Round Rock Baseball Hits a Homer
It's been 30 minutes since the last out of the Round Rock Express' 3-1 victory over the Arkansas Travelers. But the party that is pro baseball's winning return to the Austin area rolls on.
About 150 revelers assemble at a small corner stage on the left field concourse of the Dell Diamond in Round Rock. They listen to a local cover band's brassy version of "Mustang Sally" -- the Thursday night post-game music, one of the many added attractions at the new minor league stadium. A dozen or so folks bop to the group's smooth sound, and two of the band's horn players join them with a funky, white-men-can't-dance-but-who-cares march through the gathering.
Right outside the left-field gates, the stadium gives off just enough light for two teenage boys with baseball gloves to toss a hardball back and forth. In the parking lot, groups of people who attended the game (the word "fan" does not always apply, especially in baseball's minor leagues) gather around their pickups and cars, reluctant to leave the fun behind.
Sure the Round Rock Express baseball team won the first half of the season with the best win-loss record in the Texas League (43-27) and could become league champions in their first year. And the Double-A Houston Astros farm team's play rates just a couple of barely discernible notches below the exploits of the millionaire big-leaguers.
But tell that to the Mustang Sally dancers. Or to the kids shooting hoops on the basketball court (apparently a first for a pro baseball stadium) out beyond right field during the game. Or the four-year-old rolling down the sloping, grass-covered berm that serves as general-admission outfield seating. Or better yet, the over-worked mom taking a break in the hot tub next to the swimming pool beyond the right-field concourse.
Sometimes a Round Rock Express game resembles a combination of county fair and amusement park, with a baseball game as background more than sporting event.
There's plenty of attention paid to the game itself, especially by those in the reserved seats behind the diamond. But the Round Rock baseball games are a scene. A hangout for all ages. A party complete with a nice selection of cold draft brew and hot comfort food. A place where groups of teenage boys with baggy cargo shorts and baseball caps with the required curled bills and teenage girls with spaghetti-strap tank tops and Adidas running shoes worn sans socks roam the concourse as if it were the local mall.
The Express has taken the something-for-everyone tradition of minor-league baseball and cranked it up to a possibly unrivaled degree, from the live bands on Thursday nights to the giant video screen that can play 200 movie clips to the fireworks show after each Friday game.
The carnival atmosphere makes up only one of the reasons the Express has been able to turn the 112-year-old Texas League, and minor-league baseball in general, on its logo-capped head. The new team has gained attention in bush leagues from Maine to Modesto with record-obliterating attendance and a ballpark and amenities praised by all.
On the Mustang Sally Thursday night of the team's win over the Travelers, Round Rock broke the Texas League record for single-season home attendance after only 44 of its 77 home dates. An established league mark broken so early in the season may be a first in minor league baseball history.
The July 20 game attendance of 9,623 raised the franchise's season total to 415,834, beating the standard set by the San Antonio Missions in 1994. Barring some unforeseen disaster -- like an unseasonable tornado that wipes out the Diamond -- the team will become the first franchise in Double A's long history to top the 600,000 level, breaking a 20-year-old record set in Nashville.
All ingredients pointed to good attendance at the Diamond for the Express' first season. The area's economy is booming, the community is hungry for the unique entertainment minor-league baseball offers, the new $25 million Dell Diamond ranks as one of the best minor-league parks in the country, and team president Reid Ryan assembled a savvy and experienced front-office staff.
But not even Express principal owner Don Sanders, a former Astros owner who is founder and chairman of the largest investment bank in Texas, could have predicted the ability of the team to draw so much attendance -- around 9,500 per night to date. At the end of July, only three of the 160 major-league-affiliated minor-league teams were outdrawing Round Rock, and they were all Triple-A clubs.
"It's beyond anyone's imagination. It's staggering," Sanders says. "Certainly none of us could foresee what has happened. You anticipate and think of how something might be, but very few dreams are realized."
This particular dream materialized in the head of the 28-year-old Ryan, whose father, Nolan, happens to be the strikeout champion of major league baseball and the most famous player of the sport in the state's history. (The Austin area might still be the largest metropolitan region in the country without professional baseball if Nolan Ryan, whose nickname became the nickname of the new team, and his reputation had not fronted the move of a team to Central Texas.)
In 1997, the younger Ryan knew of the failed attempts to bring the sport to both Austin and Round Rock. But he also knew the region, with its growing population and interest in sports, was ripe for a minor-league franchise. And he believed his father, Sanders, and others in a group ready to bankroll a team's move to the area had the funds and the know-how to end Central Texas' 32-year-old pro baseball drought.
"In the attempts to bring baseball here in the past, none of them were on the up and up," says Ryan from behind the desk of his office that overlooks the lush playing field of the Diamond. He is as conservatively well-groomed a young man as you will meet, with a pressed chambray shirt and khaki pants. His features resemble those of his father when the elder Ryan was a rookie for the New York Mets. "In every one of those deals there was never a well-executed plan and never a group that was very liquid behind the attempt."
But in Round Rock this time around, voters easily passed a referendum to use hotel and motel tax money (capped at $7.5 million) to help build the new stadium, which Dell Computer purchased the naming rights for. The team's owners came up with the rest of the funds for the ballpark, a park which, by all estimations, is almost beyond compare at the Double-A level.
"It is an absolutely sensational place for minor-league baseball," says Lacy Lusk, the minor-league editor for Baseball America, considered the top publication in the country for minor-league news. Lusk estimates he has seen 40 to 50 minor-league parks. He places the Diamond in the top two or three. "It just feels like what a baseball stadium should feel like."
