For the turnstiles.

I love baseball but hate hype; and it is a combination of these two things that will put a few hundred fresh words on the blog tonight.

My local Lehigh Valley IronPigs, with whom I have something of a love-hate relationship, put out a news release Tuesday announcing what seemed to be a remarkable achievement: “IronPigs Remain Attendance Leader Since 2008.”

The news release announced that the Pigs had topped 600,000 fans for the eighth straight year — each year of the team’s existence, in other words — and that the Pigs “remain Minor League Baseball’s per game attendance leader since their debut season.”

In other words, the team has sold more tickets per game on average than any other minor-league team over the past eight years. They’re averaging just over 9,000 tickets sold per game over that span. (I have been to enough games and seen enough empty seats to be convinced that “attendance” really means “tickets sold,” not “fans through the gate.”)

After reviewing the International League’s official attendance data for the past eight years, I decided the Pigs’ spin was a nice way to camouflage the fact that the team’s per-game attendance had a down year.

The second-worst year in team history, to be precise:

pigsgraf1The Pigs like to boast about their per-game attendance, but they haven’t led the International League in this department since 2012. In the year just past, they fell all the way to fourth, with 8,769 fans per game — trailing Charlotte (9,428), Indianapolis (9,331) and Columbus (9,016).

In other words, that “per game attendance leader” business seems to rely a whole lot on that hot streak from 2009 through 2012.

(I am powerless to explain their weak showing in their very first year, which marked the return of affiliated baseball to the Valley after a four-decade absence. I would have thought they were above 9,000 a game that year too. Guess not. Perhaps the dreadful opening to their season — 13 straight losses, if memory serves — tempered the Valley’s interest.)

There are all kinds of yeah-buts, in-defense-ofs, and caveats to be made about the Pigs’ attendance this year; and I’ll throw in as many as I can think of:

  • Fourth in a 14-team league ain’t bad. Certainly, the Gwinnett Braves and Syracuse Chiefs — both averaging around 3,800 tickets sold per game — dream of support like that.
  • By my rough math, the International League average for fans per game was 7,130 this past season, so the Pigs remain well above average.
  • Coca-Cola Park only has 8,089 fixed seats, so the Pigs continue to admit more arses than they have seats for. This is not quite as remarkable as it sounds: Pretty much every Triple-A park of the past dozen years has a general-admission outfield berm that can hold 2,000 fans or so. Still, if they’re selling 8,769 tickets per game, that’s every seat in the park plus maybe one-third of the berm, which is pretty impressive.
  • The Pigs are stomping their Pennsylvania rivals, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, who averaged 5,753 fans per game last year despite completely revamping their ballpark just two or three years ago.
  • The Pigs’ on-field performance has been so-so to downright lousy. They went 63-81 this past season, the second-worst record in the IL, and have finished above .500 only twice in eight years. Their performance at the gate is a tribute to management’s promotional ingenuity … ’cause all those people aren’t coming to watch well-played baseball.
  • I’m not focusing on total year-end attendance here, because the Pigs picked per-game to be their measure of choice, but 600,000 fans a year at the Triple-A level is nothing to sneeze at.
  • Finally: You can’t read anything conclusive into one relatively slow year.

Yeah, this past year was a good one by many attendance measures, and it wouldn’t have looked bad at all if the team hadn’t concocted questionable ways to crow about it.

Still, seeing the gradual downturn in per-game attendance, I wonder whether the Valley is starting to cool on the IronPigs … and if so, where the attendance levels will eventually stabilize.

Will we dip to around 7,000 to 7,500 and hold there, like longtime International League markets Toledo and Pawtucket have done in the past few years? (Pawtucket was pulling 9,200 per game a decade ago and 8,300 five years ago.)

Farther down to 6,000 to 6,500 per game, like Rochester, another defining International League market? All the way south of 4,000, like Syracuse, also not a fly-by-night market?

