Cover Story

College Try

Holyoke Blue Sox Reach for the (Future) Stars

COVER0414aHunter Golden is living the baseball dream. A dream that seemed unattainable when he actually, you know, played the game.

“I was a terrible baseball player. I was a pretty good athlete, but a terrible baseball player,” he said of his days in youth sports. “I wasn’t bad — I was brutal. I felt bad for my parents having to watch.”

Which is why his new role — as general manager of the Holyoke Blue Sox, hired last year by the team’s new owner, Clark Eckhoff — is more than a little surprising.

“Baseball has always been this mistress of mine since I was young,” Golden said. “It’s weird — baseball was always a source of conflict in my life. My dad was a diehard Yankee fan and owned season tickets; I was a Red Sox fan. My dad was great at baseball, and I stunk. I mean, I was indescribably bad, but I was always chasing it, trying to beat it.”

is ascension from sports blogger to upper management of a team in the New England Collegiate Baseball League (more on that later) is just one of many brainstorms wrought by Eckhoff, who previously owned the Wausau (Wisconsin) Woodchucks of the Northwoods League for 13 years, and was looking for a change when he bought the Blue Sox last summer.

“I saw this as a huge opportunity, based on the market and the great baseball culture here,” Eckhoff told BusinessWest. “My wife likes the New York area and the East Coast, and all our kids are in college but one, so we saw it as a different challenge, a new adventure. We’re going to grow this thing, and it’s something that’ll be really special for fans throughout the Pioneer Valley.”

To do that will require a significant boost in the team’s profile. “The biggest thing is, you have to promote the product. A lot of people in the Valley don’t even know we’re here,” he said.

MacKenzie Stadium

MacKenzie Stadium, adjacent to Holyoke High School, has been the Blue Sox’ home since 2007, and will host the NECBL All-Star Game in July.

“We’ve got to get people exposed to the product and see how affordable it is,” he continued. “Not only that, but our players are accessible; you can get autographs. Hey, your son might be getting the autograph of a future major-league baseball player. The product is very good, but we’ve got to bring it all together.”

The summer league — which attracts elite collegiate players from across the U.S. to play a 44-game schedule from June into August — has plenty to recommend it, Eckhoff said. “We’re getting the best kids in the country, but we also make it about entertainment, with giveaways and on-field promotions. In minor-league baseball, 80% of the fan base is coming out for an affordable family night.”

He and Golden believe that fan base is largely untapped — after all, Springfield remains the largest metro area in the country without a professional baseball team — and have some ambitious plans to make the Blue Sox more of a household name.

Cream of the Crop

Peruse the 30-man Blue Sox roster, Golden said, and you’ll see schools like Cal State-Fullerton, Miami, Vanderbilt, and other top baseball universities represented.

BlueSoxAllStarLogo“They’re the cream of the crop, the best guys out there,” he said, noting that two of the last five number-one major-league draft picks — Stephen Strasburg in 2009 and Mark Appel in 2013 — played in the New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL), as did notable lights like Andre Ethier, Andrew Bailey, Joe Nathan, Craig Breslow, Chris Ianetta, and scores of others.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for these guys to really showcase their talent in a professional setting. Major League Baseball is a big believer in our product and the caliber of players we bring,” he said. “Watch the College World Series, and chances are you’ll see half our roster.”

This year, the team is heavily promoting catcher Max Pentecost, a Kennesaw State University junior who’s projected as an eventual first-round, top-20 major-league draft pick. “That’s how good these guys are. They’re no joke. We see 19-year-olds throwing in the mid-90s, hitting the ball 400-plus feet. They’re prodigies, and this is where they come to showcase themselves.”

Pentecost played for the Blue Sox in 2012 before spending last summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League, one of Holyoke’s main competitors for talent. But Golden noted that, while the CCBL may be a higher-profile league, the NECBL, with its longer road trips, offers an experience more reflective of the minor-league life. “We sell that to the players — it’s more of an opportunity to come and develop themselves professionally.”

And the professional baseball life is, despite its perceived glamor factor, a real job, he explained. “These guys get to the clubhouse at 9 in the morning, and they’re reading scouting reports, data reports, understanding the math, learning the pitching staff, how fast they throw, each pitcher’s arm slot — they’ve got to memorize all that stuff. They deal with injuries, they deal with the media … there’s a lot in a baseball player’s day.”

