MOOSIC — He came in bursting with excitement over his balloon bust, fired up over spectacular fireworks displays and bellowing — pretty badly — a song while dressing as a fat lady.
But the best attraction new general manager Rob Crain brought to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders has nothing to do with innovative gimmicks or even great baseball games.
It starts out in the parking lot.
That’s where friendly, helpful parking attendants at PNC Field greet drivers with shirts that read, “Director of First Impressions.”
And it’s the first sign the relationship between Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s Triple-A baseball team and its fans was heading in a different direction.
“Before, we were very baseball-focused,” said Crain, who came aboard this season for his first crack at serving as a Triple-A general manager. “Just from my eyes, there’s a change in demographic. Now you see your families coming here, because it’s more affordable. We call them ‘Moms in minivans.’ That’s who we’re trying to go after.
“This is our first real year with that approach.”
With a crowd of 9,185 Thursday night, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s baseball franchise — the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees — went over the 400,000 season attendance mark for the first time since 1998. And although that doesn’t come close to the franchise’s all-time single-season attendance mark of 590,326 in 1997 or even approach the 500,000 fans the old Red Barons team regularly drew in the early 1990s, it does signal a remarkable resurgence in terms of fan interest.
Playing as the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, the team finished last in International League with attendance figures that didn’t even reach 300,000 during the last two seasons it played at PNC Field in 2011 and 2012. This season, the newly-named RailRiders are averaging 6,275 fans per game and are a more-respectable ninth in attendance among the IL’s 14 Triple-A teams.
The stadium was revamped last summer, when the upper deck came off and a wrap-around concourse went up, but the face if the building wasn’t the only thing that was transformed.
The attitude between stadium executives and the team’s fans changed, too.
“Our vendors wear shirts that say, ‘How may I help you?’ ” Crain said. “We need to show our guests they are first. We are there to make their experience better.”
Quite a turnaround from a couple years ago, when a frustrated fan smashed the team’s Governors’ Cup championship trophy because a large food order got lost in translation and failed to reach a group expecting it. Now, Crain vows fans can expect over-the-top service.
“It started, I think, with the the open-mindedness of Art Matin and Larry Freedman,” said Crain, referring to his bosses who run Mandalay Baseball Properties, the co-owners of the RailRiders. “I learned one way from (current Omaha Royals vice-president and general manger) Martie Cordaro, who was my boss forever. That was the only way I knew. If they were going to bring me on, they knew what they were going to get.”
What they got was a whose season of slapstick minor league shtick.
A giant bazooka circles the field and shoots T-shirts into the stands between innings, and that the gun doesn’t go off half the time only adds to mystique and suspense to the act.
Then there’s the baseball mascot race which, fittingly to Northeastern Pa., includes a deer named “Buck Showalter.”
“We said we were going to make it a carnival-like atmosphere,” Crain said. “We were a team of our word.”
The most well-received act, hands-down, is the “Balloon Bust,” that sends two female contestants down opposite base lines three times each game in a race to pop balloons against the bodies of boys in various positions.
“I hear people talking about the balloon bust all the time,” Crain said. “Martie Cordaro, my only boss in minor league baseball for eight years, showed that contest to me in Battle Creek, Michigan (with the Single-A Southwest Michigan Devil Rays). When I had the opportunity, I knew that was coming with me.”
The game’s not over until the fat lady sings? Well, Crain dressed up as a fat lady and sang after the team’s first victory at PNC Field, then had other employees duplicate the act for every home win since.
Where in the name of the game did Crain think he was going with all this?
“I don’t see it as a baseball team,” Crain said. “I see it as an entertainment destination, and an entertainment venue more than a baseball stadium. We’re in the fun business. Our goal is for people to come to the ballpark and treat it like a nine-inning, three-hour vacation.
“Not everyone is a baseball fan,” Crain continued. “But everyone wants to be entertained at an affordable price. There’s a great faction of the market who wouldn’t consider themselves baseball fans. But they are looking for affordable entertainment.
“You open yourself up to more of the market.”
RailRiders executives opened themselves up to some skepticism, because selling the public on this family friendliness wasn’t exactly a snap.
Area fans approached it with caution.
And who could blame them?
They’d heard promises of this fan-friendly approach before, only to be greeted rudely and treated with disdain by stadium personnel, some of them said.
Not this time.
“There’s a long history here,” Crain said. “It takes more than words to reverse that history. I think the challenge was, this market is a very ‘Show me’ market - ‘I hear what you’re saying, now show it to me.’ To be able to show it to them was probably the most satisfying.”
A schedule full of give-away dates helped.
Unlike recent seasons, when a very limited number of fans counted themselves lucky to receive such trinkets as keychains and cupholders, this Scranton/Wilkes-Barre season has been blossoming with collectors items.
The RailRiders literally threw out the welcome mat, as the first 2,500 fans through the gates received one in April. Men 18 and Under received underwear in May and the first 1,000 moms to show up got flowers on Mothers Day. Fans received bats, American flags, car magnets and Christmas tree ornaments in July. They got replica jerseys last week and kids took home lunchboxes last night.
There were Sunday Fundays, D0llar Dog nights and Thirsty Thursdays to go along with Friday Fireworks nights.
There was some kind of promotion every home day of the season.
Of course the key to these freebies was sponsorship by area businessmen, and Crain relied on vice-president of sales Mike Trudnak to attain them.
“He had some great relationships in the business community,” Crain said. “We went on a needs-analysis approach. We talk about moms in minivans? Well, Northeast PA Honda Dealers, that’s who they’re going after as well. It’s building your dialogue. You need to be open, honest, available and you need to listen to them.
“We set an all-time sponsorship revenue record.”
The RailRiders were set up for at least some success in the stands when rehabbing Yankees stars Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter — twice — came down for short stints.
“I never expected any of those,” Crain said. “That shows the great partnership we have with the Yankees. They have great trust in us that we’d be able to take care of their stars. It really shows when they sent Derek down a second time. It was a very successful season
“Just look at the numbers.”
He can’t help looking ahead. After bringing all of this interest back to PNC Field, Crain can hardly wait for a second act.
“It’s been magical, incredible,” Crain said. “People might say, ‘OK, I see what you did. Can you get better? Can you do it without Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez?’ I’m confident we can. We really feel 2013 is not our pinnacle year. We think it’s a building block. We’re set up where years ahead are going to be even better.
“I’m probably more excited about 2014 than 2013.”
Now that’s something to really sing about.