Kevin Gray's On Baseball: Fisher Cats are 'fan'tastic
MANCHESTER --- Mike Dubisz of Hooksett stood fifth in line on Elm Street, waiting nearly 24 hours to purchase season tickets for the inaugural Fisher Cats season of 2004. From the front row of section 114, a great spot near the home dugout, the retired math teacher has watched players morph from wide-eyed minor leaguers into major-league All-Stars.
Ricky Romero, who shut down the Red Sox on Wednesday, spent nearly three years at Double-A New Hampshire before putting together all the pieces. Jon Lester, Wedneday's tough-luck loser against Toronto, threw a one-hit shutout (13 strikeouts) against the Fisher Cats in 2005.
Fans have grown to love Double-A baseball in Manchester because it separates the game's prospects from the suspects. Minor leaguers are drafted and signed based on long-term projection as a player. If they don't produce in Double-A, the dream dies.
First-round pick Aaron Hill (2003) climbed through Toronto's system and became an All-Star with the Blue Jays. Twenty-six of his teammates at New Hampshire never reached the majors.
The Blue Jays haven't tasted the playoffs since 1993, but their Double-A affiliate has reached the Eastern League postseason three times since 2004. Last fall, Dubisz drove to Richmond, Va., and witnessed New Hampshire clinch the Eastern League title by grounding the Flying Squirrels. The diehard season ticket holder says he's been hooked ever since original Fisher Cats outfielder Maikel Jova gave a broken bat to his then-6-year-old son, Brad.
'We really didn't know what to expect (in 2004), but they won the championship that first year, and we met lots of players and made lots of friends,' Dubisz said. 'It's really good baseball. Now I don't know who likes it more, me or my son.'
Attendance figures grew steadily once the Fisher Cats moved into the new stadium in 2005. They drew an average 4,236 fans in the first year at then-Fisher Cats Ballpark. Since 2009, the team has averaged more than 5,500 fans per game and welcomed more than 1 million fans through the gates. Last year's overall attendance (373,482) ranked fourth among 12 Eastern League teams.
'The fan base is there now,' Dubisz said.
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And when the Sea Dogs come to town? That's always an interesting series considering the history of the so-called rivals. In 2007, fans gave Sea Dogs starting pitcher Clay Buchholz a standing ovation, which irritated then-manager Bill Masse and his players. Leading up to that game, the Fisher Cats had grown tired of hearing promotions about the Sea Dogs and the promising young Buchholz, who would later throw a no-hitter for the Red Sox in '07.
Then-Fisher Cats reliever Tracy Thorpe took things personally during the infamous series.
'As far as announcing in the third inning, 'Fans come to tomorrow's game to watch Red Sox No. 1 prospect Clay Buchholz,' I think that's bullcrap. We're the home team,' Thorpe said. 'I'll do anything to beat (Portland).'
In more recent years, excited New Hampshire have drowned out the noise made by hundreds of Portland fans.
'I think it's changed. Maybe there was a time when we felt outnumbered by Portland fans, but you can feel more support for Fisher Cats fans now. It's not the same as it was a few years ago,' Dubisz said. 'For me, I'm a Red Sox fan, but I'm not a Portland fan. I'm a Fisher Cats fan.'
Staff writer Kevin Gray covers pro baseball for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. His email address is email@example.com. Blog: www.graymatter11.com.