Thunder welcomes ‘circus’ when MLB players come to town
New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez smiles during a press conference Aug. 2, 2013 in Trenton. Rodriguez arrived in town to test an injured quadriceps, with 150 media members in tow to watch.
By Rob Anthes
For two days, the world watched Trenton.
Alex Rodriguez had arrived at Trenton’s Arm & Hammer Park Aug. 2, hoping to test an injured quadriceps and work his way into a Major League lineup for the first time in 2013. Along with the New York Yankees’ wayward thirdbaseman came 150 members of the media—including 27 television crews—curious as to whether the star infielder would even get the chance.
In recent years, damaged major leaguers who are on the brink of fitness have typically spent a few days in minor league lineups, shaking off the rust of inactivity and making sure their injuries have healed. Rodriguez, though, had arrived in Trenton just as Major League Baseball officials were bearing down on players alleged to have been involved with Biogenesis, a Florida-based “anti-aging clinic.” The firm had been accused of providing athletes with performing enhancing drugs, or PEDs, and Rodriguez was said to be among the players with connections to Biogenesis.
The league already had suspended Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun—a former National League MVP—for the remainder of the 2013 season due to alleged steroid use, and Braun, who later apologized to fans and teammates, had accepted the ban. For Rodriguez, one of baseball’s all-time statistical leaders but also one of those most bedeviled by insinuations of wrongdoing, there were rumors of a potential lifetime ban before he even had stepped foot in New Jersey.
In the end, MLB commissioner Bud Selig handed Rodriguez a 211-game suspension Aug. 5. The Yankee challenged the ruling, and has been allowed to play during the appeals process. But, in the days before Selig’s decision, it seemed like the final games of the 38-year-old Rodriguez’s career could be in a Trenton Thunder uniform.
So, it wasn’t just media from nearby New York and Philadelphia that came to bear witness. CNN was at Arm & Hammer Park around the clock, giving live updates. Spanish language stations Univision and Telemundo were in Trenton, too, and Qatar-based Al-Jazeera added an international flair to the weekend. Between Aug. 1-4, there were 1,700 TV mentions of “Trenton Thunder” worldwide, team general manager Will Smith said.
One might wonder why Smith would track a figure like that. But then one might not be aware, as Smith is, of the way these major-league rehabilitation assignments have become big occasions—and big business—for minor-league clubs like the Thunder.
How exactly did an organization accustomed to handling an average of 5,000 fans and five media members a night prepare to spend a weekend in the spotlight?
A decade into their affiliation with the Yankees, the Thunder have had plenty of practice. Just 76 miles separate Yankee Stadium from Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton, and the road back to the Bronx for many rehabbing Yankees stars goes through Mercer County. Between 2003-12, 28 different Yankees have appeared with the Thunder on the way back to the Major League. This season alone, the Thunder has hosted eight different Yankees on rehabilitation assignments. One more, it’d have enough to field a full team—a pretty good one at that, with players like Rodriguez, outfielder Curtis Granderson, first baseman Mark Teixeira and corner infielder Kevin Youkilis having spent time on the roster.
Members of the Thunder front office said there isn’t really a formula for handling the heightened demand of a Major League rehab assignment. Each appearance by a MLB ballplayer in Trenton differs, as does the takeaway for the Thunder.
When front office members learn a Yankee will be playing for the Thunder, they take a look at the other events scheduled for that night’s game, as well as the expected crowd. Based on those factors, the team may decide to open the stadium gates earlier—the gates usually open an hour before the game—to spread the influx of fans over a greater time period and potentially avoid traffic jams getting into the stadium parking lots. The team will also bring in more staff to handle parking and more sheriff’s officers to handle security. Smith said both staff and police presence are doubled on nights of big games, which a Major League rehab assignment usually qualifies as.
The major challenge during Rodriguez’s rehab was figuring out how to deal with a large media contingent. The 150 media credentials issued for Aug. 2 was by far the most in Thunder franchise history. For comparison, the team issued 20 media credentials for games during Granderson’s rehab games in late July. Shortstop Derek Jeter drew 80 media members to Trenton in July 2011.
“I had three interns that were just helping out with media-related things all weekend long,” Thunder public relations director Bill Cook said. “Usually, on a game day, I’ll have one during the day. That’s about it. But I had three all-day long, even during the game, that were dedicated to helping out with different requests from the media.”
The pressure began Aug. 1, when the team announced Rodriguez would appear in Trenton. Media credential requests started coming in immediately, and Cook said he answered email for 15 minutes straight at one point Aug. 1 without making any progress. He had 82 emails when he began. He had 82 emails when he stopped.
“I couldn’t respond fast enough,” Cook said.
Thunder staff also had to buy new routers and access points so Arm & Hammer Park had enough equipment to handle the increased demand for Internet that came along with the increased media presence.
The Thunder front office then had to decide where to put media members once they arrived. The press box seats two dozen people comfortably, and there is usually enough space in the press box for print, TV and radio reporters, as well as photographers, to work during an average Thunder game. During the Aug. 2 game, with the press box jammed to capacity, some print and radio reporters had to sit at a table on the stadium’s concourse. It’s something the Thunder has employed before during games of high demand, like the 1996 Double-A All-Star game and a 2007 rehab appearance by pitcher Roger Clemens.
Broadcasters and photographers, meanwhile, were pushed to an open-air area at the end of the first-base concourse. A third, unused clubhouse beneath the stadium was transformed into a press conference room and media work area. The team also held one luxury suite open, in case it needed extra space.
