Almost Complete, Was Pit Spitters' First Season A Home Run?
By Al Parker | July 13, 2019
“I'd give us a B,” says Traverse City Pit Spitters General Manager Mickey Graham, reflecting on the minor league baseball team’s first year, one with only a few home games remaining.
“We were able to accomplish a lot of our goals, especially with fan experience. One thing I didn't get to do was to get out into the community and meet people. We're all working hard to make this a fun place.”
“I'd maybe go B+, something in that range,” adds Joe Chamberlin, the team’s CEO and managing member during a phone interview. “I think the baseball aspect has been great, the fan experience, the food, the quality of the experience, I'd give us high marks there. We just need to work on getting butts in the seats.”
According to league data, the Pit Spitters average 1,263 in attendance over 24 home games. That's good for 11thplace in the 22-team league. The Madison Mallards are the runaway leaders with an average attendance of 5,966 through 19 home games.
“We had 2,200 or 2,300 for Opening Day,” says Graham. “We were hoping for about 3,000 but that was just a goal. We're the new organization in town and we were hoping for a warm welcome and we got it. Our games on the 4thand 5th(of July) were well attended.”
“Attendance has been up and down, but we've gotten people out here to see us and what we're about,” he adds.
The team on the field certainly has been doing its part; the Pit Spitters reeled off 18 victories in a row, a record for the entire Northwoods League, before losing 7-5 to the Kenosha Kingfish on July 10 (though that game drew a mere 628 fans).
“These are the best of the best in college baseball,” says Graham. “They're real good guys, on and off the field, who hope to get drafted.”
According to Chamberlin, who lives in Cascade near Grand Rapids and has a family cottage in Omena, the team's management knew they'd have to work to attract fans. “We knew we were inheriting a rebuild and a rebranding,” he says.
How did the sale of Traverse City’s former team, the Beach Bums, by owners John and Leslye Wuerfel come to be?
“We've always known John and Leslye,” notes Chamberlin. “Over the past five years or so, we felt they might be ready to move on. It was just a matter of waiting ‘til the deal was in reach for us and them.”
Chamberlain declines to say how much he paid for the team, noting negotiations were friendly and took most of two years to complete.
“It was a big number, a substantial investment,” he recalls. “We are totally invested in Traverse City. We want to be there for a long time.”
Any regrets about criticisms of the name, Pit Spitters?
“No, we were blown away by the amount of suggestions we got from the public,” says Graham. “There were thousands. We whittled them down, went through a process. Some we had to eliminate because they were trademarked. Bombers, for example, was taken.
“Based on the sales of shirts and hats, somebody up there likes it,” says Chamberlin.
Team officials worked with a California design firm for months to come up with the colorful Pit Spitters logo, which has proven popular with fans.
With several years of experience with the West Michigan Whitecaps, Graham knows the concession experience is key to keeping fans happy.
“Food's important,” he says. “And we're continuing to add new items (to the menu). Two of the most popular items are the TC Cherry Burger and the Triple Crown Nachos, which consists of Doritos (instead of plain tortilla chips), queso, shredded cheese, pulled pork, cherry barbecue sauce and sour cream. And thirsty drinkers will appreciate a new offering that debuted earlier this month – a plastic “Beer Bat” that holds 20-some ounces of liquid adult refreshment. “We're always willing to try new things,” says Graham.
Currently in its 26th season, the Northwoods League is the largest organized baseball league in the world with 22 teams.
“The Northwoods League has more than 80 in Major League Baseball right now,” says Graham. “There were 160 players from the league drafted in 2018.”
So what happens when the season ends on Aug. 11?
“We're already working on next year,” says Graham. One event being planned is a “Cat Video Film Fest.”
“I'm looking forward to the off season so I can get out into the community and meet some business leaders and share with people vision we have. We see this place (Pit Spitters Park) as a true events space where we can host concerts, group gatherings, company picnics, festivals.”