Opening night came together in a hurry for the new owners and management of theSpringfield Sliders.
Fewer than 60 days after Sliders Baseball Group LLC — CEO Shane Martin, his father, Dennis, and his uncle, Darin — purchased the Springfield entry in the collegiate, wood-bat Prospect League, Springfield Mayor Mike Houston was on the mound throwing out the first pitch Tuesday evening.
The Martin family, which owns a couple of movie theaters, sports bars and the concessions at an auto racing venue in the Minneapolis area, say they’re here to stay.
“My dad and uncle have already moved here, and I plan to be here a lot this summer,” Shane Martin said. “It’s a year-round operation for us. We’ll be here year-round in the community.”
Sliders general manager and executive vice president John Dittrich, a 38-year veteran of professional baseball hired by the Martins to get the operation up and running in a hurry, said the family’s plan is to be part of Springfield.
“There was a sense that before it was a part-time occupation,” Dittrich said. “To make it really successful, one or two people have to devote their full time attention to it.”
Shane Martin said he’s always been a baseball fan.
“We had the biggest back yard in the neighborhood, so everybody would come over to play ball,” he said. Plus he’s been to lots of games around Minneapolis.
But to get from there to owning a team. …
“It’s entertainment,” he said. “You entertain the fans, you feed them.”
“It’s not like they have to be there and they’re all grumpy,” Dittrich said.
Martin said he started looking for a team to buy a couple of years ago and looked at opportunities other than the Sliders.
“We like the Prospect League,” he said. “The future of the league and the Springfield market itself are both good.
“We liked the facilities here, too,” he said mentioning the suite of offices attached to the stadium as a big plus.
Martin says developing the operation is a “working process. We’ve had not even 60 days.”
Dittrich said the business models for leagues like the Prospect League “are better than the minor league model.” Plus, by splitting the league into two six-team divisions, the long trips to Pennsylvania and West Virginia have been eliminated for the Sliders.
“The longest trip we have now is to Dubois County (Ind.) and that’s only about 4 1/2 hours,” he said.
The Sliders, under the ownership of Jesse Bolder, won the championship of the Central Illinois Collegiate League in 2008, the team’s first season. The following year, the league became the Prospect League. Bolder lived in Wisconsin the first three years he owned the team, but moved to Springfield before last season began.
The Sliders averaged 1,268 fans at Robin Roberts Stadium last year, good for third-most in the then 14-team league.
Dittrich, who has been a general manager at every level of professional baseball except the major leagues, said attendance goals for this year are for a modest improvement.
“Maybe 1,500?” he said. “A little better. Our goal is to not have any crummy little crowds during the week. Friday and Saturday is where you make your hay.”
The team’s season ticket base is modest, he said.
“We’re after the entertainment dollar, and Springfield is a busy town in that regard,” he said.
Dittrich started his professional career in 1974 as assistant to the president of the Texas League, who happened to be Bobby Bragan, a former major league player and manager and minor league executive.
Dittrich spent four years as director of player development for the Texas Rangers in the mid-1980s and has been an executive and partner in independent league baseball since 1996.
“I’m 62, and I’ve been in baseball all my life,” he said. “I retired, sort of, in 2009. Bobby Bragan, my mentor, died in January 2010 and I tried to be a consultant. Then I was asked to get involved in the Joliet Slammers of the Frontier League, where I’m still a partner.
“David Chase, the president of the Prospect League, called me and said there was a buyer for this team and they wanted somebody to get it up and started,” he said.
He promises there will be innovations and surprises as the summer progresses, but he isn’t quite ready to reveal them now.
“We’re trying to do all the things that they (previous ownership) did do well,” he said. “They did a good job in that area (promotions), and we want to add to it”
“We want to be more fan-friendly in a general way,” Dittrich said. “Shane’s got some ideas, and he bought a baseball team to try them out.”