Fans enter the park, built in Hill Country limestone, directly behind home plate onto a concourse that wraps around the field. The bowl design allows fans to see the field from anywhere inside the park. Most of the concessions booths sit perpendicular to the diamond so even fans waiting in line for food and drink can watch the game. There are 7,500 contoured seats and 24 luxury suites. Families and other groups recline on the berms above the outfield walls. Other fans drink, eat, or just watch the game from one of 17 picnic tables.
Visitors almost uniformly say the Dell Diamond is like a small-scale major league facility.
"I could only assume this is what it would be like to play in the majors," says Express All-Star third baseman Morgan Ensberg. "It's perfect here."
Ensberg didn't feel it fair to compare the Diamond to other minor-league parks he has been in, but he ultimately admitted, "We're used to playing in dumps."
The park itself is not the only aspect comparable to the major leagues. With its 9,500 attendance average, Round Rock is not that far behind at least a couple of big league teams. As of July 25, two major league teams, Minnesota and Montreal, averaged around 13,500 for home games.
"It's a market that is arguably big enough to host major league sports," Express assistant general manager Dave Fendrick says of the Austin area.
The Express sold 11,582 tickets for its Fourth of July game, its highest attendance to date. And general manager Jay Miller says he thinks the club could have sold 20,000 for that game.
Several months before the season began, the franchise cut off season ticket purchases at 4,500 so seats would be available to non-season-ticket holders. Two thousand five hundred 14-game, Friday night fireworks packages were also sold before a single game was played. The swimming pool, which cost $1,500 to rent and includes 50 game passes and a catered dinner, sold out for the rest of the season after the first homestand.
"I think we could have sold 6,000 season tickets," Miller says.
An Express game is a relatively affordable evening's entertainment. Parking is $3, and ticket prices begin at $4 general admission for kids. Adults can see the games for $5 general admission on the grassy berm, $6 general admission bleachers, and $7 and $8 reserved seats. Kids two and under get in free. (Astros adult tickets range from $5 to $29.)
"The cost is better than the big leagues," said Austin's Brent Saxon at a recent game. "And it's not such a big park. If you go to a major league park and sit in the outfield, you can't see anything.
"And I've noticed anywhere they have beer in Austin, people tend to go."
Dan Volek of Taylor brought his family of five to a July game. His four tickets cost $18.
"The facility is real conducive for families to come because there is always something going on," Volek said. "And for the price of admission, you really can't beat the entertainment."
Of the top five drawing minor-league clubs in the country this year, four have new ballparks. But Sanders, 64, insists that just building a new facility alone doesn't account for the numbers the Express has drawn.
"We're not going to break the attendance mark just because we built a new ballpark out there," Sanders says. "We're breaking it because we're doing a lot of things right."
Not the least of those things was bringing in Miller.
At 41, Miller, an amiable man with a roundish, ruddy face and chapped lips, has 18 years of baseball administrative experience, including 12 years with the Texas Rangers. The Diamond is the fourth new ballpark opening he has helped oversee. At his last stop, three years with the Astros' Triple-A club in New Orleans, with the help of a new stadium and Miller's direction as GM, attendance increased each year.
Fendrick has 18 years of major league experience and assistant general manager R.D. Sneed has eight, bringing the threesome's total to 38 years. Field manager Jackie Moore has coached baseball professionally since 1968, including a stint as manager of the Oakland A's in the mid-Eighties.
"Everything is perfect down there," says Miles Wolff, who has owned 10 minor-league clubs and currently acts as commissioner of the independent Northern League and owns the Quebec Capitals. Wolff also owned Baseball America for 20 years. "You have the right owner, the right ballpark, and the right management. You couldn't ask for a better scenario at any level."
The Express also ride a wave of minor-league resurgence that began in the late Seventies.
"The minor leagues were virtually dead by the mid-Seventies," Wolff says. "There were only about 100 teams left."
But in the late Seventies and early Eighties, communities began building new ballparks or restoring old ones, and minor-league baseball became profitable. Now there are some 200 U.S. minor-league teams, including independent league teams that are not affiliated with major-league clubs. Minor-league attendance has gone from 12 million in 1980 to 35 million last season.
"In the last 15 years there have been over 80 new ballparks built, and that's what really needed to happen," Wolff says.
Also, colleges began offering sports administration degrees in the Seventies (Miller and Fendrick both have masters degrees in the field), which Wolff says led to better management of teams.
"Teams used to hire people who didn't know what they were doing," Wolff says. "Now [minor-league baseball] is run much better than it ever has been before."
Still, poor management can destroy a team even after a honeymoon year like the one Round Rock is having. But the Express front office is determined not to lose momentum.
"The real question is, 'Can you sustain it?'" Ryan says. "But you have to have realistic expectations. If we drop down to 500,000 attendance next year people will say, 'Oh, that place isn't as popular.' But half a million a year is good, and I think we have the right game plan that if we're not drawing a half a million next year, I'll be disappointed."
Ryan already has some ideas to liven up the Express game experience next year, and a restaurant, a radar gun to display pitch speeds and more interactive games could be in the works for 2001.
"I don't think it's just a one-year deal," Lusk says. "Sure four of the top five [drawing minor-league teams] have new stadiums. But you look at the rest of the top 15 or 20 and a lot of them are always there [at the top of attendance rankings]. I think that's where Round Rock will settle in eventually and pretty much be on top of the Texas League for a long time."
For years Baseball America rated Austin as one of the top cities in the country that "deserved" pro baseball but didn't have it. Now the area has its team. And it could be the final grand triumph among new minor-league venues.
"They could end up being one of the last real success stories because there are very few good markets in the country left without pro baseball," Wolff says. "Austin could be the last of the sort of glamour [markets]."
In the meantime, Central Texans keep taking themselves out to the ball game, and the party, in Round Rock.