Or, who knows? Maybe the Pigs’ front office will find the magic promotional formula to bring attendance back to 9,000 per game. Maybe they’ll hit on just the right tap-dance to keep all eyes fixed on them. They’ve been pretty good at that so far.

My preference, for what it’s worth, would be for the Pigs to settle in at a level where they are well-supported, comfortably profitable … and free of spun-up claims about their attendance performance.

It’s hockey season now.

It’s sort of a tradition here for me to write something about the start and end of each baseball season … so here goes.

I took the family to the Lehigh Valley IronPigs’ last game of the year earlier today. This is the third straight year we’ve gone to the last home game. My younger son likes the idea of buying half-price concessions; the rest of us just like a last trip to the ballpark before hockey season starts.

(I remember last year Lehigh University played a few games of fall ball. If they do that this year, and if I have the free time, maybe I’ll go check that out. I recently checked their website and saw no word of anything.)

There was nothing all that noteworthy about the game. The Pigs never seem to play that well for us, and today they fell behind early and lost 8-1 to the Rochester Red Wings. It was fiercely hot (93 degrees) and even my last ballpark beer of the season, a Victory HopDevil, didn’t do much to cool me off.

We sat in a new section of seating next to the bullpens; and in the eighth inning, one of the Red Wings’ relief pitchers started handing out baseballs to nearby kids (including mine). Made for a nice souvenir, and a complement to the New York-Penn League foul ball I took home earlier in the summer.

For some reason I am especially jonesing for fall and winter this year, so I am content to put another year of baseball-watching to bed. I want cold and bare trees and hockey. Sorry, baseball. Your time will come again.

A few sights from the day:

Sitting next to the 'pens means we got to watch both starting pitchers warm up at once. Rochester's Tyler Rogers in the foreground; Lehigh Valley's Severino Gonzalez in the background.
Sitting next to the ‘pens meant we got to watch both starting pitchers warm up at once. The bullpen buds are Rochester’s Tyler Rogers in the foreground and Lehigh Valley’s Severino Gonzalez in the background.
Red Wings relief pitcher Aaron Thompson, warming up the left fielder between innings.
Red Wings relief pitcher Aaron Thompson, warming up the left fielder between innings.
Veteran IronPigs reliever Dustin McGowan, also in warmup mode. Will he be back next year? The Sept. 1 roster expansion has come and gone, so almost no one on the field for this game has any hope for a September callup. (Three IronPigs who did not play were called up after the game.)
Veteran IronPigs reliever Dustin McGowan, also in warmup mode. Will he be back next year? The Sept. 1 roster expansion has come and gone, so almost no one on the field for this game has any hope for a September callup. (Three IronPigs who did not play were called up after the game.)
Right fielder Tyler Henson is also in the will-they-be-back? file. After 10 years in the minors, he's yet to crack the bigs, and the Phillies won't be calling him up this September.
Right fielder Tyler Henson is also in the will-they-be-back? file. After 10 years in the minors, he’s yet to crack the bigs, and the Phillies won’t be calling him up this September.
In the official team store, numbers wait to be attached to jerseys.
In the official team store, numbers wait to be attached to jerseys.
Wings left fielder Eric Farris enjoyed turning around and sharing the out count with nearby fans. It was a little Junior Griffey-ish, and we enjoyed it.
Wings left fielder Eric Farris enjoyed turning around and sharing the out count with nearby fans. It was a little Junior Griffey-ish, and we enjoyed it.
For a vacation day, the crowd was kinda sparse: The outfield berm was pretty empty, and so were these seats down the right-field line. I'm sure the IronPigs management will spend its offseason coming up with ever more frantic stunts to put asses in those seats for 2016.
For a vacation day, the crowd was kinda sparse: The outfield berm was pretty empty, and so were these seats down the right-field line. I’m sure the IronPigs management will spend its offseason coming up with ever more frantic stunts to put asses in those seats for 2016.
This pig is involved in some sort of fundraiser at Coca-Cola Park. Maybe the nostrils aren't the best place to paint the word "Coke"? *snort*
This pig is involved in some sort of fundraiser at Coca-Cola Park. Maybe the nostrils aren’t the best place to paint the word “Coke”? *snort*
Mike Quade -- best known as one of the dozens of managers who have failed to win a World Series with the Cubs -- is in Rochester now. Here he commiserates with fellow major-league refugee Argenis Diaz.
Mike Quade — best known as one of the dozens of managers who have failed to win a World Series with the Cubs — is in Rochester now. Here he commiserates with fellow major-league refugee Argenis Diaz.
The last out has been recorded; Eric Farris and his teammates jog off the field; and I've seen the back of live baseball for another year.
The last out has been recorded; Eric Farris and his teammates jog off the field; and I’ve seen the back of live baseball for another year.
213 days, eh? (Of course, *my* live baseball season starts with college games in mid-March. So for me, Opening Day is closer to 194 days away. Not that I'm counting. Yet.)
213 days, eh? (Of course, *my* live baseball season starts with college games in mid-March. So for me, Opening Day 2016 is closer to 194 days away. Not that I’m counting. Yet.)

