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Huntsville hopes to make pitch in swan song

GM Rogers wants 2014 to be a public campaign for getting a new club
February 21, 2014

The upcoming season will be the 30th and final one for the Huntsville Stars, as upon the conclusion of the campaign the club will relocate to Biloxi, Miss. This puts the Stars in a "lame duck" situation, as they deal with fans who are hurt and angry about the impending move and sponsors who don't see the value in working with a soon-to-be defunct organization.

But "it is what it is," to employ a commonly used tautological phrase, and the Stars front office simply has to make the best of it. On Wednesday afternoon, I spoke with Stars general manager Buck Rogers, as he was in the midst of smoking a brisket for a staff lunch. "I'm cooking up some stuff," said Rogers, using a phrase that, at the moment, could be taken both literally and metaphorically. What follow are excerpts from our conversation about what lies ahead for Huntsville. The Stars' move to Biloxi had long been rumored, but it took a while for it to become official. Where were you when you heard that news?

Buck Rogers: The day the team was sold, a bunch of us [Stars front office members] had gone to the movies. My phone started blowing up, so that's when we found out, when we were watching Lone Survivor. We had to focus real quickly, accept that it had happened, and think about what we had to do for the future. A lot of people here, the initial reaction was that they were upset and they were angry.

But Huntsville is a big city. There are 180,000 people here, and no one wants to give up this territory. It's important for the Southern League, and important for Minor League Baseball. When [Joe Davis Stadium] was new [in 1985], the place was packed. But the stadium aged, no improvements were made, and it faded into oblivion.

The mayor [Tommy Battle] is on record as saying he wants a team back as soon as possible. ... So we said, "Let's blow this out, let's do everything in our power to get Huntsville on the radar of any team that might be considering relocating." We're going to do some fun stuff and challenge the town to get out here. You mentioned many of the fans feeling hurt and angry right now. With that being the case, how are you going to convince them to come to the ballpark?

Gillian Richard, lifelong Stars fan and former intern:
Maybe the attendance numbers aren't as good as they could be. Maybe I spent my 20th birthday spray painting a tarp to cover a hole in the batter's eye because the stadium is outdated. But despite those things, I can't think of a staff or a stadium more deserving of recognition. Isn't minor league baseball supposed to be about the historic instead of these brand new, high-tech stadiums anyways? About spending an afternoon in the cheap seats, appreciating the simple things in life? Focusing more on the talent and the crazy promotions than on the stadium amenities?
Read more of Gillian's letter »

Rogers: A lot of people are saying "Why should we support you?" and that's a natural knee-jerk reaction and it's to be expected. Hey, if you're avoiding us because you don't want to help the Stars, that's one thing. But you're also hurting the chances of getting baseball back here.

We're saying, "Just come to one game." [Note: the Stars recently instituted a #JustOneGame campaign on Twitter.] If everyone does that, then there'll be someone interested in putting baseball back in Huntsville in short order. It's like an election year; you can vote "yes" or you can vote "no." You can vote "yes" as many times as you want -- 70 times -- but if you don't show up, you voted "no."

We're going to be as affordable as possible and do some fun stuff. … This year we'll give away a stadium figurine as a collectible item, and on the last homestand, if we're not in the playoffs, we'll have the team wear road jerseys and give those away as mementos.

Yeah, we've been labeled as lame ducks. We've had long-time [sponsorship] partners who've said "Nope, we're taking our money elsewhere." We're saying that we'll have a good year, and here's what we're doing. What do you pinpoint as the main factor that caused the Stars to leave town?

Rogers: The city owns the stadium, and it's just not a good design for baseball. It's not user-friendly. … Back in the day, it was the first [Southern League] stadium to have an elevator. But to put it in perspective, last year the Birmingham Barons played in a new stadium, and the stadium they left was newer than [Joe Davis]. There have been so many issues, and there's only so much the staff can do. We try to provide great entertainment and great customer service, but at the end of the day, it's the ballpark that the fans are going to most remember.

Back in the day, this was the crown jewel of the Southern League, and we had big name stars come through, name after name after name. Don Mincher was the first general manager, a local guy, and he went on to become the owner and then the league president. For that reason, it's going to make me sad, closing this place down. So the goal now is to get everyone in Huntsville to come out for at least one more game. What are you doing to try to make that happen?

Rogers: We'll certainly go with some of the stuff that was popular in the past, like "Dew for Tuesday" where you get in for $2 and two Mountain Dew bottle caps. … There's a plan for more fan interaction, like getting kids on the field and having Friday night autograph signings.

Our manager now is Carlos Subero. He's spent time in Birmingham and Chattanooga and is very familiar with the league. He knows the goal, and the [Major League affiliate] Brewers know the goal, which is to be as hands-on and family-friendly as possible. Everyone is on the same sheet of music here, from Minor League Baseball to the Southern League to city to ownership.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.