Pittsfield Suns look for strong encore performance
PITTSFIELD -- It's hard to argue with the Pittsfield Suns' success during their first year at Wahconah Park last summer.
The collegiate-league baseball team not only embraced an area that has been bruised emotionally and financially by several other franchises in the past decade; it also won over a skeptical fan base by securing the second-best home attendance figure in the nine-team league it plays in.
Even though the Suns didn't make the Futures League playoffs last season, the team's corporate sponsorships are up 30 to 50 percent this year, according to owner Jeff Goldklang.
Now, of course, comes the hard part -- continuing that success throughout Season 2, which begins at 7 p.m. Thursday against the Torrington Titans at Wahconah Park.
With no team staying at Wahconah for more than three seasons since Pittsfield's New York-Penn League franchise left in 2001, how do the Suns lay the groundwork for a long-term relationship now that the honeymoon is over?
"You have to be consistent in what you're offering to the fans, both on the field and off," said Bob Wirz, a Connecticut-based baseball consultant who helped bring the Northern League's Berkshire Black Bears to Pittsfield in 2002. "If the fans liked your hot dogs or hamburgers or promotions, you can't let down on that. ... You can't jack your food prices up. And every year you have to have something that's new and a little better than the year before."
The Goldklang Group, which owns the Suns and four other baseball franchises across the country, has a track record of long-term success in other markets. The Suns exceeded all goals that ownership set in 2012, and they want to improve on them this year, Goldklang said.
"We want to build on that relationship we established," he said, adding that his group wants to be "the premier destination for entertainment in Pittsfield and the Berkshires during the summer months."
As with last year, the Suns have a promotion slated for each home game. Those 28 promotions include new takes on old themes -- tissue paper night has replaced toilet paper night -- as well as popular standbys, including seven fireworks nights. The Suns also will host the Futures League All-Star Game on July 25.
But the team also has scheduled less flashy community-oriented events: two clinics, including a special-needs camp for youngsters with autism; four movie nights at Wahconah Park; and a reading program for youngsters who attend Pittsfield and Lenox public schools.
Suns General Manager Kevin McGuire said those events show the team's commitment to "really entrench ourselves" in the Berkshires.
"We have five or six events that are focused on showing people that we're here to be good community partners, and not just here to make a quick buck and get out," he said.
McGuire noted that the Goldklangs were part of the ownership group that operated the Class AA Pittsfield Cubs in the late 1980s.
"Our owners have had second homes in Berkshire County for 40 years now," he said. "It's always been a market that we wanted to come back and run and do it the right way.
"This is such a tremendous baseball market that it deserves a first-rate team. It's been beaten up a little bit over the last 10 or 12 years, and we want to come in here and turn it around."
The Suns are entering the second year of a three-year license agreement with the city of Pittsfield that binds them to Wahconah Park through the 2014 season. Goldklang said the team has had informal conversations with Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi and his staff about lengthening the contract.
"Obviously, there needs to be discussion between the Suns and the city of Pittsfield on a long-term agreement," Goldklang said. "We wouldn't have come in here last year if we thought it was going to be a two- or three-year thing."
Bianchi acknowledged the informal discussions and said he "certainly" would entertain a deal that would keep the Suns in Pittsfield beyond 2014.
"It's been a great experience," the mayor said. "I went to three or four games last year. The folks that attended really seemed to enjoy it, and the Goldklangs were there. It shows that they have people committed to it."
According to city treasurer Susan Carmel, the Suns don't owe Pittsfield any money as they head into their second season at Wahconah.
Former city councilor Peter White, who has followed Pittsfield baseball franchises since the mid-1980s, said he's been impressed with the Goldklang Group's operation in the city.
"They didn't have a lot of time to promote last year," White said. "But they've shown a real commitment in the offseason, being at [Berkshire] chamber events, and making people know that they're here.
"I'm looking forward to seeing the All-Star Game, looking forward to see who's on the team, and who the fans are going to get interested in," said White, who attended about 15 Suns games last year.
Bianchi said the Goldklangs' success in operating baseball franchises outweighed any skepticism he might have had given the tribulations experienced by other groups that ran teams in Pittsfield.
"Let's put it this way," Bianchi said. "I always like to travel with optimism. I'm not naive about things, but I have a great deal of comfort with [the Goldklangs]. I know they have been in the Berkshires for quite a few years. I know them to be very hard-working, knowledgeable people with a long history in baseball. They get it."
Before last season, Goldklang said he didn't expect the Suns to make a profit during their first year due to the high costs of starting a franchise in a new market. He wouldn't say whether the team was profitable in 2012, but he did acknowledge: "Our first-year revenue numbers exceeded our budget."
When asked if the Suns need to turn a profit this year to succeed, Goldklang said he didn't want to get into details of a privately owned business.
"But we have a fairly long track record of building franchises in markets that previously struggled to sustain them," he said. "We're certainly on that track."
Goldklang said interest in the Suns from the business community is much stronger than it was last year.
"Scorched earth may be too harsh a term, but last year there was a feeling that we haven't seen baseball in Pittsfield work in 10 years, so prove to me that it's going to work," Goldklang said.
Jay Anderson, president of the Pittsfield Cooperative Bank, which sponsors the reading program the Suns set up in Pittsfield and Lenox, said it was only natural that the business community would be wary of the Goldklang Group at first.
"I think any time a new group comes into town, particularly with the history of baseball in Pittsfield, people are leery and want to see what kind of staying power they have," Anderson said. "We warmed up to them pretty quickly because of the professionalism they showed -- and their ability to deliver on their word."
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What: A summer collegiate-league baseball team heading into its second season in the city.
Tickets: $5 to $22.
Opener: 7 p.m. Thursday vs. Torrington at Wahconah Park.
Notable: The Suns averaged 1,344 fans in 24 home games last season, the second-
highest average in the
Coming Wednesday: Season preview. Sports section.