Baseball is Back!
Following the 2008 International League season, baseball was packed into boxes and moved away from the city of Richmond, VA. After repeated failed attempts to secure a new ballpark in Richmond, the Richmond Braves, who had called the city home for over forty years, headed to new digs in Gwinnett, GA. The Richmond community made last-ditch efforts to save the team, but to no avail. An announcement made before the 2008 season regarding the team's impending move, turned the season into a "lame-duck" experience and a final fan's farewell.
In a baseball-rich community, the absence of the game weighed heavily on hearts during the summer of 2009. However, near the end of that summer, rumors started swirling regarding baseball's return to the River City. A few weeks after the 2009 season concluded, the once dormant Diamond housed a press conference to announce that baseball would indeed be back, beginning in 2010.
As the residents of Richmond prepared for that 2009 season without baseball, the San Francisco Giants' Double-A Franchise, the Connecticut Defenders, were preparing for their 2009 season in Norwich, CT. Prior to the season and unbeknownst to baseball fans in Richmond, the Eastern League had targeted the city for the relocation of an Eastern League franchise. Although not announced, speculation ran rampant that the franchise would be the Defenders. Although the Defenders posted a memorable season on the field, rolling to the Northern Division Championship and a berth in the Eastern League Championship Series, lagging attendance and visibility of the franchise eventually led to their selection as the team that would move to Richmond.
On September 23, 2009, the Eastern League held a press conference to announce that the Defenders were relocating from Norwich, CT to Richmond, VA for the 2010 season. It was also announced that The Diamond would be the home of the new team for the first two seasons, with three option years mutually agreed upon by the Richmond Metropolitan Authority and the newly-minted team operating under the name of Navigators Baseball LP. Lou DiBella, Managing Partner of Navigators Baseball LP, would head up the ownership team that would bring baseball back. That ownership group vowed wholesale improvements to the condition of The Diamond, beginning with replacing bench-seating in the entire lower bowl, discarding the old aluminum benches and outfitting the ballpark with 3,200 brand-new fold-down seats with cup holders.
The "Baseball is Back" press conference was also used to introduce the management team on the ground in Richmond for the new team. Chuck Domino, a longtime presence in the Eastern League as President of the Reading Phillies, would serve as Chief Executive Manager. Along with building the R-Phils into one of the most successful franchises in minor league baseball, Domino had overseen the creation of the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs - Triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies - in 2008. Joining Domino would be Vice President & Chief Operating Officer Todd "Parney" Parnell and General Manager Bill Papierniak.
Fans were involved in the process from the very beginning as the team announced an on-line "Name the Team" contest in conjunction with The Richmond Times-Dispatch that would begin in late September. Fans were offered the chance to submit their suggestions for the team's new name. More than 6,000 entries were received before the team's front office narrowed the field to five finalists. It was announced in early October that the finalists would include the Flatheads, the Flying Squirrels, the Hambones, the Rhinos and the Rock Hoppers. Darren Rovell from CNBC got in on the fun and ran an additional contest to add a wild-card entrant from submissions across the country. More than 9,000 submissions flooded CNBC before Hush Puppies was chosen as the sixth finalist. Hambones was eventually dropped from consideration, and the final five remained.
On October 15, 2009, the Flying Squirrels were born at a press conference held at The Richmond Times-Dispatch building in downtown Richmond. With confetti flying, "Parney" raised the arm of Kyle Nelson and his wife Donna, representing their son Brad Mead at the press conference. Mead had submitted the name Flying Squirrels, and was awarded season tickets for life by the newly-minted team. Plan B. Branding was on hand at the press conference to outline their plans for logo creation and brand implementation, getting right to work on the identity of the now identified Flying Squirrels.
Meanwhile, renovations going on behind the scenes at The Diamond were substantial. In the lower bowl, seats were being unbolted and removed to make way for 3,000 new seats. The old restaurant along the first baseline was being reinvented as an expansive merchandise store, the suites were being gutted and outfitted with new windows, seats and furniture and the concession stands were being emptied and prepared for new state-of-the-art equipment. A new picnic area was being created along the third baseline, while a kid's zone began to take shape outside of the new store.
In late November, the Squirrels moved another step forward and announced a two-year media partnership with Clear Channel Broadcasting. Sports Radio 910 AM would be Richmond's flagship radio station, carrying all 142 regular season games. It was also announced that the Squirrels' broadcast team would consist of Jon Laaser and Anthony Oppermann.
December 1, 2009 was the day everyone had been waiting for. A press conference was held at Holiday Inn I-64 West End to unveil the team's new logo and the official colors of Radiant Red, Squirrels Silver, and traditional Black. The Flying Squirrels' identity continued to come together as four logos were unveiled: a primary logo featuring a flying squirrel in mid-flight, a secondary acorn logo adorned with an "R", a Richmond word mark secondary logo, and a Flying Squirrels word mark secondary logo.
Following the logo unveiling, the Flying Squirrels also celebrated a soft grand opening of the team store at The Diamond, one of Minor League Baseball's largest merchandise stores. There at the store, fans could shop amongst a vast array of Flying Squirrels' apparel and memorabilia, as well as have the opportunity to order the merchandise online. Coupled with the excitement surrounding the new team, the holiday shopping rush turned Flying Squirrels' merchandise into a hot-commodity. Minor league records were broken as inventory flew off the shelves, prompting rushed re-stocking and furious efforts from the team's front office to make sure a rapidly-growing fan base got their hands on the new-look merchandise before the holidays. The massive response to merchandise also proved an asset to the community, as the Flying Squirrels partnered with numerous area charities for the first-ever "Season of Giving." Each charitable partner received 10% of the daily sales for a select day during the holiday shopping season, culminating in a $15,000 donation from the team.
The vision of baseball returning to Richmond became clearer on January 5th, 2010, as the Flying Squirrels held a press conference at Home Team Grille to announce the inaugural field staff as assigned by the San Francisco Giants. The first manager, or "head nut" as he cracked upon his introduction, would be Andy Skeels. Ascending to a managing role at the Double-A level for the first time, Skeels would bring a winning pedigree to Richmond having claimed titles with the San Jose Giants (Advanced-A, California League) in 2009 and the Augusta GreenJackets (A, South Atlantic League) in 2008. He was joined at the podium by pitching coach Ross Grimsley and hitting coach Russ Morman. Eric Ortega, who was not in attendance, was announced as the team's first Athletic Trainer.
Stated from the outset and delivered upon while the team planted its roots in Richmond, the Flying Squirrels immediately made an impact on the community. Considering the responsibility to their home city a year-round commitment, the team began taking part in traditional community events and philanthropic aims.
From the announcement of the franchise's relocation from Norwich in September, 2009, the team had less than seven months to prepare for the literal return of baseball to The Diamond on April 15th, 2010. Staff members that began with the team immediately, will ultimately remember the operation of the club from a single conference room while the front offices were being renovated, to what the franchise aspires to be in the future: A source of pride for the Richmond community.