Dayton Dragons Breaking Records

This story is from Senior MLB Writer Tom Krasovic: If you havent been to a game there they are doing it correctly. It is great stadium to watch a minor league game. And believe me, Dayton is no vacation destination. But, its nice to see them getting a little attention in the national media.

DAYTON, Ohio — If you build it here, they will not come.

That’s what ballpark planner Robert Murphy was told 11 years ago.

Skeptics here in Dayton saw no future for the minor-league baseball team and ballpark that Murphy was proposing for their troubled city, population 160,000.

How the Midwesterners saw it, the business man from the West was blowing sunshine. A ballpark with fancy suites? On a weedy parking lot? In their decaying, Rust Belt city? A mere hour from a major league club in Cincinnati?

Cue shaking heads.

“When I gave speeches, people would tell me not to do it,” said Murphy, a middle-aged man with bright eyes. “They said, ‘People have not come downtown in over 20 years. What makes you think they are going to come downtown to watch baseball? They don’t want to park here. They don’t like to walk. They don’t think it’s safe.’

“I’d call my wife back in Las Vegas and say, ‘My gosh, what have we done?'”

Turns out, Murphy and the locals who supported him hit a grand slam. And the ball is still soaring.

The Dayton Dragons have sold out every game since the club’s debut in 2000. With the longest active sellout streak (768) in U.S. professional sports, the Dragons are bearing down on the U.S. record of 814 set by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers.

“We should pass that around the beginning of July next year,” said Murphy, adding that 9,000 people wanting to buy season tickets are on a waiting list.

Dayton may not have much else to offer on a summer night. The ballpark is a beacon, the Single-A games there only a part of the draw. Even when the Dragons lost 24 consecutive home games this summer, all 8,500 tickets were sold. Hundreds of the seats were unoccupied in many games, but the sellout streak rolled on.

“I wouldn’t say winning is immaterial to the fans here,” said Dragons manager Todd Benzinger, “but there are other factors to the streak. It’s a great ballpark, first of all. Second, the atmosphere is second to none. It’s very, very fan friendly.”

A Daytonian long ago, West Coast Bias visited recently to see the ballpark and the supposedly crummy ballclub here. I saw the Dragons sock two home runs and beat Cleveland’s affiliate, the Lake County Captains. Fifty-three days separated the home victories. After fans excited by the skid-stopper sent them off with a standing ovation, Dragons players looked as giddy as the Reds in 1990, when Cincinnati won the World Series with the final out going into Benzinger’s glove.

“Thanks for breaking the streak,” Dragons third baseman Frank Pfister told me.

“You’ve got stay here now that you’ve brought us luck,” said a Dragons broadcaster, inducing a nervous smile.

Dayton is dying if you believe Forbes magazine, which listed Dayton and three other Ohio towns among America’s 10 “Fastest-Dying Cities.” Gloomy as it was, the article, written in 2008, didn’t anticipate the next blow that Dayton was soon to absorb. A powerful corporation, NCR, whose bond with Dayton began in 1884, transferred the bulk of its headquarters to greater Atlanta last year. As it was, Dayton, battered by the decline of the U.S. auto industry, had lost about seven percent of its population in the 2000s.

In a fading city, why was baseball thriving? That’s what I wondered.

Bottom line, nothing told me by Dragons fans or employees yielded a definitive answer.

Yes, the ballpark is a gem, breathing life and color into an urban block near drab neighborhoods and busted-up streets. Ticket prices that average $9.50 are reasonable, the sights and sounds pleasant. It’s easy to exhale here.

The team gift shop was as busy as a hive, attracting children, adults and seniors. Children grabbed stuffed Dragons, or pointed to shirts bearing the ubiquitous Dragon. Wisely, when the club created a logo, it commissioned the same folks who drew up logos for the NHL’s San Jose Sharks. The result was a sinister Dragon, green and black. “Great colors, huh?” said Murphy, the team’s president.

“It’s something to be proud of. It’s a good, family atmosphere. You can bring your wife and kids here, and you don’t feel like there’s a lot of shenanigans. The place is clean.”
— Dayton Dragons fan Bob Chance on why he attends games Dragons aren’t part of Dayton lore, and Murphy isn’t sure how the name was chosen, only that the club wanted to create a distinct identity.

T-shirts bearing the Dragon are the team’s most popular item, said a lady who works at the team’s gift store.

Between innings, children danced on the dugout. Two Dragon mascots yukked it up. Elsewhere, ushers smiled and concessions workers promptly asked what you wanted.

That’s generally how it goes at minor league parks. The fan experience in Dayton, Murphy said, is pretty much the same as at a handful of minor league ballparks in Pennsylvania, New York and Texas that are owned or operated by the same company that owns and operates the Dragons. All the others are doing well, Murphy said, but none quite as well as the Dragons, who ranked 10th in a Sports Illustrated article rating the toughest tickets in American sports. Beyond the sellouts, the Dragons are consistently among the Top 20 minor-league clubs in merchandise sold.

“It’s got to be the promotions,” said Joe Sambito, a former major league pitcher.

As a player agent, Sambito travels to several minor-league ballparks and Sunday in Dayton stood on the concourse behind home plate, watching the Dragons thump the Captains for their second win in a row. Sambito said he likes the Dayton ballpark, but the vibe and the visuals are similar to most of the other ballparks he visits. The previous day he was in Greenville, S.C. He gushed about the ballpark there.

Said Murphy: “No. 1, we have the best fans in the country.”

Fans I talked to at Sunday’s game seemingly all read from the same brochure when asked about the sellout streak. They liked the entertainment, the customer service, the ballpark, the prices. A few mentioned the allure of seeing Reds prospects who someday, like Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns and Jay Bruce before them, will go on to play in Cincinnati.

Other said it just felt right to go to the games.