Day off.

I took a mental health day off work today and went to the ballpark.

(My mental health is actually pretty good, all things considered. But the local minor-league team doesn’t play too many morning games. This was a relatively rare opportunity for me to go see them during the day.)

What began as a charming idea turned into an endurance test.

The temperature topped out at 48 degrees at game time, while a whipping wind made it seem much colder. Rain threatened the whole time, and finally broke through with increasing intensity in the fourth inning.

It was one of those permanent-grimace kind of games, the kind where everyone in the crowd bundles up and squints a lot and feels brave and put-upon.

The ‘Pigs weren’t any too motivated by their surroundings, allowing the visiting Pawtucket Red Sox a seven-run second inning.

The umps called the game after five innings with Pawtucket up 8-0. The final inning, played in spattering rain, seemed like one of those affairs where the plate umpire whispers to each batter, “Swing at everything, kid, ’cause if it’s in this area code, it’s a strike.

For all that, it wasn’t the worst experience in the world.

The weather took some of the insistent fizz out of the IronPigs’ usual game presentation. The between-batter and between-innings promotions seemed fewer in number and less annoying. If you could get into the game, there was less to take you out of it.

The beer lines were pretty much nonexistent — always one of the nice things about a 10:35 a.m. start. (Yup.)

And fewer people at the ballpark meant more space to roam. Wanna be the only person on the outfield hill? The only person in the right-field standing-room area? I was both of those people at various points today, and it felt good.

Of course there are pictures of my morning at the ballpark. They’re nothing to write home about, but they capture some of the flavor of The Salaryman’s Day Off.

The Bud Light Trough overlooking right field is usually bustling with beer drinkers before game time. Not today.
The Bud Light Trough overlooking right field is usually bustling with beer drinkers before game time. Not today.
Plenty of good seats available -- and this was *before* the rain set in. I never did hear an announced attendance. It was Education Day, and a couple sections were full of local schoolkids, which must have driven up the total.
Plenty of good seats available — and this was *before* the rain set in. I never did hear an announced attendance. It was Education Day, and a couple sections were full of local schoolkids, which must have driven up the total.
IronPigs third baseman Maikel Franco sports a balaclava.
IronPigs third baseman Maikel Franco sports a balaclava.
Most of the PawSox players opted for hoods. This is Daniel Nava at the plate, with a few of his hooded teammates visible in the dugout.
Most of the PawSox players opted for hoods. This is Daniel Nava at the plate, with a few of his hooded teammates visible in the dugout.
Nava fends off a wicked googly with what looks like a cricket swing.
Nava fends off a wicked googly with what looks like a cricket swing.
Another shot of the empty stands. I think this was during the endless second inning.
Another shot of the empty stands. I think this was during the endless second inning.
Nothing special going on in this shot; I just liked the way the pitcher, second baseman and right fielder lined up from bottom to top.
Nothing special going on in this shot; I just liked the way the pitcher, second baseman and right fielder lined up from bottom to top.
Pigs right fielder Tyler Henson can't bear to watch any more.
Pigs right fielder Tyler Henson can’t bear to watch any more.
PawSox outfielder Bryce Brentz is the hero, having hit a grand slam. The Pigs' shortstop appears to be kicking the dirt in frustration.
PawSox outfielder Bryce Brentz is the hero, having hit a grand slam. The Pigs’ shortstop appears to be kicking the dirt in frustration.
A group of schoolkids from -- Lower Saucon? Macungie? Emmaus? -- glows in the stands like a cluster of pale tulips.
A group of schoolkids from — Lower Saucon? Macungie? Emmaus? — glows in the stands like a cluster of pale tulips.
I took this picture for Pigs center fielder Tyson Gillies' facemask. I didn't even notice left fielder Clete Thomas in mid-squat at top right. It was the sort of day where you're willing to look ridiculous if it means staying warm.
I took this picture for Pigs center fielder Tyson Gillies’ facemask. I didn’t even notice left fielder Clete Thomas performing some sort of baroque squat at top right. It was the sort of day where you’re willing to look ridiculous if it means staying warm.
The Pigs' Phillippe Aumont works to the plate amidst visible rain.
The Pigs’ Phillippe Aumont works to the plate amidst visible rain.

