Baseball is reborn in Akron with the RubberDucks
New owner, new image and new prospects bringing fans back to Canal Park
People ask, "Where are you from?"
I tell them, "Akron, Ohio."
"Where is that," they wonder.
"It's about a 40-minute drive south of Cleveland," I explain.
This is probably a typical interaction for a native Akronite when speaking to people while they're out of town. Some may call it an inferiority complex or an awkward-middle-child syndrome. In truth, the city of Akron has indeed struggled, more so in the modern era, to establish its own unique identity separate from big-brother Cleveland and little-sister Canton.
Unfortunately, being located in such close proximity to both cities makes that task a bit tougher. Of course in recent years, NBA phenom LeBron James and Grammy-winning rock band The Black Keys have helped put the city back on the map. (Well, maybe more in a positive way with The Black Keys.) Still, this comunity continued to strain for something to bring them together once again in a unique and common interest that they can take pride in and call their own.
Nestled on a ridge overlooking the southernost reaches of the Cuyahoga Valley, this blue collar municipality once considered the Rubber Capital of the World is still a picturesque scene even while living in the shadows of its former glory, but remains home to thousands of citizens, including yours truly.
One of the common interests that citizens of Akron, as well as the majority of folks in Northeast Ohio, share is their passion for sports.
By now, most Tribe fans are familiar with the local minor league clubs within the Indians organization, which include the RubberDucks, formerly the Aeros, located right in downtown Akron. However, it may surprise many that Akron actually has a rich and full history in the great game of baseball that dates back nearly as far as America's Pastime itself.
Dating back to the Roaring Twenties, the Akron Industrial League gave the city its first taste of professional baseball, a sport which was just starting to taking the nation by storm. The Industrial League, which eventually became known as the AA League (not affilliated with AA minor league baseball), stood strong in the community for the better part of the 20th Century and played host to as many as 24 teams all boasting of home-grown talent from across Northeast Ohio.
While the New York Yankees were considered a superpower in the major leagues, the Tramonte Black Labels were establishing their own "Murderer's Row" in the 1960s as they captured eight championship titles over a nine-year period. Several Black Labels players as well as manager Joe Winkler are now proudly recognized and represented in the Greater Akron Baseball Hall of Fame as well as many other local baseball greats from the AA League and alike.
Today, the AA League is no longer in existence, but baseball is still alive and strong in the city of Akron through colliegiate athletics, professional softball, numerous little league teams and, of course, the newly rebranded Akron RubberDucks franchise.
Ken Babby, a native of our nation's capital coming off a 14-year tenure at the Washington Post, has led the charge in revamping the city's top professional sports franchise.
"I spent about 14 years at the Washington Post," said Babby. "It was a great honor for me to work for such a great family newspaper, great company, and get to wake up every day and work for your hometown paper, but my passion was always for sports. It was always to try and find a place where we could make a difference in fan experience."
Well, the Akron Aeros were a team that needed to be revamped in some way as attendance and fan interest had gradually dwindled down since the team relocated to downtown Akron in 1997.
"I think this is really the epicenter for affordable family fun here in Akron, Ohio. We're right down here on Main Street at Canal Park. It's a great community environment. It's all about the community and building something really special for people here."
So you buy a minor league baseball franchise with the intent of revamping it and creating a buzz throughout the community. Where do you start? Surrounding yourself with the right people is a good jumping off point.
Jim Pfander is an Akron native who has spent practically his whole life in baseball. After graduating from Ohio University, Pfander started his career with the Indians as a broadcasting and special events intern. From there, he began working with several minor league franchises with stops in Spokane, WA, Brockton, MA and Charleston, SC where he worked with notable baseball figures such as George Brett and Mike Veeck, son of legendary owner Bill Veeck.
At the time when Ken Babby had first purchased the Aeros, Pfander was working with the Tampa Bay Rays in Florida during spring training.