Other collegiate summer leagues across the country offer bigger stadiums and more fans, which can be seductive, but the NECBL has a reputation for taking seriously the job of preparing young men for professional ball — and the risk that career path entails.

“A lot of these kids turned down a lot of money to stay in college and get their degree. They’re coming to a collegiate league to advance their career and work toward a college degree,” Eckhoff said — a smart move for most, he added, since only 3% of all players who enter professional ball ever reach the majors. “It’s smart to at least graduate before entering the minor leagues; it’s a tough road.”

If the Blue Sox do their job with scouting, he added, fans will see more than one future major leaguer in action. As for recruiting, he said he enjoys the networking side of that important task.

“With me being older, it’s easier for me to pick up the phone,” he said. “I know the coaches at Fullerton, Stanford, Oregon, and the coaches trust me; we have a good relationship. They know the kids will have good host families and will be taken care of well.”

Those families, who volunteer to share their homes with the collegiates, are a key component in the success of a team, Eckhoff added. “I knew a lady in Wisconsin who hosted three or four players a year, over 18 or 19 years. She had a wall with [photos of] 70-something players who stayed with her. She stayed in touch with them, even flew to a wedding in Texas. That was incredible. It almost becomes like an extended family.”

Blogger Rhythm

Meanwhile, Golden’s path to professional baseball came through a relationship not with coaches and players, but with numbers.

After his washout as a player, he found some measure of satisfaction in sabermetrics, an innovative way to analyze a baseball player’s potential by crunching his in-game performance into, essentially, hard math. While Michael Lewis’s bestseller Moneyball brought the concept into the mainstream, a core of number crunchers led by the original sabermetrician, Bill James — whose newsletters Golden read meticulously — had long been touting new ways to measure performance.

Clark Eckhoff

Clark Eckhoff says his goal is to spread the word about the high quality of play and affordability of a Blue Sox game — and he’s confident that people will come.

That was a little odd, Golden conceded, since, as a child, he was a straight-A student — except in math, where he earned Ds. “Essentially, I got involved in two things I wasn’t good at — baseball and math — but they coalesced because of Bill James.”

In terms of impact, Moneyball was a “nuclear bomb” on the baseball-management scene, he said, although Athletics GM Billy Beane, the focus of that book, was hardly the first to put sabermetrics into practice. “But he was one of the first to be vocal about it and be successful with it.”

After graduating from Springfield College, Golden launched his own copywriting business, which morphed into a marketing consultancy, working with several national clients. But because he was passionate about baseball and sabermetrics, he started a blog on those topics in 2007.

“My friends really liked it,” he said. “Then Twitter came around, and Twitter turned into a gigantic barroom for baseball dorks. One thing led to another, and my work got noticed by ESPN, which had me come on board with their SweetSpot blog.” Appearances on outlets like the Sports Hub radio station in Boston raised his profile further, which attracted the attention of Eckhoff, who asked Golden to serve on a community-advisory board after he purchased the Blue Sox.

“He heard about me through the grapevine of local baseball dorks and brought me to the table,” Golden said. “We hit it off, and after three or four conversations, we got together for lunch, and he offered me the job.”

It was a big deal, he added, because the world of baseball management, a classic old-boys network, is a notoriously tough nut to crack for job seekers. “I always thought of the MLB employment site as a place they just stash résumés.

“It’s weird, though; once you’re in, you’re in,” he added, recalling sitting down in Dallas and chatting with former Yankees bullpen coach Dom Scala — who told stories about Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, fights in the locker room, and humorous run-ins with George Steinbrenner — like the two were old pals.

And he loved this world, dealing for the first time with flesh-and-blood players and not just numbers — and in a much different way than, say, the management of the Springfield Falcons, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“I think where we’re different — and, from a greedy standpoint, where it’s fun for me — is that we have a significant baseball-operations component to what we do,” Golden said. “With the Falcons, the Blue Jackets say, ‘here are your players; don’t break ’em.’ Ultimately, at the end of the day, the parent club dictates who the players are going to be. Here, we identify and recruit players we like for next year’s team, and our roster turns over year after year. We’re constantly in player-acquisition and analysis mode based on objective data, sabermetrics, and scouting.