 

Part of the community.

The Lehigh Valley IronPigs’ sixth season is over, and I went to the ballpark today to watch it go.

It was a stiflingly humid afternoon, and the IronPigs mustered only two hits against a revolving brigade of Pawtucket Red Sox pitchers.

They lost 4-0 and finished the year at 72-72 — a step down from their playoff appearance under Ryne Sandberg a year or two back, but a step up from their laughable early years under Dave Huppert.

See you in April.

Current manager Dave Brundage brings none of Sandberg’s celebrity to the job, but seems to fulfill the basic demands placed on him — to keep his team competitive (it was only eliminated from playoff contention a few days ago) while keeping his most attractive spare parts sharp enough for recall to Philly at a moment’s notice.

The low-key Brundage may be the definitive figurehead for this team at this point in time.

The IronPigs are no longer the new show in town, no longer driven by novelty or celebrity. They’re an everyday part of the community now, as entrenched as Martin Tower, as familiar as Wawa.

I couldn’t pretend to guess the number of households in the Lehigh Valley that have some sort of IronPigs tchotchke, T-shirt or photo from the team’s countless giveaways and events. If you have a kid and/or any interest in sports, the IronPigs have reached you somehow. They are a presence.

(Two floors up, my younger son is trying to get to sleep for tomorrow’s school day as I write this. FErrous, one of the team’s two pig mascots, is gazing across the room at him from his place on a plastic light-switch switchplate. FErrous, FeFe, Hambone and their ilk will be generational touchstones for 21st-century kids growing up in eastern Pennsylvania.)

The product on the field has also gone from novel to familiar. While some might argue with me, my sense is that the starpower of seeing baseball “one step beneath the big leagues” has faded since the team’s early days.

Seeing major-league stars on rehab assignments, while still cool, is no longer a can’t-miss event in the Lehigh Valley. They show up, sign a few autographs, hit a few doubles and go back up again. We’re used to it now.

As for the guys who play here every day, relatively few have been genuine prospects. The majority seem to be guys who snuck in a couple big-league games a few years ago and are still grinding it out because, hey, you never know when the bell might ring.

Today's starting pitcher, Greg Smith, has an 8-18 major-league record and is three years removed from his last big-league appearance.
Today’s starting pitcher, Greg Smith, has an 8-18 major-league record and is three years removed from his last big-league appearance.

I imagine the IronPigs’ current community status is both a blessing and a curse for team officials.

It’s a blessing to have gained that kind of foothold, proven the value and appeal of the product, and ranked among the top minor-league teams in attendance year after year.

(When the team was first announced, anonymous trolls commenting on news stories repeatedly claimed the Lehigh Valley would never support minor league baseball; “IronPigs” was a dumb name; and the team was doomed to fail. It gives me personal pleasure to think of those people now. Presumably every report of a sellout crowd, and every sighting of someone wearing an IronPigs cap, brings some acid to their gizzards.)

