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In Bridgeport, a Game That Didn't Matter, on a Night That Did

As the franchise and its ballpark have aged, game attendance has lagged in recent seasons.

With a four-run, eighth-inning rally, the Freedom Division All Stars beat the Liberty Division All Stars, five to one, in the 2015 Atlantic League All-Star Game Wednesday night in Bridgeport.

Now you’re wondering: What’s the Atlantic League? What’re the Freedom and Liberty divisions? And does any of this actually matter?

So I’ll try to answer your questions in order.

The Atlantic League (of Professional Baseball Clubs) is an independent (which is to say, unaffiliated with Major League organizations, like the Red Sox, Yankees, or Mets) minor league with two divisions of four teams each. The Freedom Division has two teams in Pennsylvania, a team in Maryland, and a team in Texas. The Liberty Division is made up of two teams in New Jersey, a team on Long Island, and a team in Bridgeport, Connecticut (the Bluefish, who play at the Ballpark at Harbor Yard, which hosted this year’s All-Star Game).

That was the easy stuff. The rest is a little more complicated. Does any of this actually matter? depends on two things: what "this" is, and to whom.

If it's the score and the outcome of the game, then no. It probably doesn’t actually matter.

The Atlantic League All-Star Game doesn’t work like Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. There was nothing like Home Field Advantage in the Frickin’ World Series on the line in this game. At most, this contest was about a night’s worth of bragging rights for a couple dozen professional baseball players you’ve mostly never heard of.

Credit Jonathan McNicol/WNPR
Top of the first inning.

But for the Bridgeport Bluefish organization, for instance, maybe the game itself didn’t matter that much, but the night certainly did. The whole week does. (All-Star Week includes a number of other events in and around the Ballpark. There was a big block party on Tuesday night, there’ll be a legends game on Thursday night. And more.)

This is the Bluefish’s 18th season in Bridgeport, and as the franchise and its ballpark have aged, game attendance has lagged in recent seasons. Last year, Bluefish home attendance averaged just about 2,100 per game, easily the lowest in the league.

Jamie Toole, the Bluefish’s first-year general manager, told me that “maybe some of the novelty has worn off” since the Ballpark opened in 1998, but hosting the All-Star Game this year has been a good excuse to do “a lot of upgrades, a lot of new paint, a lot of new signs,” plus some big new amenities, like a beer garden and a family picnic area and a tequila club, all to freshen up and modernize the stadium.

The All-Star Game itself has been an easy draw to promote around. Attendance is up over 3,000 per game this year. That’s more than a 45 percent increase over last season.

While the Bluefish are still last in the league, they now trail the Camden Riversharks by just 118 tickets per game.

League-wide attendance is 4,057 per game so far this year. The Bluefish have halved the gap between their average attendance and the league’s in just one season.

The league’s All-Star Game -- that’s gotta be an easy night to sell out your 5,300-seat stadium, doesn’t it? Not, apparently, when it’s hot and muggy, and it pours for about an hour just after the gates open, and pours hard enough to delay the Home Run Derby that preceded the game.

Toole and the Bluefish had to be disappointed with Wednesday night’s paid attendance of 4,660 -- 88 percent of capacity -- and they had to be even more disappointed that what had to be more than half of those ticket holders stayed home, rather than coming out in the heat and the wet to spend more money on concessions or memorabilia… or even tequila, I guess. (When the Home Run Derby started, 49 minutes late, there were maybe a few hundred people in the Ballpark. Tops. Bluefish staff was already making excuses about ticket sales lost to weather.)

Credit Jonathan McNicol/WNPR
An overcast, and largely empty, stadium during the Home Run Derby.

For the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball Clubs, the night and the week definitely matter. The team ownership groups (and, by extension then, the league ownership) are in town. Team front offices are in town. League administrators are in town. (Even all the team mascots are in town!) They’re basically all staying in the same hotel. 

Credit Jonathan McNicol / WNPR
Pitch, the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs' mascot.

For a sports league, an all-star week is pretty much as close to an industry or trade convention as you get. Business gets done. Teams talk trades. The league talks rule changes. Or quirky, gimmicky, league-wide promotions. Or even expansion. And the Atlantic League is definitely expanding. According to the league’s executive director, Joe Klein, the league is “actively trying to get to twelve” teams. A new franchise will debut in Virginia Beach next season. And the league hopes to add “a second team in Texas, and quick,” Klein said. The Atlantic League is even looking at New Britain as a possible expansion destination, once the Rock Cats leave for Hartford after this season.

For a number of the All-Stars who played Wednesday, the night may end up having mattered quite a bit. Toolehad predicted that there would be 15 or 20 scouts from Major League organizations at the All-Star Game (up from the two or three that you’d usually find at an independent league game), and I think he was probably right. I talked to five or six of them, from organizations like the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals and the Colorado Rockies -- which organization’s Double-A franchise is currently the New Britain Rock Cats and about to be the Hartford Yard Goats -- and I probably saw seven or eight more in the stands. 

