Sunday August 19, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Pittsfield Suns second baseman Chad Funkhouser said he enjoyed his experience in the Futures League. The crowds at Wahconah Park were a big part of that experience.

"Playing in front of thousands of fans at a time was definitely something that was new to me," he wrote in an email. "I soaked in all the fans roaring your name getting up to bat, and it felt like it was more than just baseball."

More than "just baseball" is what the Goldklang Group promised the City of Pittsfield when the Park Commission voted to work with the baseball operators to place a Futures League team at Wahconah Park for 2012.

The Suns finished their inaugural season by drawing 32,261 fans to Wahconah Park in 24 out of a scheduled 27 home dates. That and their average of 1,344 fans was second in the league to Brockton. The Rox drew 41,141 and averaged 1,714.

"We did exceed our expectations in terms of what we hoped to do in year one," said Jeff Goldklang, managing director of the Goldklang Group and owner of the Suns. "I know we had said 1,000, maybe 1,100 from a tickets-sold standpoint. But we exceeded our expectations."

The average number of fans was the most drawn to Wahconah Park since 2005, the first year the Pittsfield Dukes of the NECBL called the ballpark on Wahconah Street home. The next year, the Dukes averaged 1,304 -- but that number then began a steady decline over the next several years.

"We couldn't be any happier," said Jamie Keefe, who doubled as the Suns' manager and general manager. "I think it blew everyone's minds. I know that personally for me, I had no idea that we were capable in year No. 1 of putting that many people in the ballpark."

The final year of the NECBL in Pittsfield was 2009, and the American Defenders averaged 798.

In two professional seasons, the Pittsfield Colonials of the Can-Am League averaged 717 and 844 fans, respectively. In 2010, the year of the 717 average, the Colonials only had 30,112 fans attend in 42 dates.

"I'll be honest with you. It was more walk-up [ticket purchasing] than any of our other clubs in terms of percentage of fans in the seats and presale," said Goldklang. "As an organization, you want to sell to groups and you want to sell tickets in advance. We had anticipated Pittsfield being a walk-up [market], but gosh, 80 percent or so was walk-up."

If Goldklang was pleasantly surprised with the success the Suns had in the first year, Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi was not.

"I anticipated that these folks were going to do well," Bianchi said. "I was impressed with the Goldklangs from the beginning. They had a good sense of the market and how to generate interest. They are baseball people. I'm really looking forward to next year."

Joseph Ryan of Pittsfield is a baseball fan who wears multiple hats. He has been a season-ticket holder for baseball games at Wahconah Park dating back to the arrival of the Pittsfield Mets in 1989. He is also "Banjo Joe," who regularly plays "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" on his banjo during the seventh-inning stretch.

Ryan praised Pittsfield Colonials owner Buddy Lewis for giving it a game effort over two Can-Am League seasons. But Ryan did say it was different this year.

"I was pleasantly surprised with the caliber of the games. I didn't expect it to be that good," said Ryan. "The experience of going to the ballpark was significantly different. I thought I'd never say this, but I enjoyed several of the on-field events with the fans."

League commissioner Chris Hall described the second season of the league as a success, and the league wants "to get better every day."

Hall admits to being a little surprised by the success of the Suns in their inaugural season.

"We didn't know what was going to happen up there. The Goldklang Group has certainly stepped up and proven what they're all about," Hall said. "They're doing great. They did an unbelievable job this year."

The success of the Suns and the Rox caught Hall's attention since both cities had teams in the independent professional Can-Am League a year ago.

"They were fantastic. Pittsfield and Brockton both had some issues last year and they had to struggle. There are reasons why they're not in pro ball any more," he said. "It's so hard to fund an independent minor league baseball team and make it work. The expenses are way too high."

Suns general manager Jamie Keefe had two chores once the team was settled into its offices at Wahconah Park -- build the on-field product and work with assistant general manager Kevin McGuire in helping build the business model of the team.

After taking a little time off, Keefe and McGuire are going to be back at work trying to build on what the Suns accomplished in 2012.

Keefe said the organization will be putting in what he calls an extensive sound system for next year. He had nothing but high praise for McGuire and the Suns staff for putting the work in all summer.

The Pittsfield front office is already in the preparation stage for next year. Goldklang said the team will start selling season tickets within the month and both Keefe and McGuire will be reaching out to current sponsors and will attempt to drum up additional sponsors for next year.

"This year, we knew we had to prove to people that we were going to be able to do it," said Keefe. "We feel that we've reached our goal. We know we're going to be able to grow."

To reach Howard Herman:
hherman@berkshireeagle.com,
(413) 496-6253.
On Twitter: @howardherman.