"I got a call from Joe McEacharn, who is the Eastern League president," Pfander reminisced. "And he said, 'You've got to meet this guy. His name is Ken Babby.' And I said I'd take a meeting, figuring we'd talk on the phone. Well, in true Ken Babby fashion, he flew down to Florida to have breakfast with me in my city."
Babby was in the process of assembling his front office staff and wanted to be sure he found the right guy for the position of general manager.
"He phrased it as wanting to 'pick my brain'," Pfander spoke of his meeting with Babby in Florida. "Well, by the end of the meal, he was ready to offer me the position [of team GM] and a couple hours later, I got the formal offer."
Aside from being impressed with Babby's willingness to go the extra mile, why would Jim be interested in leaving the sunshine and warm temperatures of Florida and take a job up north?
"This is my hometown. My folks still live in the area, so it was a no-brainer to come back, work with Ken and try to turn around the Akron franchise."
The Babby Era in Akron started with a bang in 2013 with the installation of a brand new HD video board at Canal Park, which is the largest in all of AA baseball. After an overwhelingly positive response, Babby & Co. set the wheels in motion for their full-blown rebranding and renovation effort starting with the search for a new name.
"We went out and had a naming contest a few years ago, prior to the time that I was here," Babby said. "There were a lot of names that were proposed and, at the end of the day, 'RubberDucks' was one of the top brands picked in that contest and the rest is sort of history."
Babby makes it sound as simple as that, but it was a very deliberate process, as Pfander describes.
"We teamed up with a branding company in San Diego called Brandiose. They've worked with a third of the minor league baseball teams already. And, gosh, they came back with 'RubberDucks' with the logo, that tough-looking duck, with kind of the grit and ethos that the folks in Akron have."
Of course, with any major change comes skepticism and some negative response and it was no different with the new "RubberDucks" brand, but fortunately, it was not a permanent as the community gradually came to embrace the team's new identity.
"Those first few days were tough," Babby explained, "There were a lot people with a lot of different views of what the world looked like, but it's a different feel now. Really after late October/early November, we couldn't keep the merchandise in stock. That was an important leading indicator that this RubberDucks thing was really taking off."
I know I can say first-hand that just in these last several months, I have seen more people sporting RubberDucks merchandise than I can ever remember seeing in the 17-plus years of the Aeros existence.
So with a new identity established, the next step was creating the best fan experience possible at Canal Park.
Both Babby and Pfander as well as many fans and a few of the players I've talked to have spoken very highly of the facility. During the ballpark's construction in the late 1990s, Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic worked with then-assistent Indians GM Mark Shapiro in designing and making this ballpark not only a great place to see a game, but also an ideal location for player development.
"We knew the bones of the building were here," Pfander said. "I think that was a big thing we kind of looked at. Ken and I sat down and we started planning out our game plan for how we were going to turn this franchise around. We have a beautiful stadium. But it needed a fresh coat of paint. It needed kind of a new direction."
That's where Babby's revamp effort comes in. Following the 2013 season, the team broke ground on ballpark renovations, including the "Fowl Territory" picnic and pavilion area in left field and the "Tiki Terrace" bar in right field. Additionally, Babby has invested in a venture that goes beyond the team and stadium by opening "The Game: Grill & Bar" and "The Duck Club" private event space that are both located on the north end of the ballpark and open year-round.
"We want to build great experiences," explained Babby. "And groups are an important part of our business. People want an environment where they can come out and sit with their family and have a great time or come with corporate event or picnic, etc."
I would say that philosophy has panned out even better than expected as the RubberDucks have seen a 33% increase in attendance at the halfway point in the season and have already had five sellouts, including back-to-back sellouts during their last home stand.
Of course, having quality talent on the field doesn't hurt either. The RubberDucks currently host a plethora of intriguing prospects that could soon end up on the big league radar for the Tribe. Under the guidance of manager Dave Wallace, this group has really started to gel as a team, playing off each other's strengths and propelling them to first place in the division.
