I’m guessing that you’re a fan of the Blue Rocks, even if you hardly ever go to their games. But a lot of people do go to their games, which is why the Rocks almost always lead the Carolina League in attendance.
I’m also guessing that you take pride on the Blue Rocks’ success, which is marked by their four Carolina League championships and 14 playoff appearances in 17 years. It’s also marked by the 113 Blue Rocks who have gone on to play in the Major Leagues, including All-Stars like Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Mike Sweeney and Zack Greinke.
I’m also guessing that you know almost nothing about the current Blue Rocks team. And to prove it, here’s a quick three-question quiz:
1-Who is the Blue Rocks’ leading hitter in 2011?
OK, that was a swing and a miss for you. So try this one:
2-Who has been the Blue Rocks’ best pitcher this season?
You’re 0-for-2, right? Well, we’ll give you one more chance:
3-Where are the Blue Rocks in the current Carolina League standings?
Sorry, but that’s strike three – take a seat on the bench.
The answers are: 1-Nick Francis, 2-Jake Odorizzi and 3-last. But don’t feel too bad about going 0-for-3 on the quiz, because it had a couple of trick questions, namely that Francis and Odorizzi are no longer with the Blue Rocks. Both started the season in Wilmington and were later promoted to the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, Kansas City’s Double A team in the Texas League.
That’s why the Blue Rocks remain the team that Delaware sports fans love the most and care about the least. It’s an interesting phenomenon, but an understandable one. Players stay on a Class A team for a year or two at the most and after that they either go up (usually to Double AA) or down (usually out of baseball).
So, Blue Rocks fans don’t have a chance to follow a player and get to know him and love him. A player might remain with the Phillies for 10 years and fans get to watch him progress year by year and eventually he becomes part of their sports consciousness. You can even buy a jersey with his name on the back of it.
But in Class A there’s pretty much a new team every year and that’s why, with a few exceptions, the Blue Rocks players come into town and then leave town and nobody even notices.
Despite that, the fans continue to flock to Frawley Stadium, even if they don’t stay for all nine innings. That is another phenomenon about minor-league baseball in general and the Blue Rocks in particular. When the games at Frawley begin, there will be 5,000 fans in the stands. But about the seventh inning, when the games are usually just heating up, the fans are packing up.
That’s about when the charm of watching minor league baseball starts to wear off. By then, the kids have eaten themselves sick or eaten through all the money in your wallet. They’re starting to get antsy and – admit it – so are you. Besides, you have to get up in the morning for work and, well, even though the Rocks will bring the go-ahead run to the plate in the next inning, it’s time to go. So, the same stadium that had 5,000 fans for the start of the game has maybe 1,000 for the end of it.
But all the fans have a good time regardless of when they leave, because minor-league baseball is a fun night out without the crowds and hassles of a Phillies game, not to mention the fact that parking is free in Wilmington and the concessions are cheaper (but still not cheap).
General manager Chris Kemple and assistant GM Andrew Layman have been at their jobs for a long time now and they know that even though they can’t control the quality of play on the field, they can control the quantity of fun in the bleachers.
That’s been their focus and that’s why the fans keep coming out, even during those rare seasons when the Blue Rocks aren’t very good. And they’re rare because Matt Minker, the late, great owner of the Blue Rocks, was competitive as heck and winning was very, very important to him. He didn’t want to just bring baseball back to Wilmington; he wanted to bring good baseball back to Wilmington.
You can see how well Minker succeeded every time you drive past Frawley Stadium and see another big crowd cheering on the team they love even though they can’t name any of the players on it.