With Chiefs in First Place, will Fans Start Filling NBT Bank Stadium?

Jul 2, 2014

Will new management and a successful season draw more fans to Syracuse Chiefs games?
Credit Mark Bialczak
  When I interviewed Syracuse Chiefs general manager Jason Smorol a month before this baseball season started, he told me that he and his staff would do everything possible to make sure this community felt wanted at NBT Bank Stadium.

And then the honest man, a native of North Syracuse, a veteran of minor-league baseball front offices around upstate New York and a guy totally unafraid to roll up his sleeves and work hard in his first season running the squad that had lost $1 million dollars the season before and drawn the fewest amount of fans in Triple-A baseball, told it like it is.

It surely would help get fannies back in those seats, Smorol said, if the top affiliate in the Washington Nationals' system had a successful season on the field, too.

I went to opening day, tailgated in the crowded parking lot with a group of equally optimistic friends, watched from our reserved seats as Smorol grabbed the microphone and introduced his players to the fans, invited some down to participate in games between innings, lined up a handful of team and product mascots, in full uniform, to race from the left field fence to home plate ... 

I wrote about the fun spectacle witnessed by 6,661 people right here on waer.org. But the Chiefs lost to 4-1 to Scranton-Wilkes Barre.

Two weeks later, two friends and I split the game between sun and shade for the first noon contest of the season, but about 5,000 less fans turned out, and the Chiefs lost.

I kept going to games here and there, and the Chiefs started winning a lot.

Syracuse Pitcher A.J. Cole warms up before a game at NBT Stadium.
Credit Mark Bialczak
  Saturday night, the Syracuse Media Group bought a block of tickets in section 118 and invited their workers to bring along family members for a night of picnicking on the grassy knoll outside the stadium's right-field wall starting two hours before game time and then moving inside for the game against the Buffalo Bison.

My dear wife Karen works in the SMG advertising department. For almost 30 years, I worked for the company that SMG replaced, at The Post-Standard and syracuse.com, and now one of my freelance jobs is writing for SMG's Central New York The Good Life Magazine. The interview with Smorol mentioned above was for the cover piece for the May/June edition.

This, I thought as Karen sent me the email invitation a week ahead of time, was the kind of community connection Smorol wanted every game day.

We hadn't been to a game in June. I was intrigued to see what the atmosphere would be like in NBT Bank Stadium to watch a Syracuse Chiefs team with the best record in the International League, something that hasn't happened this late in the season, I'm pretty sure, in this century.

The game was being billed over the public address system as "reopening day."

That has something to do with the second half of the season beginning, I figured.

A.J. Cole would make his Triple-A debut as starting pitcher. Our seats were quite close to the bullpen mound, and I watched him closely. The right-hander had good stuff. I couldn't help but mentally compare him to a guy by the name of Stephen Strasburg. When that No. 1 pick in the overall draft made his Chiefs debut in 2010, Karen and I and my daughter Elisabeth had seats quite near the warmup mound because I'd rushed to the box office to trade in three of my discount book ticket coupons for three box seats the moment I heard he'd been called up from Double A to make his first Syracuse start.

Us three joined the record crowd of 13,766 that day of May 7, 2010 as the Chiefs beat the Gwinett Braves 7-0.

As confident as he looked -- and the 6-foot-5 right-hander looks like a future important Nationals pitcher to me -- Cole didn't have quite the pop to his fastball. The Chiefs fell behind 6-2.

But there's something to this first-place mojo. Brandon Laird and Steven Souza Jr. both hit two-run homers, in the bottom of the seventh and eighth, and the Chiefs quite excitingly tied the game 6-6. Buffalo won it by scoring with a sacrifice fly in the top of the 13th inning.

But the most disappointing stat of the night was the attendance: 4,185, on a warm Saturday night on the final weekend of June, to see the team with the best record of the 14 teams in the International League going into the night by two wins over Indianapolis and four over Durham.

It was a big high school graduation night, somebody in the Syracuse Media Group section said as the light attendance was discussed during the tense late innings.

The new front office is running things well. The players on the field are winning.

You can't complain about that anymore. This second half of the season, we shall see. Will the community of Syracuse start coming out to NBT Bank Stadium to start enjoying that convergence?

Have you gone to any Syracuse Chiefs games this season? Do you feel the difference at NBT Bank Stadium? Does it make a difference to you if the Chiefs have a winning team or a losing team?