There came a point in time Wednesday evening when absolute quiet could be heard in the ballpark, if that’s possible. One could have heard a man breathe or a woman change her mind, but there just weren’t many chances for any such noise. The gentle August wind disturbing the dusty infield dirt was a welcome distraction from the abysmal silence. Less than 100 people were at the ball game.
Such is the sad case at Edinburg Baseball Stadium these Dog Days, as the crowds have been awfully sparse for the recent stretch of contests featuring the Edinburg Roadrunners. Ironically, attendance has dwindled as the team has revved it into high gear, the Runners having won 19 of 23 contests heading into Wednesday, rising to within two games of the first-place San Angelo Colts
With a week left in the regular season, the Roadrunners were coming fast, hoping to nip the once seemingly unstoppable Colts at the wire. As it is, they are assured of a playoff spot, making the eighth time in nine seasons that an Edinburg independent league franchise has achieved the Second Season.
They are 29-10 at home, by far best mark in the ULB, and a second-place finish will ensure that the Runners get the first two games of Round One of the postseason at the Stadium, where they are hard to handle. The question is, If a team wins a game with no one in the stands, does it really count?
STILL THE ONE
Superfan Chris Nelson, who has not missed one home game this season or last, can still be heard issuing his clever comments from the front row along the first-base line. The California native who teaches philosophy at South Texas College carries a handful of placards to the ballpark every day. On each is scrawled a large “K” to signify every strikeout an Edinburg pitcher registers. He secures the placards to the railing with oversize twist ties; he’s well known and appreciated by the athletes.
As a deep thinker, Nelson has his theories about the spotty attendance at ball games; Wednesday there were about 95 people scattered throughout the stands, and the average for the season stands at 1,712, officially. But the truth is, the daily crowd is more along the lines of 500 or so, on a good night, with most of the reported fan numbers actually chalked up to sponsor giveaways. Tickets disbursed, but fan fannies not in seats.
“I don’t know what it is, really,” said the heavily tattooed loyalist, who admits to having overslept once this season and arriving late, amid wry complaints from the Redclads. “Maybe it’s the economy; that seems to be the answer to every question these days. Whatever it is, the problem seems a lot worse this year. Look around . . . this is what the stadium looks like, except for Thirsty Thursday. Then it gets decent.”
In their second incarnation as the Roadrunners, the team replaced the Coyotes in May after the latter’s three-year run ended last year. The original Runner bunch (2001-2005) won a pair of titles and were a super ball club year in, year out. The latest group got a late start in promotions and sales, however, as it was not certain if the ULB would even be in existence until late in April. And the uncertainty has hurt at the box office.
New general manager Doug Leary came on at the last second this spring, and though he has 30 years of experience in minor league sports, he’s yet to get much fan interest started. He says this year is about survival, and that 2010 will be a whole different story. This is the worst year of attendance since baseball came to Edinburg nine years back.
Manager Vince Moore, who has been in the independent leagues as a player and then coach for almost a decade, suggested a few possible solutions to the question.
“You know, I think there are still some hard feelings about the Roadrunners leaving the first time,” he admitted. “The Coyotes came in and a lot of people seemed to have a bad taste in their mouths about how it all happened.”
Moore, whose club has been playing terrific baseball, coming from fifth place in early August to chomp at the heels of San Angelo, notes that perhaps there is a shelf life in independent ball, fan-wise.
“Look at it this way,” he explained. “In 2004, we had the best team in the independent circuit, people were calling us the Yankees, man, no one wanted to play us. In those days, we never lost a half-season, we dominated, but after awhile, the attendance went down, a lot. So maybe that’s it, after a few years, people just lose interest.”
So the shelf-life theory has some legs, and the economic downturn has to have hindered spending for Roadrunner tickets; after all, consumer action is down across the board, from global manufacturing to auto sales to movie tickets and beyond. But what else can explain the fact that despite riding the rails of a great winning streak, the Roadrunners are playing to conspicuously empty seats at the Stadium?
It is a truism that there is a lot more to do in the Valley than there used to be. Professional sports teams from hockey to arena football to soccer have arrived, drawing fans away from baseball; the RGV WhiteWings over in Harlingen have experienced similar trouble with rooters, as they have averaged less than 1,300 (again, officially) at Harlingen Field in 2009.
Nelson opines that he doesn’t believe that other options, including a burgeoning nightlife scene in McAllen, have made that much of a difference. Moore isn’t quite sure on that. Both of them know that school has started again, and with it, the annual Friday Night Lights obsession that is Valley high school football.
“I think 90 percent of the fans who come out nightly are diehards, they know where the baseball is and that’s what they come for,” said Nelson. “It’s one of the things I like best about living here. The problem is getting other people to come out and take a chance. I don’t think they’ve done a good enough job promotion-wise. I mean, I heard they used to do TV and radio stuff in the old days, but now, they don’t.
“Maybe with a year to work in the offseason, they can turn this thing around. I sure hope so, because this is not very good right now.”
And it’s not very good for the players, who have toiled all summer long in the Valley heat to keep the city’s tradition of excellence alive. Just when they turned the corner and headed to the flag with the league’s best team ERA and an offense that has raised its batting average to nearly .280 . . . well, no one has been there to see it.
“Well, it was a bummer at first, to come out here and see the weak crowds,” said relief pitcher Bryan Heaston, a veteran of the Coyotes and Roadrunners who has been around the minors and Indy ball for seven years. “But now, we are so deep into the race that we don’t really think about it that much. Still, we keep thinking that people will start coming because we’re winning, and they haven’t. It’s a helluva lot more exciting to play in front of big crowds.”
Moore also asserts that a team will play better if they feel the fans are behind them. He points to his past years as a player as proof, but again reiterates that there are no guarantees when trying to gauge fan support.
“Like I said, we had some big years with the original Roadrunners, and the crowds were good for a long time,” he recalled. “But you know, sometimes it has nothing to do with winning. You remember when we started the season 17-0 with the first Coyotes, in 2006? The attendance was just average then, too. So you never know.”
The long-time manager’s team wraps up the regular season Sunday with the finale of a 4-game home series against Amarillo, the unit trailing the Runners by a nose for the all-important second spot and the homefield advantage it brings. He says that bottom line, the franchise has to get people back.
“I think that Doug has done a great job this year considering the circumstances, but it’s hard for someone who is not from here to sell to people he doesn’t know,” stressed Moore, saying that after last year, he wasn’t going to come back to Edinburg unless there was a management change. There was, and he did.
“With Byron Pierce as president of the league, we have a chance,” he explained. “He gets things done and people believe in him, myself included. And Doug, while he has had to clean up a big mess here and is still doing that, actually, I think he can use the offseason to come up with ideas to enhance attendance. And I am going to help him do that, because I want . . . we all want, the fans to come back.”
WEATHERING THE QUIET STORM
The Roadrunner game tradition of heckling opposing hitters when they are announced over the public-address system is still going strong, despite the low watcher numbers. The PA guy will say the name and the rooters will chant “Who . . .” The announcer repeats the name, with the fans shouting, “Cares?” in answer.
It’s always good for a chuckle, and Nelson, along with partner in crime Jerry “The Whistler” Ramirez down the third-base line are veterans of the catcall. There are still some royal boosters around town. The baseball is outstanding this summer; the pennant chase is at a fever pitch.
But in essence, given the drastic decline in interest out at the Stadium these days, the question the supporters ask in jest has unfortunately become the overarching theme to the 2009 season for the Roadrunners.
“Who . . . cares?”