Baseball won’t save the Fort Worth Cats or LaGrave Field.
Experts in minor league sports branding say a team can stack the roster with former Major League Baseball names or young talent looking to make their mark with home runs, but that likely won’t sell tickets. Instead, a resurrected Cats team should focus on entertainment and definitely not be something they’re not: The Rangers.
“If we had said “come out and watch great baseball” we would have failed years ago,” said Sean Aronson, a vice president and broadcaster for the St. Paul Saints, possibly the most successful independent franchise. “If you want to go see the best baseball, go watch the Twins. That’s not what we are.”
Scott Berry, a former Cats executive, hopes his Save LaGrave Foundation can pump new life into the decaying LaGrave Field with the Cats as the cornerstone. This week the foundation reached a 10-year agreement with Tarrant Regional Water District that secures the field for baseball and not redevelopment for the time being.
“It’ll be a production,” he said of game night in a remodeled LaGrave. “Every night will be an event.”
Under the agreement, the foundation will spend at least $3 million over the next three years to bring the 4,100-seat stadium back to life. Save LaGrave must provide the water district with a $1.75 million, 10-year rent payment. In the 11th year, the group would pay $14,500 a month in rent.
Berry wants to have an annual operating budget around $2 million with monthly player salaries between $800 and $3,000, but he’s not worried about finding on-field talent. There’s no shortage of young players and veterans who would “love to play in Fort Worth,” he said.
“We’re going to be a fixture in the community,” Berry said.
Every town is different, but Aronson’s advice followed that attitude: successful clubs regardless of sport or level of play are community partners.
“A community doesn’t need a ballpark but the ballpark needs a community,” he said, paraphrasing St. Paul Saints owner Mike Veeck.
The nearly 30-year-old club plays in a stadium built in 2015 through a three-way partnership between team owners, the city of St. Paul and the state of Minnesota. Last year they averaged more than 8,100 fans per game in a stadium designed for 7,210. Fellow American Association clubs, the Texas AirHogs and the Cleburne Railroaders, trail in attendance. Neither team averaged more than 2,000 last year. Berry said he wants at least 4,000 at LaGrave Field. Thursday was opening day in the league.
The stands might be packed in St. Paul, but Aronson said he doubts most fans can name two players on the opening night roster. The focus isn’t baseball. It’s family fun, he said.
People pay for the sideline antics. Among the circus-like performances: A character called “Coach,” the epitome of the high school P.E. teacher cliché, clad in short shorts and constantly doing calisthenics. Rather than a ketchup, mustard and relish race, fans have donned ears, nose and throat costumes to race around the park. The gags are kid-friendly with jokes that parents enjoy too, he said.
“The biggest complaint in baseball these days is how long it lasts,” he said. “You’re not going to complain about a three hour movie if you’re entertained. That’s what we do in the ballpark.”
Berry wants to capitalize on Fort Worth’s past. It’s been an on-again, off-again relationship, but the city’s baseball roots are deep.
Baseball came to Fort Worth in 1888 as the Panthers, eventually shortened to Cats in newspaper headlines. They were a prominent minor league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Bob Feller, Stan Musial, Pee Wee Reese and Brooks Robinson are among the legends who played in the original LaGrave Field.
That field was torn down in 1967, but the Cats came back in 2001 with new owner, Carl Bell. For a while the team flourished, averaging more than 3,700 fans per game and won a Central League championship in 2005 and American Association crowns in 2006 and 2007.
Then Bell filed for bankruptcy in 2012. The club went to John Bryant, the former Dallas congressman, but LaGave Field landed with Fort Worth Stadium Group LLC, led by housing developer Andrew Schatte.
Bryant said in late 2014 that the club had the finances to keep playing, but Schatte’s group notified the Cats they would not be allowed to play at LaGrave beginning with the 2015 season, according to Star-Telegram archives.
Berry said based on his experience with the team, fandom and baseball weren’t the problem. Instead, he said, financial woes and real estate speculation prevented the club from keeping a solid footing as the 2008 recession hit and development pressure mounted. The Cats last played in 2014.
“We’ve got to be good stewards of this legacy,” he said. “In my mind it’s about proper staffing, proper capital and being out in the community.”
Even the Cats’ storied history may not be enough, said Jason Klein. The California-based design studio he co-founded, Brandiose, focuses almost entirely on getting people to pay attention to lower-level sports.
People already know the Cats, and if they didn’t come to games before, they won’t start, he said. People may recognize the name, but not act on it.
“That’s the kiss of death,” he said. “You want people perk up, turn their head and say ‘What?’”
Brandiose recommends clubs, even those with a history, start with a naming competition.
It sounds quaint, but getting the community involved at the onset is crucial, he said. And he recommends clubs abandon traditional names like Lions, Eagles or anything vaguely associated with the Majors. This process birthed teams like the Rocket City Trash Pandas, a Double A minor team in Alabama or Amarillo’s Sod Poodles.
These names are something that can’t be ignored, appeal to kids and foster a storyline, Klein said.
The idea of a story is something Klein and Aronson returned to with the same example: Disney.
The multi-billion dollar entertainment giant excels at selling a story. There may be roller coasters and other rides at Disney parks, but that’s not what brings people in. It’s the characters, themed food and carnival atmosphere. That’s what independent ball clubs need to do, they said. From the logo and mascot to the concession stand food and the name of the team store, the whole experience should be telling a story that is unique to the community.
“If someone comes to you and says “I don’t want to buy tickets because I’m not a baseball fan” you’re in luck because you’re not in the baseball business, you’re in the fun businesses,” Klein said.
Berry said Fort Worth has that story, and he’d be hard pressed to even consider changing the Cats’ name. The team might abandon the traditional logos or colors, but Berry doesn’t want to stray too far from the heritage.
“In some markets you got to do that, but I don’t see that as an issue in Fort Worth,” he said. “We just have to put our money where our mouth is.”
Some markets have struck out with minor league ball clubs.
In the American Association, where the Cats once played, the Joplin Blasters and Laredo Lemurs folded in 2016. The Amarillo team, Thunderheads, merged with Grand Prairie’s team, now called the Texas AirHogs, before that season. Last year, the Wichita Wingnuts folded after the city paid more than $2 million for the team to vacate the stadium. Wichita plans an $81 million stadium for a Triple A team to replace it. The El Paso Diablos suspended after the 2013 season for the Triple A Chihuahuas.
The Salina, Kansas, Stockade, once called the worst pro team in baseball by sports website The Ringer, started in the Pesos League in 2016, moved to American Association the next season and then jumped to the Can-Am league in 2018. In April the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs announced the Stockade would join for the 2019 season.
Barry doesn’t think that will happen with the Cats.
“I think Fort Worth has the ability to be the best minor league team in baseball,” he said.