It’s hard to believe it’s been a quarter of a century since the Blue Rocks returned to Wilmington and, along the way, became a centerpiece for the revival of the Wilmington Riverfront.
Times have changed, as they tend to do, and the Blue Rocks aren’t the big deal they were when they first returned here in 1993. That doesn’t mean that the franchise is foundering or that it’s still not a jewel in Wilmington’s often-tarnished crown. But, just like a kid’s new toy, eventually the thrill is gone.
In the early days of the resurrected franchise, the Blue Rocks’ roster was loaded with future big-league players and some future big-league All-Stars. It’s debatable whether that was because the parent club, the Kansas City Royals, wanted to give the new Wilmington franchise every possible chance to be successful on the field and at the ticket window, or simply because the Royals had a great farm system at the time and the Blue Rocks profited from that.
Either way, the team was much more successful in the early days. The Blue Rocks finished in first place in the Carolina League in five of their first seven seasons, but the Rocks haven’t won the Carolina League championship since 1999 (actually, they shared the title that season when the deciding Game 5 against the Myrtle Beach Penguins was cancelled because of Hurricane Floyd). Last season, the Blue Rocks finished with their worst record – 54-84 – since they returned to Wilmington 25 years ago.
And even though the attendance in still good, it’s tailed off significantly since those early, heady days. In the Rocks’ first three seasons, they drew an average of 5,288 fans per game, which was the best in the league and one of the best in all of minor league baseball. But in the last three seasons, their average attendance has been 4,249, a drop of more than 1,000 fans per game from the first three seasons.
That’s to be expected with a no-longer-new toy and we’re not saying there’s a correlation between winning and attendance, since most fans come to a minor league game for the intimate, kid-friendly experience it gives them, not to mention the more reasonable prices for tickets, merchandise, concessions, etc. And even though the local fans applaud when the Blue Rocks win, deep down they don’t really care. We’ve mentioned this before, but when was the last time you heard fans argue about the Rocks in a bar or on talk radio? For that matter, when was the first time you heard that? And we challenge you to find anybody who can name three current Blue Rocks. For that matter, we challenge you to find anybody who can name one.
And that’s the beauty of minor league baseball in general and Blue Rocks baseball in particular. You never hear boos at a Blue Rocks game because the fans aren’t emotionally involved in the team, which is why on most nights the place is practically empty after the seventh inning, especially on school nights. And you can’t blame the fans, because the players on the Blue Rocks usually stay with the team for a season or less. It’s a fact of life that you don’t hang around in Class A ball – you either get promoted quickly or released.
Again, that was different in the early days, when future All-Stars like Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon and Mike Sweeney wore Blue Rocks uniforms. People identified with them and cheered for them and eagerly followed their career paths into the major leagues. Now, not so much.
But that doesn’t really matter, because the biggest contribution the Blue Rocks have made has been their part in the revitalization of what was one of the most depressed areas of Wilmington. Now it’s one of the best areas in Wilmington and the Rocks really got that started as, for the first time, people had a reason to visit a part of the city they had previously avoided at all costs. This isn’t to say that the area next to the Christina River would have stayed an eyesore, but something had to start it all and the Blue Rocks were it.
That’s really the legacy of this team, more than the championships it’s won or the 161 former Blue Rocks who have played in the major leagues. The Blue Rocks are different than they were in 1993 and so is Wilmington, and the two will be forever linked because of that.