Perhaps the weather on April 3 was an omen. The Hickory Crawdads' home opener for the 2008 season was rained out that night, and the rain continued to fall – figuratively and literally – on the team for the remainder of the season.
The team finished 53-87, 34 games below .500 and 22 games behind the division-winning West Virginia Power in the second half of the season.
The 'Dads were 31-40 in the season's first half and seemed poised after the South Atlantic League All-Star Game to make a second-half run. Instead, the wheels fell off in July, and the team limped to a 22-47 second-half finish.
“Obviously the product on the field was not what we had hoped it would be,” said general manager Mark Seaman a few hours before the season mercifully ended on Sept. 1. “But even though the record doesn't show it, the guys never quit, never gave up.”
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Seaman, in his first year at the Crawdads' helm, had to contend with a losing team on the field and a local economy that continued to be battered by layoffs, plant closings and soaring gasoline prices.
The team drew 133,784 paying customers through the turnstiles at L.P. Frans Stadium, an average of about 2,000 per home date and near the bottom of the 16-team Sally League. The attendance was better only than Kannapolis, Savannah and Columbus.
By contrast, the Greensboro Grasshoppers, playing in an immaculate new ballpark in a much larger city, drew nearly 431,000 fans this year. The Asheville Tourists, the franchise closest to Hickory, drew 173,604.
“Our game-day, walk-up sales were about where we thought they would be,” Seaman noted. “But where we took a hit was on group sales to business and industry. That's where we had a tougher time.”
Seaman explained that in hard economic times, such as those plaguing the Catawba Valley, it is the “extras” that go first from corporate budgets – such as dollars for entertainment and group outings.
“That's what we'll be focusing on during the off-season,” he said. “We'll be doing everything we can to bolster group sales and to show folks that our baseball is still one of the best entertainment bargains they can find.”
The average fan at a minor-league game, Seaman pointed out, is usually not very concerned about the team's rank in the standings or even how many prospective major-leaguers are on the roster.
Instead, he said, “the average parent looking at bringing the family to the game is going to be much more concerned about the entertainment aspects, the cleanliness and safety of the park, the friendliness of the staff.”
Friday nights were the team's best attendance night in 2008, Seaman said, mainly because fans could count on a free fireworks show afterward. Finding stronger promotions for Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons will be another task for Seaman and his staff in the off-season.
Like any minor-league general manager at the end of a season, Seaman has no idea what the talent level on the field will be when the 2009 season begins. In fact, he isn't even sure which major-league team the Crawdads will be affiliated with next year.
The player development agreement between the 'Dads and the Pittsburgh Pirates expired on the final day of the season. The team could sign a new deal with the Pirates or explore other major-league affiliations.
When the Crawdads franchise moved to Hickory from Gastonia in 1993, the team was affiliated with the Chicago White Sox. It switched to the Pittsburgh organization in the late 1990s.
No matter who the team is affiliated with, the Crawdads will open the 2009 season at home April 9, with a 6:30p.m. start against the league's newest franchise, the as-yet-unnamed team from Bowling Green, Ky. Also on the Crawdads' upcoming schedule is the annual Hot Stove Banquet, which will be in early to mid-February featuring a preview of the 2009 team.