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Syracuse Chiefs

For over 12 years now, readers of “Table Hopping” have turned to this column to see what films are worth going to the theaters to see, and which ones are best left ignored. I will be getting back to business as usual in the next issue, but with summer coming to a close, I wanted to take a moment and reflect on a local organization that has provided my family and I with hours of entertainment over the past few months.

Growing up in Central New York during the 80’s and 90’s, there was no bigger and better draw in town than the Syracuse Chiefs. Sure, you could go to the Camillus Mall and pump a fistful of quarters into the machines at Aladdin’s Castle, but there was nothing quite like the thrill of going to a ball game at MacArthur Stadium.

My parents used to take me to the games at least an hour before the first pitch, because there was no doubt that I’d rack up a few more signatures on my well-worn mitt. I would clap along with Fogarty’s “Centerfield”, bust out the Pee-Wee Herman dance to “Tequila,” and I would shout “STUUUUUUUUUUUUU” at the top of my lungs with the rest of the crowd, as fan-favorite Stu Pederson came up to bat. I still think back lovingly to the night that we spent a 2-hour rain delay under the old metal canopy, singing along with strangers and cheering as the groundsmen tried in vain to keep the field covered.

SyrChiefs aug2015Despite these glory days, admittedly, the experience of watching the Chiefs began to lose its luster. MacArthur Stadium was reduced to rubble in 1997, and it is fair to say that the club’s new home, P&C Stadium (in all of its artificially turfed glory) simply lacked the magic that seemed to flow so effortlessly through MacArthur. It didn’t help that the team had its share of losing seasons, but the spreading indifference went well beyond tallies in the wins and losses columns. Somehow, the entertainment value dissipated, and in a busy modern world, people, including myself, simply found other things to do.

This terrible tide began to change, however, when Jason Smorol took over the team as General Manager in 2013. I vividly remember turning on the “Bud and the Manchild” radio show on 1260 AM, and hearing Mr. Smorol giving one of his first interviews in Syracuse. The exuberance, passion, and optimism he projected was infectious. It was obvious that he grasped a novel concept that had been forgotten in this town long ago; Baseball is supposed to be fun. There is a reason that it has long been considered our National Pastime. There are very few things that can compare to going out to the ballpark as a family on a warm summer’s night, witnessing professional athletes performing at their highest levels, and taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the glorious game.

The 2014 season was a colossal success, both on the field and off.  The Chiefs posted their best record in 25 years and fans flocked to see their team’s return to prominence.  With a multitude of promotions and events, NBT Bank Stadium became a premiere source of summer entertainment in Syracuse.  At the team’s 2015 Hot Stove Dinner, Mr. Smorol proclaimed that this was just the first step in a grand resurgence.  Speaking to a packed house at the Oncenter, he implored everyone to help spread the word about the renaissance occurring at the stadium.  He stated that he knew everyone in attendance was “on board” (this was to be the slogan for the 2015 season), but it was up to us to introduce new fans to the team, and more importantly, to the Chiefs experience.  I will readily admit that I was riveted by Smorol’s speech, and felt, just as I’m sure everyone else did, that he was speaking directly to me.  Obviously, his impassioned plea worked, as evidenced by this very column.

On Sunday, May 24 of this year, my wife and I took our two children, ages 6 and 3, to see the Chiefs take on the Indianapolis Indians. Not only did we watch as Paolo Espino became the first Syracuse pitcher in 3 years to hit a dinger at NBT Bank Stadium, but because every Sunday is Family Fun Day, my kids’ admission was free, and at the conclusion of the game, they had the opportunity to go down onto the field, and run a lap around the bases.  As legions of beaming children sprinted around the diamond, Mr. Smorol supplied jovial commentary and even interviewed some of the runners after they crossed home plate. As fans exited the park after a spectacular fireworks display, Mr. Smorol was standing at the front gate, shaking hands, thanking everyone for coming, and providing tenacious high-five’s to both of my delighted children.  In all of my years of attending professional sporting events, I had never seen anything quite like it. The most surprising thing about this, was that it was not an anomaly. At every single home game, you will see Mr. Smorol doing the same exact thing. Unlike management in the past, he has taken a much more hands-on approach to the team. “I feel that the Chiefs need a face.” says Smorol. “Since our players by the nature of the game are not here consistently, the face of the franchise must be someone who is here all the time.  That boils it down to Scooch, Pops and me.  Scooch and Pops don’t talk.”

SyracuseChiefs-logo This was the first of many games we have attended so far this season, and it has been one of the great joys of my life to watch my children fall in love with the game that has always meant so much to me. Though the Chiefs record may not be on par with the magical playoff run they had last year, it is still the best ticket in town.  This is due, in large part, to the fact that Mr. Smorol and every member of the Chiefs organization, has done their part to create an affordable, family-friendly atmosphere.  This is done in a variety of ways, including providing unique promotions virtually every night. Most of these have been met with great enthusiasm. According to Mr. Smorol, “Our most successful promotion is $1.00 Thursday. This promotion gives families another affordable option. You can bring your family of four for less than $30, get tickets, park, hot dogs, beer, soda and still have change. Oh, and you get to see all the fun that the Chiefs bring to a game. We have one $1.00 Thursday in August, it will be a great night. Bob Antonacci for County Comptroller is sponsoring the night and he is bringing in the Racing Presidents from the Washington Nationals. We will also be raising money and awareness for St. Baldrick’s that night.”

