My road trip was originally supposed to end on Sunday, June 28, with a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. About three weeks ago, however, I saw a story that changed my plans slightly: the day after our return, Eric Gagne was coming to Nashua.
In a way, it’s more fitting that the long weekend (which I’ll write about eventually, provided I can remember all the wild stuff that happened) came to a close in Nashua. Holman Stadium has become my home ballpark over the past five or six seasons, and the prospect of seeing Gagne from one of it’s 2,800 seats made the situation all the more perfect.
It rained at multiple points early in the day, making my actual attendance virtually a game-time decision. My friend Chris and I were the only two people from the trip who were interested in going; we exchanged texts at 2:30 and basically decided that if they played, we were there. I laid down on the couch shortly thereafter and didn’t wake up until my boss called at 4:37. It was somewhat sunny, which could mean only one thing: it was American Defenders time!
Pulling into the parking lot, I was surprised by the number of empty spaces. Gagne may not have been impressive in his last trip to New England with the Red Sox in 2007, and he may be working as a starter now, but he was a former major leaguer, and a damn good one.
While the weather certainly played a role in the low attendance, I ultimately chalk it up to the same old story: the team did a poor job of getting the word out about Gagne’s impending arrival. It was mentioned on the road sign on Amherst St. and on the team Web site (the latter according to Chris; I looked there and never saw it), but obviously, those don’t do the trick. Now, according to the most recent information I could find, about 25% of Nashuans have French or French-Canadian ancestry. The team should have sought out prominent members of that population (like the mayor, perhaps – Donnalee Lozeau) and put together some sort of celebration, with Gagne’s appearance serving as the central point. Who cares if he doesn’t play for the home team?
It was sad to see so many empty spaces outside, and it didn’t get any better after I paid my $5 and passed through the gates. The people were nice enough and they had a band playing covers on a platform next to the offices on the first base side, but it was very clearly a minor league operation. (Actually, the words I used to explain my thoughts to Chris when he arrived were, “Train wreck.”)
They have a woman who handles game-day promotions from the field level. Prior to the game, she was walking around on the field with a microphone, chatting with Booster Club members who were doing some sort of Player of the Month presentation. When the time came for them to give their award, though, she was nowhere to be found. As the guy with the microphone struggled through his prepared speech (without any introduction from the main PA, as well), it was obvious that she should have done the main portion of his talk and turned it over to him for the actual presentation. It would have achieved the same results and appeared much more professional.
This woman actually holds the key to improving attendance, in my opinion (as long as she works full-time for the team during the day). The problem with the Can-Am League is that it’s hard to build the franchise’s image around a particular player or core of players because most of them don’t stick around very long. So what they should do is make HER the face of the franchise. Instead of having her sit in an office and make cold calls all day, get her out into public. Send her to downtown Nashua, the Pheasant Lane Mall, anywhere people gather in the city, to hand out pocket schedules and chat with people about the team. Bring the mascot. Get the word out on a grassroots level. Eventually, expand the operations to Merrimack, Hudson, Amherst, Milford, and other nearby communities that might be interested. But give people a personal connection. Think about it – is someone more likely to attend a game because they saw something about it on a road sign or because a pretty blonde took a few minutes to talk to them?
The biggest problem with Holman Stadium on this night, however, was the scoreboard. There are two sections to the scoreboard: the top is a small message board, the bottom shows the line score, balls and strikes, and other basic stuff. The top half hasn’t worked since 2003, I think (although I might be wrong), which is awkward in itself because rather than make an attempt to cover it up with something useful, the darkened screen just sits there, blank. By this point, however, I think it’s one of those things we’ve all gotten used to.
The problem last night was that the rest of the scoreboard didn’t work. The power was on, so either the unit in the press box was busted or they didn’t have anyone to run it. Either way, it was embarrassing. None of the fans knew the score. The pitchers had to keep asking the umpire for the count. Combined with the 150 people in attendance (official announced crowd: 892; must’ve been a lot of groups or season ticket holders that didn’t show up), it made me wonder just how long we can keep this “baseball in Nashua” thing going.
On the field wasn’t much better. Gagne got lit up for nine runs on fourteen hits with only two strikeouts (one of them on a silly-slow breaking ball to end the first), and it wasn’t like the Defenders got lucky. Dude got hit hard. You kinda had to feel bad for him.
The good thing about small crowds is that we were able to leave our seats after the fifth and sit directly behind the third-base dugout. Great seats, although I was constantly terrified that a foul ball was gonna take my head off. It’s been awhile since I sat that close to the field.
(That makes me think of something else. Mike Coolbaugh was killed by a foul ball less than two years ago. Last season, Major League Baseball made a big deal of instituting a rule requiring all base coaches to wear helmets on the field. No base coach last night, for either team, had any sort of protective headgear. Now, I’m inclined to think that the MLB rule is a little reactionary – based on where he was hit, Coolbaugh wouldn’t have been saved by the type of helmet those coaches now wear – but it’s not a terrible idea. And the coaches last night were standing pretty close to the action. I’m just surprised the rule change hasn’t filtered down into the independent leagues yet.)
The clouds looked ominous all evening. They finally opened up in the seventh – I felt a drop on my arm, looked out at the field, and realized it was pouring rain in center field. I looked at Chris and thought, “That’s our cue.” Almost at the same time, he looked at me and said, “That’s my cue.” We had barely made it to shelter when the rain began in earnest, quickly making it apparent that baseball was done for the night. I hit the store for a couple things (a program, two packs of 1987 Topps baseball cards, and a U.S. Military All-Stars card set that included Jonathan Johnston), decided against wandering into the Capitales locker room to interview Gagne (and trust me, I thought about it) and called it a night.
If the Defenders can put people in the seats, they might have a shot. The in-game promotions were unimaginative but not awful, the team can hit, and all the staff I dealt with was very nice (when I got into the store, the girl behind the counter was receiving a call from the tarp crew saying that the tarp was messed up. I told her, as seriously as I could manage, that I had tarp experience and could help if they needed me. I then told her that I had experience messing up the tarp and could help out with that as well. She didn’t look very amused).
But man, they need to get that scoreboard fixed, and more people in the seats to look at it. In other words, not much has changed in Nashua.