lakes Loons and Dow Diamond, MBF hopes to revitalize and reinvigorate the region and promote greater economic and civic prosperity."

Loons communications director Alex Wassel says they do that in a more direct way as well.

"One thing (MBF does) is the grants we give out around April of each year," he says. "We've been able to give out more than $100,000 in grant money to 12 counties throughout the region."

That community spirit does not go unnoticed by the fans.

"Way back when my mom and dad first moved here in the early 1970s, several people told my parents they would love Midland because it was 'a great place to raise a family,'" Peters says. "As silly and lame as it sometimes seems, I think the foundations in the city really want to make the place a safe and healthy place for families to raise their kids."

"Setting up the Loons as not just a minor league baseball team to provide a draw on a summer evening around the downtown area, but also as a way to raise money to distribute as grants to help provide safe activities for kids, makes the town more livable in ways other than just giving an entertainment option," she says.

Baseball fans throughout the state will soon have the opportunity to make more memories, as the Loons' season begins April 6 in Lansing, with the home opener set for April 9. The Beach Bums open their season on the road May 17 and return to Traverse City for the home opener May 25.

Kurt Mensching has written about the Detroit Tigers on the Internet for the past six seasons as well as edited a nationally-distributed magazine about the team. He now covers them for BlessYouBoys.com.
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