Team officials also had to figure out how to fit all the TV satellite trucks in the lot without taking away needed parking space for the larger number of fans. They parked the trucks behind the right field fence and along a sidewalk that runs along the Delaware River behind the stadium. That allowed TV crews to run their cables up through the gate and into the stadium at the designated camera area.
The short notice involved with these rehab assignments can certainly complicate matters, though. In the case of Rodriguez, Smith said, the Thunder had just 24 hours notice.
“We found out on Thursday night; we had a game Thursday night. He was here Friday. So there wasn’t a lot of time to react,” Smith said. “We still had to work and operate the (Thursday) game. There was a lot of planning, but not a lot of time to do that planning. A lot of figuring it out on the fly, frankly … We were tested and challenged.”
One of the most important things for the club is maximizing ticket sales, usually by keeping ticket windows open longer and promoting the rehab appearance, Smith said.
Promotion now is as simple as sending a notice out to the Thunder’s 39,000-strong email list; the email usually contains a link people can click on that will take them to a website where they can buy tickets for the game. Fans can even choose which seats they want.
It didn’t used to be so easy.
When the Thunder hosted Jeter for several games in 2003, the team did most of its ticket sales through the phone, which required a Thunder employee to conduct and process the transaction, Cook said. Person-to-person transactions demanded the Thunder direct a lot of its manpower toward ticket sales. But, there was another issue: Tickets were selling so quickly in the days leading up to the Jeter games that the team’s phone lines were at capacity. Team staff couldn’t make outbound calls or receive business calls, Cook said.
“We were using our cell phones to make business calls because our phone lines were jammed,” he said. “After that Jeter one, we said, ‘OK, we’re going to add some more inbound-only lines,’ just to be able to handle a situation like that.”
And there have been plenty of similar situations in team history. In its 20 seasons, the Thunder has hosted two Cy Young award winners, two World Series MVPs, a Gold Glove winner and, in Rodriguez, a three-time American League MVP, all on rehab assignments.
With the increased star power usually comes increased interest. Of the 15 largest crowds in Thunder history, 13 have been at rehab appearances by MLB players. Two rehab appearances by Jeter and a rehab start by pitcher Roger Clemens fill out the Top 3. More than 9,000 people attended each of the games.
Both of Rodriguez’s Trenton appearances drew more than 8,000, and rank as the 13th and 14th most attended games in franchise history. That’s nearly 3,000 more fans than the average Thunder game this season. As of Aug. 20, the Thunder ranked third in the Eastern League, with an average crowd of 5,346.
Sometimes, with the buzz of more media and a larger crowd, games with recovering MLB stars feel more like a spectacle than a baseball game. A prime example happened in the bottom of the fifth inning Aug. 2, after Rodriguez had been removed from the game. His night over, he collected his belongings and, with gameplay still occurring, walked back onto the field, along foul territory by first base.
As he made his way to an on-field exit near the Thunder bullpen, he stopped to sign autographs for a few fans along the railing. Hundreds of other spectators sensed a chance for a souvenir, and swarmed the area. The entire first-base side of Arm and Hammer Park’s seating bowl—full moments earlier—emptied out, as fans rushed toward Rodriguez.
The experience was different than a typical Thunder game, Cook said.
“It’s unusual, and it tested the agility of our staff, but overall people overlooked those things because it was just cool to be at the center of this story, be part of this thing that sports fans all around the world were paying attention to,” he said. “The media normally covering the biggest stories in the country are here. People recognized it’s pretty cool to be here, too, and be part of that.”
Smith also acknowledged the more-frenzied atmosphere of the Rodriguez games, but said he anticipated it.
“I really wanted Alex Rodriguez to come because he’s a gigantic superstar,” Smith said. “I knew that fans would want to see him here, so that was tremendous. But, I really wanted to see him here because it was a huge story. I knew it would be a little bit of a circus, and I wanted to be able to try to manage that.”
And it was worth it for the Thunder financially to take on the challenge. The Thunder prices its tickets in tiers, based on when a fan buys a ticket and for what area in the stadium. With an average ticket price of $12 and an average-sized crowd, the Thunder earn $64,152. Using the same model, on Aug. 2, the Thunder would have earned $96,960, representing a 34 percent increase in revenue from tickets. It’s a rough estimate—with differing ticket prices and not factoring in complimentary tickets, discounted tickets for groups and the like—but it’s a telling one, all the same.
Then of course, there’s the baseball. Thunder manager Tony Franklin said that carnival atmosphere did not spread to the clubhouse, and the players just saw it as doing their part in helping the Yankees succeed. In fact, the Yankees who have appeared with the Thunder this year returned the favor by providing the minor leaguers with up-close examples of how to play and how to conduct themselves.
“We didn’t think it was a distraction,” Franklin said. “We need to give the players a little more credit. They understand what we’re doing. They understood perfectly. They also know it’s business as usual, and it was business as usual for Alex once he got on the baseball field. The other things never interfered with their day. Was it a little bit different, quite a bit different? Yes, it was. Quite a few more cameras. Quite a few more writers. Quite a few more questions asked. But at 7 o’clock, we went and played. And that’s what we’re used to doing every day.” Smith said the rest of the team’s staff tries to follow Franklin’s philosophy.
Ticket sales or media credential requests may be overwhelming staff, security may be doubled, but in the end, there’s still going to be a baseball game at the same time, in the same ballpark, with the same rules.
“These things are hard to quantify what they’re going to turn into a lot of times, so we don’t try to take them for anything other than what they are: anomalies for the business,” Smith said. “We take them as professionally as we possibly can, and just do a really good job of making everything safe and as accessible to the right people as they need to be. I think the Yankees recognize we do a decent job of that. We certainly have a lot of experience at it now.”