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A Baseball Revival in Pulaski

Pulaski YankeesThe 2015 Minor League Baseball season brought about several attendance success stories, including the Pulaski Yankees (rookie; Appalachian League)—a team embracing change. At the forefront of the Yankees’ success was a new affiliation with the New York Yankees, changes in ballpark ownership, ballpark upgrades, and a customer-oriented approach to game-day management.

Prior to 2015, Pulaski had seasons in which they had been among the Appalachian League’s top-drawing teams, finishing third in per-game average as recently as 2011. However, the franchise began slipping down the rankings in 2012, the first of three consecutive seasons in which the team averaged fewer than 820 fans per game.

The 2014 season was a make-or-break point for baseball in the small Virginia town: the partners behind the ownership group Pulaski Baseball had opted to retire, while the team was also faced with an expiring lease at Calfee Park, demands for facility upgrades, and its player development contract (PDC) with the Seattle Mariners was about to finish. It looked like Pulaski could lose its entry in the league, marking the town’s first season without Minor League Baseball since 2007.

In what proved to be the turning point, Pulaski Baseball approached David Hagan and Larry Shelor of the Shelor Automotive Group about buying the team. Hagan and Shelor purchased the team in the summer of 2014 with the intention of leasing Calfee Park from the City of Pulaski, but the price of upgrading Calfee Park changed their plans. “I approached the town with these renovations,” said Hagan. “When they said they weren’t in the position to do them, we said that we would agree to do these repairs, but we had to own the stadium.”

After a public meeting in which citizens of Pulaski expressed their support for the ownership transfer, Hagan and Shelor purchased Calfee Park, starting a chain of events that ultimately revived the franchise. To address the Appalachian League’s primary concern, they built a new visitor’s clubhouse and renovated the home locker rooms. “Fear of losing baseball was the driving force,” said Hagan “If that hadn’t happened, I’d say that there would be an 80 percent chance that [Pulaski] wouldn’t have had baseball.”

In addition, the group purchased the former Virginia Foods Warehouse and renovated it into the Jackson Park Inn, a hotel and conference center that houses Yankees’ players and staff during the season, and serves as a hotel throughout the remainder of the year. This addressed a major problem from past seasons, as the Mariners traditionally housed players in Wytheville, Va, about 30 minutes outside of Pulaski.

While repairing the behind-the-scene elements at Calfee Park was important, the owners also sought to add to the fan experience. The P-Yankees added a new press box and concession stand, along with seating upgrades and a videoboard. According to Hagan, these upgrades “added some entertainment” for fans on top of the baseball experience. “It was quite an enjoyment. The fans were excited about it.” In June, the team announced that it had spent more than $7 million between the Calfee Park upgrades and the Jackson Park Inn.

Renovating a stadium like Calfee Park can be a daunting task. Opening in 1935 as a project of the Works Progress Administration, Calfee Park is an intimate venue—it seats about 2,500—that has not drastically changed since its opening.

In that sense, it was not only important for Hagan and Shelor to preserve the ballpark’s history in planning for its future, but to find someone with a knowledge of Pulaski baseball to run it. That led to Mike Fintel, who had never worked in baseball before this year, but has attended games at Calfee Park every summer from ages four to 21 as he stayed with his family at a nearby summer house. “For the most part, it had that small-town feel,” Fintel says of his memories of Calfee Park. “It always has, and even today.”

Fintel, who had taken a position with Shelor Automotive before accepting the general manager role with the Yankees, worked with ownership to ensure that Calfee Park maintained its small-town atmosphere. “Probably the most important thing that we could think of was, how can we renovate Calfee Park and keep it Calfee Park. We made so many renovations, but we kept that small-town vibe.”

Fintel said his biggest priorities were utilizing upgrades to the concession stands to increase efficiency and to maintain a friendly ambiance at the ballpark. One of his earliest policies was something he calls “five feet rule” in which staff member within five feet of a fan had to acknowledge the fan in a friendly way. According to Fintel, that dynamic was natural for his staff. “I had a great group of folks. Every person who came to the park was enthusiastic about working and enthusiastic about being around the fans.”

Hagan credited Fintel and co-general manager Blair Hoke with helping to shape the atmosphere at Calfee Park. He also said that the fans heightened the effect of their intimate surroundings with their enthusiasm for the game. “When we sell out, the place is abuzz. It is a wonderful environment for fans and players alike.”

Those tactics worked for the P-Yankees, who with a per-game average of 1,677 fans, posted one of the largest increases from 2014 to 2015. Both Hagan and Fintel lauded the parent club New York Yankees and manager Tony Franklin for their efforts to reach out to the community, including their participation in the annual Fourth of July Parade.  Hagan said that when the opportunity arose to obtain the Yankees as a parent club, he worked with them to ensure that the facility met their standards. In return, Pulaski received not only a community-oriented group of players and coaches, but a team that won—the Yankees reached the Appalachia League playoffs with a 45-23 regular season record.

Already, the Yankees are trying to carry this momentum forward. The team is looking at a series of upgrades for next year, primarily focusing on new suites as well as upgraded general admission and parking options. Hagan said it is possible that Calfee Park could be expanded after the 2016 season, as the fans have responded positively to the recent changes. “It’s created quite a buzz in Pulaski.”

As more people in Pulaski and the surrounding areas take notice of the Yankees’ success, Fintel believes that the team’s approach could be a big boon to the city. “We want more and more people to come into Pulaski, and see the work in that community and see what a beautiful little community it is.”

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