Kevin Gray On Baseball: Things are looking up
MANCHESTER -- After nine years and two Eastern League titles, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats have proven themselves as one of the most successful franchises in Minor League Baseball. Don't take it for granted.
The Double-A franchise, which opened the season with a 9-0 victory over Reading at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium on Thursday night, was hemorrhaging money and suffering through its worst on-field season (68-74 record) before Art Solomon bought a controlling interest in July 2005. It's easy to forget how Solomon, a savvy businessman who amassed millions in real estate, took a risk with the Fisher Kitties.
"You always take a risk when you make an investment," said Solomon, who acquired full ownership in 2008. "We thought if we provided people with affordable family entertainment that we would do well. Before I bought the team, it was losing a lot of money, frankly, and now we are doing much better."
Off the field, the Fisher Cats are never late on an enormous lease payment to the city - a figure approaching $1 million per year and considered one of the worst leases in the minors - and the front office has been honored as one of the best in the game.
Last season, New Hampshire averaged 5,559 fans (paid attendance) per opening, ranking third among 12 teams, while bringing in an assortment of baseball stars. Jose Bautista, a two-time American League home run champion, dazzled the crowd with a home run and grand slam while making a rehabilitation stop in Manchester.
The 2013 squad opened the season wearing old-school pine green jerseys, reminiscent of the inaugural 2004 season. That year, Robinson Cano played second base in the first-ever Fisher Cats game at Gill Stadium. Ryan Howard blasted a home run toward JFK Coliseum later that season.
Aaron Hill, a No. 1 draft pick, arrived as Toronto's golden boy and delivered the goods in a championship season. Hanley Ramirez was only 20 years old when he reached Double-A and played for the Sea Dogs. The aforementioned players all became All-Stars in the majors.
Through the years, New Hampshire has changed colors and names (Primaries, anyone?) and seen more than 60 of its alumni reach the big leagues. Season ticket holders have witnessed three no-hitters, 17 walk-off home runs and a bat-fetching dog, Ollie, who appears to be on top of his game this season.
Fisher Cats leadoff hitter Kenny Wilson, a second-round pick in 2008, opened the season with a flare base hit to right field and suddenly jetted to second base for a double. (Eventually he was picked off.) Kevin Nolan, a Nashua South graduate, handled his first few ground balls at shortstop and knocked in the first run with a laser-single off the right-field wall.
The next batch of baby Blue Jays is here, learning under first-year manager Gary Allenson. Based on what we've learned the past nine years, several players on the opening-day roster will reach the big leagues this season.
"It's nice when guys improve their game, get better, and you call them into your office and tell them they're going to Triple-A or the big leagues. That's the best part," said Allenson, a former catcher for the Red Sox. 'If I was a fan, I'd want to be watching guys that you know are going to play in the big leagues. You see a guy like Kenny Wilson and say, hey, that guy has some skills."
Fisher Cats president Rick Brenner enjoyed his 20th opening day in the business, including seven with the Fisher Cats. He was hired in January 2006 and essentially asked to stop the bleeding. He made necessary hires and fires. He built a stronger fan base by connecting with the community. (The Fisher Cats Foundation has provided more than $2.4 million in monetary and in-kind donations). It was a difficult yet steady process. Brenner said 2007 was "one of the most challenging and most rewarding years that I've ever had in this career."
And now the Fisher Cats are thriving in Year 10. They may not forever stay linked with the Blue Jays - Ottawa is making a push to land Toronto's Double-A affiliate - but there are many major-league teams that would love to partner with New Hampshire. And Solomon indicated on Thursday that his team will stay in the family and not be sold.
"My kids and grandkids are all passionate baseball fans as I am. This is our local team, our hometown team," Solomon said. "I think the team will stay in the family for a very long time, hopefully for multiple generations."
Hard to believe it's already the 10th season with the Fisher Cats. We've come a long way since Gill Stadium. And they play again tonight. Winter is over. Life is good.
Staff writer Kevin Gray covers pro baseball for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.