It’s a curse because no entertainment-based business wants to reach a stable, bland, just-part-of-the-scenery status. That’s when people stop going.

The IronPigs appear to be fighting that with all the energy they can muster. The team promotes unrelentingly. Earlier this season, it made national news by giving away a funeral to the winner of an essay contest.

At the game, they’ve added new seating areas to their (still-young) ballpark for sponsorship opportunities, and looked for other new touches to keep appearances fresh from year to year.

A giant Martin guitar appeared in right field this year, because … well, not for any baseball-related reason, but because C.F. Martin and Co. is a Lehigh Valley company, and why not have something else eye-catching at the park?

The giant Martin is dimly visible at top left.
The tortoiseshell pickguard of the giant Martin is visible at top left.

I find that incessant promotion to be off-putting. From foul balls to stolen bases, there is no on-the-field event that can’t be farmed out to a sponsor.

I long for minor-league ball the way it used to be, when breaks in the action could actually be used to talk about the game at a reasonable conversational volume, and nobody minded a team playing an entire season with only one home uniform design.

But I recognize that heavy promotion is the way minor-league baseball is played in the 21st century — and it’s the way the team stays fresh.

Every time someone tells their co-worker or classmate, “I went to the IronPigs last night and you’ll never guess what they’re doing this year!,” that’s gold.

It is the IronPigs’ challenge to be familiar but not boring; omnipresent but not lulling; rooted but not predictable.  I look forward to seeing how they manage that over the next five or 10 years.

And I wish them well. Even on the loudest, most relentlessly gimmicky day they’ve ever had, they’re still an asset to the community, and the Lehigh Valley is a better place for their existence.

As the scoreboard shown above says, next Opening Day will be April 7, 2014.

I probably won’t be there for that, but I will be there at least a couple times next season to cheer the close plays, marvel at the home runs — and, yes, at least to some small extent, to see what the IronPigs have pulled out of their sleeves this time around.

Glove story.

Went to my first minor-league game of the year yesterday and saw Domonic Brown go deep.

Domonic Brown is a young outfielder who has been a hotly touted Phillies prospect for what seems like years and years and years.

Until he gets it together at the big-league level, we are catching his act here in the Lehigh Valley … and yesterday he hit a bullet into the right-field standing-room area, and made a sweet diving catch to boot.

Maybe I’ll tell someone I saw that, someday.

You never know what kind of future star you’ll learn about at a minor-league ballgame. It was at a minor-league game six summers ago that I first heard about a megastar whose name you all know.

I didn’t actually get to see her play, though.

(Yes, I said “her.”)

This is the front of the Class AA Reading Phillies game program for the homestand of August 18-20, 2006.

On the cover is J.A. Happ, a crafty lefthander who, judging from his recent performance, is being forced by the Houston Astros to pitch in the big leagues against his will:

 

 

And this is the inside front cover, featuring an ad for an aspiring young singer born in Reading, pursuing a career in Nashville, and beseeching the hometown folks to request her first single on the radio.

None other than Taylor Swift, who has since gone on to sell something like 22 million albums and win a shelfload of music awards.

In the summer of 2006 she was just starting to get known outside Baseballtown, thanks to that first single.

She released her first album two months after I went to the game, and it went platinum five times over. By the time spring training of 2007 rolled around, she no longer needed to advertise in Reading Phillies game programs to get her songs played on the radio.

I had not heard her song(s) when I went to Reading, but I was dimly aware that she was local. (Or had been local. She’d moved to Nashville by 2006 but was apparently still courting her hometown roots.)

A country singer from Berks County, I thought. Yeah, that’ll go far.

Clearly, I am not a talent scout — not in country music, and not in baseball either.

So, while Domonic Brown impressed me yesterday, he may have some work to do before he — like Taylor Swift — can leave minor-league game-day programs behind forever.