The Canaries enter their 30th independent minor league baseball season this year, and their second under new owners Brian Slipka and Anthony Albanese.
The first year was an evaluation year. For new owners to learn about their team, their community and the relationship between the two. Basically to get an idea of what they had bought and how to make it work.
As anyone who has been to a largely empty Sioux Falls stadium over the past decade could have told them, there was a lot of work to be done. But the good news for Canaries fans and those who play and work for them is that the new owners have not been scared off by the prospect. They dig. They invest more money. Much more money. And with the season just around the corner, those working for the new owners are already thrilled with where things are headed.
“It’s been a breath of fresh air,” said longtime general manager Duell Higbe.
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Well, you’ve heard it all before. The Birds have changed owners every few years and no one ever buys a baseball team with the intention of letting it fail. But by now the fans (and the players and the coaches) are used to new owners buying the team, tweaking the formula a bit, and hoping the right gimmick will bring people back to the Birdcage, only to drop and sell after a few years.
What they’re not used to are owners who are willing to invest in the team – on and off the pitch – like Slipka’s group did. It all started last year, when the owners installed a brand new $500,000 video card in the stadium. It certainly improved the fan experience and made the Birdcage look more like a professional ballpark.
They also gave manager Mike Meyer the freedom to use the league’s entire salary cap to field a roster.
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Several changes coming this season
This year, there’s a lot more on the way:
- The staff of the full-time employee team has increased from two to 11.
- The infield, which was rapidly deteriorating to the point of being dangerous, is ripped out and replaced with artificial turf. It will cover the entire infield, including the batting area and the pitching mound.
- Ballpark concessions will no longer be managed by a third-party organization; the Canaries will manage and operate the concessions themselves.
- A “premium seating” section will be designated near home plate, with on-site service and cushioned seating for 184 fans.
- The video card will expand from three cameras to seven or eight, providing instant in-game replay capability, as well as major-caliber production of live game streaming. This will provide a better viewing experience for fans and families watching from home, while making it easier for players to watch and review their performance for analysis.
- The interior of the team office at the stadium has been renovated.
- The team upgraded their gear with everything from new batting practice gear to better quality jerseys to leather belts.
It all adds up to a significantly better feel for the team itself, with the goal of creating a better product for the fans.
“In my experience, any time you walk into a business, there are always times when you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot, we have work to do,'” said Jack Fossand, l executive handpicked by new owners. vice-president. “What was really helpful in this transition from evaluating and learning to planning, implementing and executing, was our owner’s willingness to support us.
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“When you only have two full-time employees and only one of them has been there for over a year, there really is no ‘organization,'” Fossand added. “Having a full staff has really helped us look at roles and responsibilities. It creates the feeling that we can win as an organization. We bring in all of these people, but then it’s about giving them a clear path that they can join.
The new turf at Sioux Falls Stadium was long overdue
For most of the first two decades of their existence, the Canaries were able to count on a well-maintained playing surface, thanks in large part to the work of gardener Larry McKenney. When McKenney (who was so entrenched in the franchise that he was immortalized with his own bobblehead doll) was shown the door as part of a cost-cutting move, however, his absence was quickly felt. .
Higbe had added pitch maintenance to his long list of tasks, and while he and a traveling group of interns and volunteers did their best to keep the pitch up to par, the surface finally began to suffer. American Association officials are asked to provide reports on every city and facility they visit, noting everything from food and clean towels to the playing surface, and Meyer said Birdcage grass gets constantly low notes.
“There were earthworms eating the roots and creating loose patches in the field,” Meyer said. “There were big ramps in the infield for the balls to hit and bounce badly off the shortstop’s head. We went through a ton of baseballs because we had to throw so many balls that got scuffed into the batter’s box. Many managers said it was dangerous. So we are extremely excited for the new turf and very grateful to our owners for investing in the team to make it happen.
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While baseball purists may cringe, grass pitches are becoming increasingly popular at the minor league and college levels, to reduce maintenance costs and limit weather cancellations. And artificial turf has come a long way, until it plays like a grass pitch. Think of the soft turf you see in football stadiums, not the bouncy, concrete surfaces of 1980s major league stadiums.
The outfield will still be grass and Higbe admits he needs some work. But once the infield is taken care of, they will be able to devote more time to it. Meanwhile, Meyer said the new territory has already boosted recruiting, especially for pitchers and infielders.
The turf has just come in, which will require the team to do their preseason work indoors at the Sanford Fieldhouse or in exhibition games on the road. The regular season begins May 13, but the team has no concerns about preparing the ground for the home opener on May 20.
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Concessions to the Canary Islands
Concessions have always been a big part of the Birds’ sales pitch, and the offerings (and their quality) have varied from year to year. That’s largely because, throughout its history, the team has relied on a third-party entity to manage food offerings. This meant, however, that the team had little control over what fans got.
Even so, fans would blame the team if they were handed a cold hot dog or had to miss two full innings in the queue. It’s not the fans’ fault, of course, so the team decided to take concessions into their own hands. They have hired an executive chef to design the menu and set the prices, and will have an expanded staff on game day to work on food preparation and service.
“It’s a big business,” Higbe said. “But we have total control over everything. It’s up to us now. If people have a bad experience, it’s on us, and we can fix it ourselves.
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For Meyer, who like many Canaries managers before him has been handcuffed by financial constraints, it’s a relief to feel the front office is catching up with the rest of the league. Although the Canaries are one of the oldest teams in independent baseball, they suddenly find themselves in a league full of teams in major metropolitan areas, with new stadiums and MLB-like equipment.
Although the team’s new owner will always have their sights set on a new stadium at some point, they are not waiting to receive one. They continue to invest in the team. Potential players take notice, and possibly fans who care enough to give the Birds a chance should too.
“Putting the video card out there was a big deal, but in the end it won’t be enough,” Fossand said. “You can’t just put a big TV there and call it a day. Our owners have an attitude that is, if we can do it, why wait? Let’s do it now. Because almost all of our ideas are things that have been talked about in the past. But it was always, ‘Yeah, we’ll get to that later.’ I think we’ve shown our employees here that it’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re actually going to do these things.’ I think our fans will see it too.