“I think it all starts with Dave Wallace," Pfander said of the RubberDucks skipper. "He is a tremendous leader. One of the advantages he brings to the table is that he played here in Akron not too long ago. And as an ex-player that was just so recently removed from the game, that leadership and experience that he has just had has to be really fresh with the players. He can relate to them."
Babby also spoke highly of Wallace during our little sit-down.
"It’s a great culture with [Wallace] at the helm," Babby remarked. "He’s done a great job of pulling this group of guys, very talented players such as Francisco Lindor, Tyler Naquin and Cody Anderson. You see some really, really strong talent here in Akron and we just hope it continues."
Dave Wallace was a former catcher in the Indians and Nationals farm systems. After being signed as a non-drafted free agent out of Vanderbilt by the Tribe in 2001, he batted .223 with 45 homers and 180 RBI over his seven-year career. He retired in 2008 after being traded to the Nationals.
The success of the team on the field doesn't come as much surprise to outfielder Bryson Myles, who prior to a knee injury was having a fine debut season at the AA level batting .282 with three home runs and 22 RBI in 54 games.
"This group of guys is really a core group," Myles said. "A bunch of us have been together ever since Mahoning Valley. You look at our records in the past and we have struggled. But I think this year is the year that we've finally started to put it all together. We've been playing really, really good baseball."
That is no exaggeration as Myles joins the ranks of other top Indians prospects in Akron such as Tyler Naquin, Francisco Lindor, Tony Wolters and Cody Anderson, many of whom have played together on the same team at each level of the farm system in their developent.
Some of the highlights of the season thus far include right-hander Joe Colon's complete-game shutout against Reading on Memorial Day, center fielder Tyler Naquin's 17-game hit streak, catcher/infielder Tony Wolters going deep for the first time in his AA career on his birthday and, of course, shortstop Francisco Lindor's walk-off blast against Bowie back in April.
"I can honestly say that if I were to look back two years ago and look at the type of baseball we were playing then versus how we're playing now, we actually really do look like professionals and I think that's showing in the games," Myles said.
While wins and losses are not a primary focus in minor league baseball, the success of team on the field has not gone unnoticed by the RubberDucks front office staff.
"I think this is a high-caliber group of guys that have really had a lot of fun and a lot of success just playing good, high-quality baseball," Ken Babby said of his team's current players.
Aside from being talented on the field, this is a group of some of the nicest human beings you will ever meet.
"The Indians have assembled a great group of gentlemen that are ready to play the game," Jim Pfander praised. "They play it the right way. They hustle and I think everything that you see on the field translates off the field as well. These guys are the first to jump up and volunteer for some of the different community projects that we have out there. I think that's been great."
With the 2014 season now half in the books, I think it's safe to say that rebranding effort has been a success. Ken Babby and Jim Pfander should be very proud of the work they've done off the field while Dave Wallace has done an admirable job putting a quality product together on the field. The response from the community has been positive from day one even with Northeast Ohio's signature unpredictable spring weather.
Pfander concurs, "I've just been blown away by the response of the community. It's something that Akron should be proud of. This is a great town. They really love their team here and it's been a lot of fun to be a part of this rebuilding project."
I wouldn't doubt that this is the end of the story for Babby & Company either.
"We always have things up our sleeves," Babby said, "We're always trying to build great things for the environment. Unfortunately, I can't tell you about any of them yet."
Considering the innovations he and his crew have come up with so far, I can't wait to see what else they have in mind.
In the meantime, as Akron continues to strive for a new identity in its post-industrial age, who knows, maybe Ken Babby has started something special down on Main Street. And as the RubberDucks move into the second half of the season with potential playoff aspirations, maybe they can be the thing that rallies the community together and makes this city a place that this young writer and many other fine folks even more proud to call home.
Jake Dungan is a communications student at Stark State College and an intern with the Akron RubberDucks. Follow him on Twitter @MajorLeagueJake.