They weren’t just there for fun. One scout said, “A lot of the guys in indy ball are as good or better than players in Double-A or Single-A. They’ve fallen through the cracks, and it’s a wonder why they’re here.”

Credit Jonathan McNicol/WNPR
Freedom Division winning pitcher, and former major leaguer, Cody Eppley, during pregame ceremonies.

And certain players definitely caught the scouts’ eyes. When Sugar Land Skeeters reliever Derek Blackshur pitched the third inning for the Freedom team, a group of scouts sitting near me immediately noted the impressive separation in velocity between his 90-mph fastballs and his 81- or 82-mph sliders. And when Bluefish outfielder Welington Dotel ripped an RBI double to right field in the bottom of the first inning, a scout marveled at the “freakin’ bombs” Dotel had hit while winning the Home Run Derby before the game.

And there are players too like Long Island Ducks designated hitter Lew Ford, who spent parts of six seasons in the big leagues, and who, at age 38 (39 next month), is probably nearing the end of the line, even though he’s still got baseball skills in abundance. (Ford currently leads the Atlantic League in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, as well as a number of counting stats, like hits and runs batted in.) This may have been his last All-Star Game. It was certainly his last All-Star Game in Bridgeport. And there’s Scott Cousins, for whom this game was his last. Cousins played nine seasons of professional baseball, including parts of four years in the majors, and he had announced that he would retire after this year’s All-Star Game. When the 30-year-old Somerset Patriots outfielder was replaced in center field during the top of the fifth inning, ending his professional baseball career, he hugged practically every player on both teams before departing the field, and the Bridgeport crowd gave him a long standing ovation.

Credit Jonathan McNicol/WNPR
Southern Maryland Blue Crabs second baseman Jake Opitz connects during the Home Run Derby.
Credit Jonathan McNicol/WNPR
Peace between mascots! The Camden Riversharks and York Revolution mascots hug before the game.

And the night must’ve mattered for that Bridgeport crowd. For them too, even, the outcome of the game wasn’t paramount. Offense from either team drew applause. Dazzling defensive plays by any player provoked ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ all around the Ballpark. (I had a pretty representative conversation before the game with Tom Migacz from Trumbull, who brings his twelve-year-old son, Chris, to two or three Bluefish games a year. When I asked him who he’d be rooting for, he looked at the scoreboard to see which division was listed at the bottom and said, “Oh, the Liberty. They’re the home team, right?”)

But for kids and families, there was WWE hall-of-famer Ric Flair throwing out the first pitch. There was the mascot race after the fourth inning -- B.B., the Bluefish mascot, won… of course. There was the Fast Food Dash after the fifth -- a race run by kids dressed up as a hot dog, and ketchup, and… a banana. The hot dog, a kid named Jordan, won. 

Credit Jonathan McNicol/WNPR
Bridgeport Bluefish mascot B.B. gets ready to take the field.

For the pure baseball fans, there was a pitcher’s duel with just two runs scored through the first seven innings; there was 38-year-old Japanese pitcher Shunsuke Watanabe throwing just 72 mph but recording a 1-2-3 second inning with his submarine-style delivery; there was a backhanded flip to second base in the first inning; and there was a diving catch in left field in the seventh.

Credit Jonathan McNicol/WNPR
The Atlantic League's first game-used, red-and-blue-stitched ball, which is on its way to Cooperstown.

And, actually, in the history of baseball, this night might have mattered a teeny eensieweensie tiny bit. With this game, the Atlantic League adopted a new baseball, one with red and blue stitching (as opposed to the all-red stitching on most baseballs). They’re the first professional league to use a red-and-blue stitched ball since the American League in 1934. It’s a ridiculous detail, but the first pitched ball from Wednesday’s game (a ball in the dirt thrown by Bluefish pitcher D.J. Mitchell to York Revolution outfielder Brandon Boggs) will be shipped off to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., where it will become a part of the museum’s permanent collection. It doesn’t matter at all, but this is exactly the kind of thing baseball and its fans revere. Babe Ruth’s 60th home run in 1927 was hit with a ball with red and blue stitching. Ty Cobb’s 4,191st hit came from a ball with red and blue stitching.

Credit Jonathan McNicol/WNPR
The fateful top of the eighth.

And speaking of things that don’t matter at all, the game was tied at 1 after seven innings and 13 pitchers (including Mitchell, who threw two innings for Liberty, and Blacksher and Watanabe, who threw an inning each for Freedom). The Freedom All Stars scored four runs in the top of the 8th on four hits and a walk, all off Liberty All Stars pitcher Ryan Kussmaul, who took the loss. Former Major Leaguer Cody Eppley threw a scoreless seventh inning for Freedom, and for the win.

Credit Jonathan McNicol/WNPR
Winners: The Freedom Division All Stars.

Sugar Land third baseman Patrick Palmeiro and York first baseman Andres Perez each had tack-on RBIs in the eighth, and Sugar Land catcher Travis Scott had the two-run double that scored the winning runs for Freedom. Scott was named Most Valuable Player.

Your final score that doesn’t matter one bit: Freedom Division All Stars 5, Liberty Division All Stars 1.

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