RockHounds Take Home Top Honor

By Bob Hards / Midland RockHounds | November 19, 2007 7:19 AM

ROCKHOUNDS NAMED MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL'S TOP FRANCHISE

'HOUNDS RECEIVE JOHN H. JOHNSON PRESIDENT'S AWARD

The Midland RockHounds have been named winner of the 2007 John H. Johnson President's Award; Minor League Baseball's highest honor.

The award is "... presented annually to honor the complete baseball franchise."

"This award represents everything that is important to our franchise," said general manager Monty Hoppel. "It's about being part of two communities; baseball and the Permian Basin."

Minor League Baseball (formerly known as the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs) includes 175 teams in 16 leagues, ranging from Short-Season Single-A to Triple-A. The RockHounds are the Double-A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics.

"To be recognized out of all of minor league baseball is a once-in-a-lifetime honor. To be honored by your peers is both very humbling and very rewarding. On behalf of our ownership, staff, our fans and business partners, we're extremely proud to accept this award," Hoppel said.

The official presentation of the award will be made December 6, as part of baseball's annual winter meetings. This year's site is Nashville, Tennessee.

The President's Award is Minor League Baseball's highest honor, and is based on:

Long-term Franchise stability
Contribution to the community
Contribution to league stability
Financial success of the franchise
Contribution to the baseball industry

The franchise was "born" in 1972 as the Midland Cubs. Current owners Miles Prentice and Bob Richmond purchased the club in 1990, beginning a decade during which the club would reach unprecedented ... and perhaps unexpected ... heights.

"We were told the franchise had reached its peak, that nothing more could be accomplished and that there was no room for growth," said Hoppel, who became the franchise's general manager in 1989. "We believed a great foundation had been set by the original owners, and that this market, despite its size, was and is a great baseball community. Our goal was to build on that foundation and take the franchise to the next level."

The club went on to set attendance records at Christensen Stadium, breaking the 200,000 attendance mark ... once thought unreachable in the market ... in 1995 and again in 1996.

In 2002, the club moved into its current home, Citibank Ballpark, part of the Scharbauer Sports Complex. Last season, its sixth in the facility, the RockHounds drew an average of 4.096 fans per game, a new franchise per game record. The team has drawn more than 250,000 fans in each of its six seasons in the new stadium. The Midland-Odessa market, one of the smallest of Double-A Baseball's 30 markets, has a combined population of fewer than 200,000.

In announcing the award to a gathering of media, business partners and fans at Citibank Ballpark, Hoppel thanked those who he called "visionaries" for keeping the franchise viable and for the new era the team and community entered with the building of the sports complex. The RockHounds' home sits side-by-side with a football-soccer stadium, which hosts nationally renowned West Texas high school football and other events.

"This stadium and this complex are a tribute to the partnership that exists between our team and this community," he said. "This is a stadium that rivals any in the nation, and to have this kind of facility in a market this size is possible only because of the dedication of a group of people who turned a dream into reality. That's why this award is shared with them."

Among the Johnson Award criteria is benefiting the community through baseball. In naming the RockHounds as the award's winner, Minor League Baseball pointed to the club's contributions made, year-round, through a wide range of events, the most prominent of those being the annual West Texas Sports Banquet & Memorabilia Auction.

The event was instituted in 1991, soon after Miles Prentice and Bob Richmond purchased the team. The inaugural event, considered a huge success, raised $4,500 for local charities. Over the course of its 17-year history, the event has raised more than $300,000 to benefit local causes.

The winter banquet heads a list of nearly 80 fund-raising events, large and small, the club sponsors each year. Included in that list is the Scott Seator Memorial Fund, which donates funds to local youth charities and honors the memory of the team's former Director of Communications who passed away in September of 1996 following a battle with cancer. Scott was the heart and soul of the team's school programs, which were noted in Minor League Baseball's criteria for the Johnson Award.

"Scott was a very special person, and his presentations in our schools touched the lives, literally, of thousands of kids," Hoppel said. "Our staff does a great job of continuing to send a very positive message to school-age kids throughout the year. This award is about long-term commitment, and what Scott started we continue today. Baseball and sports are a great vehicle with which to reach kids and to bring them a positive message. This award honors that commitment and, in doing so, it honors everyone who has played a role in the franchise's development and that includes Scott."

Team owners Prentice and Richmond are among the most respected men in Minor League Baseball. Prentice has served on the National Association Board of Directors, while Richmond is president of both the Northwest and Arizona Rookie Leagues. Hoppel said the commitment of the team's ownership has been steadfast.

"Bob and Miles have always believed in this franchise and this community. They have been approached on several occasions by those hoping to acquire a franchise ... in other words, hoping our ownership might move the team out of the Permian Basin. The fact the RockHounds are still here, and continuing to grow, is a reflection of the commitment by both our ownership and this community."

The RockHounds are just the third Texas League franchise to win the Johnson Award. The El Paso Diablos were honored in 1986 and the Tulsa Drillers won the ward in 1999.

The (then) Midland Angels were named the Texas League's Organization of the Year in 1990 and again in 1994. In 1995, the Angels won the prestigious Bob Freitas Award, naming them the top franchise in Double-A Baseball. The RockHounds captured the franchise's third Texas League Organization of the Year honor in 2002, following the opening of the new stadium. Hoppel has been named the league's Executive of the Year three times: 1991, 1995 and 2002.

Now entering its 37th season, the franchise has had just three major affiliations:

- Midland Cubs (1973-1984) Double-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs
- Midland Angels (1985-1998) Double-A affiliate of the California / Anaheim Angels
- Midland RockHounds (1999-present) Double-A affiliate of the Oakland A's

The RockHounds nickname accompanied the 1999 affiliation change and was designed to give the franchise its own identity (a "RockHound" is a geologist, one who searches for oil).

The Oakland A's era has been, by far, the most successful on the field, producing the franchise's first-ever outright Texas League championship (2005) and first-ever back-to-back trips to the playoffs (2005 and 2006). The inaugural RockHounds team featured not only the Texas League's second-ever Triple Crown winner (Adam Piatt), but future Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito and all-star Tim Hudson. The 2005 championship club featured Texas League Manager of the Year Von Hayes and Player of the Year Andre Ethier, now a starter with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Hoppel concluded the CitiBank Ballpark gathering with a thought that remains at the heart of the franchise's philosophy.

"My favorite sight at our ballpark is standing at the front gate and watching families come to the ballpark. Kids with their parents or even their grandparents. I look forward to enjoying that for many years to come."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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