Aside from Dollar Thursdays, the Chiefs also feature specials such as Two-for-Tuesday (select concessions items are buy one, get one free), Fireworks Friday, Super Saturday (giveaways, autograph signings, and fireworks) and the aforementioned Family Sunday. The Chiefs also host many “themed” events.  It’s not in every city that you can walk into a baseball park and enjoy (or take part in) the delightful absurdity of Mullet Night, Ugly Sweater Day, “Back to the Future” Night, or Superhero Day.  I, for one, am counting down the days until August 16, because “Star Wars” Day will undoubtedly be a blast. 

What do any of these promotions have to do with baseball, you ask?  On the surface, not a whole lot.  It does, however, have everything to do with entertainment.  While it may be difficult to measure the level of fun that patrons are having, the Chiefs play-by-play man Kevin Brown has noticed a discernible difference in the attitudes of the fans over the past two seasons.  “There’s been an amazing uptick in general happiness,” says Brown.  “Just about everyone who comes to a game leaves with something positive to say or a smile on his or her face.  Fans have noticed the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the running of a minor league baseball team every day, and vocally appreciated the work the folks here are doing.”  Brown, along with his broadcasting partner Eric Gallanty, do their part to provide entertainment for supporters who aren’t able to attend every game. Every pitch, hit, and run of each Chiefs game is broadcast over the airwaves of 1260 AM, and Brown and Gallanty are there to describe it all.  While deftly painting the picture of the events that are unfolding on the field, the duo toss around enough pop culture references and deadpan humor to keep even the most casual of fans entertained.   

Like any broadcaster, Mr. Brown has a unique perspective when it comes to the International League.  Traveling to places such as Rochester, Buffalo, Pawtucket, Louisville, Scranton, and Durham, he has first-hand knowledge as to the atmosphere that surrounds each and every park.  “I believe you can measure our energy and fan interaction with any other.” Brown says.  “Jason Smorol will stand at the exit and greet fans as they leave the park.  He’ll walk around and talk to people during the games.”   He goes on to say, “When the Chiefs start to rally, our staff and interns are on the dugout, pumping our crowds up and imploring our fans to be as loud as possible.  I’ve been to parks that have 10,000 fans that aren’t as loud as ours is with 4,000.  The folks here are genuine baseball fans.”

When asked why he believes fans should come out to catch a game, Brown succinctly describes his feelings.  “I’m a baseball purist.  I’ll always believe that people should come to the park because you’ll see something you’ve never seen at a baseball game every time you come to the park.  In terms of our park, I think folks should come to be part of an amazing communal experience.  The energy, excitement and improvisational nature of a Chiefs baseball game make it worth your while, no matter

what the weather.  Every person can always feel like he or she has been part of something special.” With these words, Brown encapsulates the feelings that many have after going to a Chiefs game. It also echoes the sentiment that Mr. Smorol feels is fundamental to the success of the team. “It’s not the same old Chiefs,” Smorol says. “We have changed the atmosphere and want you to come and see us. It is a wacky, fun place to bring your friends and family. We are the most affordable sports entertainment in town. In my obviously biased opinion, we are also the most fun. The best compliment I think I ever received was a few weeks ago from one of the visiting teams. They told me that if they had kids, they would bring them to a Chiefs game. Of all the parks in the league, they thought we were the most fun. We are fun, we are affordable and we have something for everyone. I hope everyone in the county comes to visit us one time and see for themselves.”

This, in my opinion, is proof that Smorol, Brown, and the entire organization understands that the experience transcends the sport. Whether you are a die-hard baseball fan or not is inconsequential.  There is no doubt that when you step through the gates, you are hoping for a win for the home team, (Smorol says of his squad, “This year, while we have not been winning games, the team has always been competitive. In the beginning of the year, we could not catch a break and had some other issues. The Nationals never gave up, major changes were made, and we are playing very good baseball right now. I expect us to have a winning record for the second half of the year.”) But here in Syracuse, this shouldn’t be the only thing that matters.  We have all made the choice to live in an area that receives more snow than outsiders could ever dream of, and the bitter cold slices like a knife for virtually half of the year.   When you decide to take in a Chiefs game, there is an opportunity to sit outside, spend some time with your family, and have fun doing so.  Though you may not know the roster of the team from top to bottom, your kids are going to love dancing in-between innings, scarfing down chicken & waffles, and spending some time out in the sun or under the lights.  As a result, you will be creating memories that can’t be replicated in front of a television screen, or walking around a mall. 

With the arrival of August, it means there is only about a month of baseball left.  But, fret not, my friends, because you still have time to jump on board with the Chiefs.  Trust me when I say, you and your loved ones will be happy you did. 

Brian Miller