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RailRiders on track for Opening Day03/08/2013 10:48 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com
When MiLB.com caught up with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders president Rob Crain on Wednesday morning, he had a quick response to a query regarding how he was doing.
"I'm running around like a chicken with its head cut off," said Crain, laughing wryly. "There's so much to do, it's hard to even know where to begin."
For those who work in Minor League Baseball, comparisons to the addled state of mind of decapitated fowl are common this time of year. The season is less than a month away, and from ticket sales to the promotion schedule to stadium repairs, there are endless details to take care of before the gates are thrown open and the fans stream in.
And in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, or most accurately, PNC Field's location of Moosic, Pa., this situation is far more pronounced. Opening Night is April 4, an occasion that will be most significant for the baseball fans of Northeast Pennsylvania. The Thursday evening contest against the Pawtucket Red Sox, the first of Crain's tenure as president, will mark the first game in franchise history as the RailRiders (after six seasons as the Yankees and 18 as the Red Barons). Even more importantly, it will be the first at PNC Field after a top-to-bottom $40 million-plus renovation that has resulted in what is essentially a new facility.
The 2013 season is nothing less than the start of a new era.
In our previous feature story on the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre franchise back in February 2012, it was a far different story. The renovations to PNC Field (a facility whose original design intent was to replicate the look and feel of Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium) were only recently underway, rendering the stadium unplayable for the entirety of the 2012 season.
A slew of ideas were floated about when it came to finding a temporary home, and the most palatable option -- Newark's Riverfront Stadium -- was jettisoned after the New York Mets invoked their territorial rights. The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yanks' Mandalay Baseball ownership group, in conjunction with the International League, eventually settled on a solution that required the team to transform into road warriors of the highest order. They informally renamed themselves the "Empire State Yankees" en route to calling six stadiums "home" throughout the campaign, with Rochester's Frontier Field being the most frequent temporary domicile.
Meanwhile, the team's employees relocated to temporary offices, tasked with marketing a team and stadium experience that, at that point, was theoretical.
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"The goal we all share is to make this facility and team a real point of pride in the community, something that everyone can really rally around," Art Matin, president of Mandalay Baseball Properties, said at the time. "This makes a lot of sense for the long haul, as the ingredients are there to make this a very successful franchise again."
It was this situation, fraught yet full of hope, that Crain inherited when he took over as team president last July. Though barely past his 30th birthday, he had already put together an impressive Minor League resume that, most crucially, included experience with the Omaha Royals that was directly applicable to the situation in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. As assistant general manager with that club, he helped oversee a franchise overhaul prior to the 2011 season that resulted in a new home (Werner Park) and team name (the Storm Chasers). Barely more than a year later, he was at it again.
"My first day on the job was July 16. At that point they were maybe three or four months into the [stadium] construction and we had a full-time staff of about 12." Crain recalled. "First and foremost, I had to get the staff on board so that they understood the road we were about to go down -- a new promotions-based, fan entertainment-based road. They needed to know what was expected, so that when our senior managers started making hires of their own -- in sales, community relations and stadium operations -- everyone was on the same page."
That staff of a dozen soon more than doubled to 27, and the next step was what Crain calls an "all-out blitz" on the community relations front.
"We had no games at that point, which meant that we had no product, so we just went out and started talking to anyone and everyone," Crain said of the many discussions he and his staff had with fans and potential sponsors. "We were touting both our new ballpark and our new outlook."
Getting the word out included the unusual step of releasing the 2013 daily promotions calendar in September, something most clubs do in January or February. Crain felt the advance notice was necessary to show the community that, under his leadership, the team would be far more customer-oriented than it had been in the past.
"A lot of [the promotional schedule included] things that we had heard the community asking for, like dollar hot dogs or 'Kids Eat Free' nights," Crain said. "It was our way of showing that it's not just about the ballpark; the fan experience is going to be greatly enhanced as well."
Everything old is new again
But nothing was more indicative of the dawn of a new era than the mid-November announcement of the RailRiders name, which referenced Scranton's claim to fame as the birthplace of the electric streetcar. The RailRiders logo, designed by Brandiose (the same company responsible for the Omaha StormChasers' rebranding), features a porcupine straddling railroad tracks, and as such, served as an immediate signifier that Scranton/Wilkes-Barre fans would be in for a far more irreverent brand of entertainment than what had previously been on offer in the more staid Yankees era, though the club remains the organization's Triple-A affiliate.
"When we narrowed the [name-the-team] finalists to six, there was the conscious decision not to include Yankees or Red Barons. And we did that because we wanted to focus on the future and where this franchise is heading," Crain told MiLB.com at the time. "We wanted to remove the notion, right from the start, that we would keep the same name or revert to the past. Going forward, we have a new story to tell."
Despite the fact that he and his staff have been diligently telling this story for months, Crain concedes that most fans currently "can't quite grasp" the new approach. But he's confident that will all change, and in short order, once this front-office philosophy is on display throughout the fully renovated, state-of-the-art PNC Field.
"Once the community sees [PNC Field] with their own eyes -- the 360 concourse, the kids' zone, the HD videoboard -- then they'll understand what it is we've been trying to do," Crain said. "I think they'll understand the concept completely."
But in the meantime, he'll be running around like a chicken with his head cut off.