Goldeyes changing with the times
Local ball club celebrating 30 years of success
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Sam Katz admits the idea was straight out of left field, with plenty of naysayers telling him there’s no chance professional baseball would last around here.
In those early days, when his Winnipeg Goldeyes began to swim upstream in 1994 playing out of a makeshift park inside a cavernous football stadium, with some players bunking in his basement owing to a lack of billets and to keep costs down, Katz himself had doubts.
“They say you’re crazy. That it’s never going to work,” Katz told the Free Press this week in a wide-ranging chat. “I might have agreed with that. We somehow overcame it. And now, 30 years later, I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
Not only did they survive, they have thrived, becoming one of the most successful independent baseball franchises in North America with their own little field of dreams down at The Forks.
Katz built it (in 1999), and they have come.
Now, as the Fish get set for a milestone season, a reflective Katz is hoping the organization can be around for the next three decades so another generation of fans can enjoy the fruits of his labour.
It’s not going to be easy.
The sport itself is sagging in popularity at all levels of play, especially among younger spectators who may not have the time, or patience, to invest. That’s a big problem. A loyal but aging core of supporters can only take you so far.
The pandemic didn’t help, especially for an organization such as the Goldeyes which has no lucrative broadcasting contract to sustain any losses at the box office. Nor did playing the entire 2020 campaign on the road, and the majority of 2021 in enemy territory as well.
Last year, Winnipeg averaged 3,414 for 48 games at Shaw Park. That ranked third, out of 12 teams, in the American Association. The Goldeyes drew a league-high 5,880 a decade ago, and the numbers have slowly been coming down ever since.
“I can tell you it’s still extremely challenging, and we’re still trying to get back on our feet,” said Katz.
“I think we’re going to start getting larger groups back (this season) which is a large part of any professional sports franchise. We’re hoping that’ll come back. But the bottom line is, it’s someone’s disposable income and you’ve got to work hard and give them a good reason to spend that on your product. That’s all we can do.”
Competition for those dollars has never been stiffer in this market. The Jets, Moose and Ice are the three-headed hockey monster, the Blue Bombers are a box-office smash, and Valour FC and the soon-to-debut Sea Bears are the latest entries on the sports scene.
“You’re also competing with entertainment. You’ve got concerts, you’ve got ballet, you’ve got festivals. There is no shortage of things to do in Winnipeg,” said Katz.
The key, he says, is to give people plenty of bang for their buck. And that’s where baseball has been falling short across the board.
Fortunately, executives have recognized these issues and taken steps to address them. And we’re going to see the biggest change of all — the pitch clock — on full display here in Winnipeg as the American Association follows the lead of MLB.
That’s a home run. Games have simply become too long, too tedious, with not nearly enough action as pitchers and batters often engaged in a silly game of chicken in which fans were the ultimate losers. The early returns are terrific, with approximately 30 minutes saved per game so far this season, along with more balls in play and action.
“I happen to think that is a wonderful, wonderful thing,” said Katz. “To me, long overdue, enthusiastically supported by the entire league, every single owner and the commissioner was all over it.”
The Goldeyes have tried to adapt with the times, including bringing in the popular craft beer corner, providing elaborate post-game fireworks at select games (including after the home opener on May 19) and introducing numerous theme nights that are a hit, from “bark at the park” to “Zombie night” and beyond.
This year, in honour of their 30th anniversary season, they’ll honour arguably the greatest to ever put on a Goldeyes uniform in former major-leaguer Reggie Abercrombie. His jersey will retired on Aug. 11, with fans in attendance getting a personalized bobblehead of the now-retired outfielder.
“You have to love Reggie. You have to love the way he played the game, the way he performed, the way he took care of himself, the way he interacted with fans,” said Katz.
“He’s a very special human being, a very special athlete.”
One of the unique things about the Goldeyes is the family atmosphere they have built, with many full and part-time employees returning year after year, even as the onfield lineup is routinely turned over due to the transient nature of independent baseball, where many players are hoping for another chance to latch on with an MLB organization.
That makes year-to-year success tough to predict. Katz admits this coming season is even more mysterious than usual. Gone is long-time manager Rick Forney, who took a job closer to home in the Atlantic League following 26 years with the organization, including the past 17 as skipper.
Taking his place is veteran Greg Tagert, the former longtime manager of the Gary Southshore Railcats. He follows in the big cleats of Forney, Hal Lanier and Doug Simunic. Katz believes the team is in very good hands, with general manager Andrew Collier continuing in his very successful role as well.
“We’ve basically had three coaches in 30 years and now we have a very classy individual (in Tagert),” said Katz.
“It’ll be different. But ultimately, the Goldeyes tradition remains the same of putting the best product on the field and going out there to win every game and make the playoffs. And, if all goes well, win the championship.”
They’ve got four of those so far, in the debut season of 1994 (in the former Northern League), and a trio of American Association ones in 2012, 2016 and 2017.
And some said it wouldn’t last. Talk about a swing and a miss.
“Everything seems to have turned out and I’m very happy and proud of where we’re at right now,” said Katz.
“I guess the next big challenge is continuing to be there. For my children when they grow up. Only time will tell but that would be special.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Thursday, May 4, 2023 6:47 PM CDT: Fixes spelling of Greg Tagert.
Updated on Friday, May 5, 2023 10:42 AM CDT: Removes Opinion tag