U-M baseball

A local baseball marriage in the making
By Rob Hoffman
Ann Arbor News Column, August 24, 2001

Pull up a chair, Michael.

That's what you used to tell me during our days together at the Ames Tribune in Iowa. Pull up a chair, and we'll go over that train horn story you just wrote.

Two years ago, I was Rob Hoffman, the Tribune's city reporter. You were Michael Gartner, former NBC News President, 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner and owner and editor of the Tribune. Like me, you have since switched gears, becoming Michael Gartner, principal owner of the Iowa Cubs Triple-A baseball team.

Last week, you purchased the Michigan Battle Cats, a Single-A team based in Battle Creek. Because the Midwest League franchise is floundering at the gate, averaging a scant 965 fans a game this season, the thinking is that you will move the 'Cats to either eastern Iowa or Flint.

Before you do, I wish you would give someone a call.

His name is Bill Martin. He is the University of Michigan's athletic director. Like you, he's a no-nonsense and pragmatic straight talker. Like you, he frequently thinks out of the box.

And he really wants to build a new ballpark to replace Ray Fisher Stadium, a 53-year-old facility that has seen its better days.

I'm not saying that the two of you can strike a deal. Or that you would even be remotely intrigued with the idea of reviving a U-M baseball tradition that includes Hall of Famer George Sisler, pioneering executive Branch Rickey, potential Hall of Famer Barry Larkin and one-handed pitching sensation Jim Abbott. For all I know, you might have already decided that the 'Cats should take the place of the Quad City Bandits, once they move to suburban Cleveland in 2003.

But it couldn't hurt for the two of you to sit down together. Because I know Bill. And I know you. No two people would have a better chance of coming up with some kind of mind-blowing idea that could change the local sports landscape.

You once taught me to base any opinion on facts. So here's my case.

Fact One: No U.S. city may be more football crazy than Ann Arbor  — except Lincoln, home of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Yet Lincoln now has a rising presence in the baseball world, thanks not only to the Huskers' recent College World Series appearance but the $30 million ballpark that opened June 1. Funded by $10 million apiece from the city, university and the expansion Lincoln Saltdogs of the Northern League, Haymarket Park is already having an impact.

The Saltdogs now lead the league in attendance. Nebraska, which was averaging at best 1,000 fans a game a few years ago, has already sold 2,000 season tickets for its opening year which -thanks to a state-of-the-art underground heating system-will not have to start on frozen ground on March 15.

Sure, the two teams don't have overlapping seasons (the independent Northern League plays from late May to early September). But they've made arrangements so that the NCAA Regionals can take place nearly every June at the Haymarket.

Fact Two: Because of their declining attendance and dependence on the Ann Arbor fan base, the Detroit Tigers may frown on having a new team in their back yard. But there's growing evidence that a nearby minor league franchise doesn't hurt big-league attendance. Rather, it's a cheap way to introduce non-fans to the game. Look at the 'Cats' frequent opponents, the Kane County Cougars. You don't see the Chicago Cubs or White Sox crying because 7,400 fans a game - the second-best average in the Midwest League -flock to a field 33 miles west of the Sears Tower.

Fact Three: Your "favorite" school, Iowa State, just dropped baseball. But elsewhere, other alternatives are being pursued to stem the sport's usual red ink. Take the University of Virginia, which briefly considered making baseball a non-scholarship sport to help resolve the athletic department's projected $47.4 million deficit. Instead, the school renewed its commitment to the sport and, boosted by $2 million in alumni donations, have broken ground on a $4 million project to "transform" the Cavaliers' current field. Basically, the folks in Virginia are spending money to make money. "College baseball isn't too hard to market," Baseball America writer John Manuel recently told me. "Baseball is only not a revenue sport when schools don't make it a revenue sport."

A partnership between a university and a minor-league franchise would have its drawbacks. Competing for prime scheduling slots and arranging enough practice time for both teams could get hairy. And, to be honest, I still have my doubts about whether Baseball Friday could become as fundamental to this town as Football Saturday.

But it wouldn't hurt for you and Bill Martin to sit down together.

I'll even pull up a chair for you.

Rob Hoffman is a News sports reporter. You can call him at (734) 994-6814 or e-mail him at rhoffman@annarbornews.com