“The challenge in this league is to win now; we have to get players who are good now,” he added. “It’s very easy to get seduced by prospects with a little more talent, who may be better off down the line.”

Even some very good players, unfortunately, reach their end in college, never even making it to single-A ball. “A lot of kids come here batting .340 in college and can’t hit with wood bats, and their career goes up in smoke,” Eckhoff said. “It happens. One kid came in and lost 140 points in one year.”

Race to the Top

The key to the team’s success, Golden said, is to take player development seriously, but also understand that families that show up at MacKenzie Stadium, near Holyoke High School, want to have a good — even silly — time.

“Our core product is baseball, but really, at the end of the day, we’re family entertainment,” he told BusinessWest. “We have the goofy promotions — the dizzy bat races, the sausage races — but also serious stuff, like recognizing community heroes and a Rays of Hope night. Just like a minor-league franchise, that’s ultimately what fans come back to see.”

Families with children are a key demographic, he said. “It’s expensive to see the Boston Red Sox. Between tickets and parking, before you even get in the park, you’re out $150 for a family of four. Then it’s $50, $75, maybe $100 more to feed everybody, then you drive all the way home.”

With Blue Sox tickets priced at $4 and $6, it’s a more manageable financial proposition. “You can bring $35 bucks to the park and have a really great time with your family,” Golden said. “We’re even cheaper than the movies, and you can be outside talking to each other. It’s an outstanding value for families.”

Meanwhile, the team is making an effort to be more visible in, and involved with, the community. “We’re working closely with area nonprofit organizations. We want to bring as many to the park as possible this year, and have ballplayers and the mascot at events. We’re going to have a nonprofit or two at the stadium every game this season. The community impact that has is substantial.”

The team is planning to get kids involved more as well, bringing them on the field for the national anthem, making players accessible for autographs, and conducting a summer baseball clinic.

In another move that makes sense in Holyoke, Golden said, “we’re aggressively courting the Hispanic and Latino market, which, from a sports standpoint, has gone mostly untapped here. That’s a baseball-crazy culture, and we’ve got a great opportunity to market to them.”

Whoever comes to the games, the idea is to show them a good time, Eckhoff said. “Every home game, we’ll have a different promotion, whether it’s a T-shirt giveaway or a bobblehead or something else. And our concession prices are more affordable. We’ll have dollar-hot-dog nights.”

He recalled one promotion in Wausau called the ‘chicken chuck,’ where fans tried to toss a rubber chicken back and forth and catch it in a frying pan. “You have 90 seconds between half-innings to show them something enjoyable; it could be a T-shirt toss or a chicken chuck. And they remember that.”

Added Golden, “if you wait two weeks after a game and ask a fan who attended the game what he remembers, it won’t be the players or the score, but they will remember the chicken chuck.”

Eckhoff was doing something right in Wisconsin. When he bought the Woodchucks in 1999, the team was drawing some 600 fans per night. By his 10th year, attendance averaged 2,000. He attributes that to the team getting the word out about the quality of play — about 15 of his players eventually made the majors, including Ben Zobrist — but the fun factor as well.

Stars Aligned

The New England Collegiate Baseball League has experienced similar growth since its founding in 1993 by former MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent. It began with four teams and eventually expanded to 12.

“That’s slow, sustainable growth,” Golden said. “That’s playing for the long game, and the caliber of baseball has continually gotten better over the years. More than 150 major-league players have come through the league, the lion’s share in the last 10 years.”

The Blue Sox, who began in 2001 as the Concord (N.H.) Quarry Dogs before relocating to Holyoke in 2007, have seen ups and downs of their own, but the new ownership believes a largely untapped base of potential fans is waiting to support quality summer baseball in the Valley — and that attendance, currently averaging about 1,000 per game, will follow. Hosting the league’s All-Star Game on July 20 is just one more draw.

“Our goal this year is to establish a real, genuine presence in the region and let people know we’re here,” Golden said. “We’re committed to the region, and we’re going to make this thing work.”

In the end, the numbers won’t lie. They never do. Just ask any sabermetrics dork.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]