Cakes swim upstream, fighting the good fight
It has been a most interesting year and season for the New Orleans Baby Cakes.
First, there was the name change, which inspired many, many negative responses but accomplished the goal of attracting attention to the team and product. The logos are a hit, winning a contest for minor league franchises via a July announcement. The team has used social media in fine fashion to get its message out and were very aggressive in voting to win the logo contest. A television agreement with Cox to expose the product has provided more visibility.
The Cakes, as they are known to most, including those who do not like the full name, have done many of the right things that it takes to be successful.
The issues with the organization remain a nominal, aging ballpark and a poor team on the field.
Neither of those issues is anything new.
I was fortunate, blessed to be part of the organization as its first play-by-play announcer (radio, eventually television) for the first eight years of its existence. The move from Privateer Park to Zephyr Field in 1997 was a godsend.
The first few seasons were magical, producing winning teams, exciting players who would go on to play in the Major Leagues and a new ballpark. Even though Zephyr Field was new, it was never one of the top parks in the league.
In a marketplace with an NFL and NBA franchise, minor league baseball is a minor player in the landscape of attention, funding and media coverage, particularly when you add LSU, Tulane and prep sports to the landscape, not to mention the culture and a festival of some sort in the area seemingly every weekend.
While minor league baseball is largely about clever promotions (and plenty of them) and about the name on the front of the jersey as opposed to the name on the back, winning at any level remains the best marketing tool.
New Orleans has been out of the pennant race in the Pacific Coast League American Southern Division for a couple of months. At 43-70, the team is basically playing out the string. Only Las Vegas (43-71) has a worse record in the league. Unfortunately, this is nothing new for the franchise formerly known as the Zephyrs.
In its ninth season as an affiliate of the Miami (formerly Florida) Marlins, New Orleans has enjoyed just one winning season (73-67) in 2012. The team has never finished higher than third in its four-team division, failing to make the playoffs in any of those seasons.
Needless to say, the Marlins have not had success at the major league level during this time. Fortunately, the franchise is on the verge of being sold to a much higher profile ownership group which could provide more excitement and spending. Will the baseball side improve?
While the major league team has failed to be relevant, the Triple-A affiliate has lagged dramatically as the lack of quality players and depth in the organization reveals itself blatantly on an annual basis.
This season, the Cakes have seen 14 players also play for the Marlins. That includes Mike Aviles, Hunter Cervenka, Christian Colon, Adam Conley, Odrisamer Despaigne,Tom Koehler, Steve Lombardozzi, Justin Nicolino, Chris O’Grady, JT Riddle, Drew Steckenrider, Tomas Telis, Nick Wittgren and Vance Worley.
Of that group, Riddle has established himself as the starting shortstop, batting .250 with 13 doubles, three home runs and 31 RBI.
On the mound, Steckenrider (1-1, 2.92 ERA, 14 relief appearances) and Conley (4-4, 5.10 ERA, 11 appearances, 10 starts) have enjoyed modest success.
From an attendance perspective, the Cakes have fared pretty well, considering the poor product on the field. According to the Pacific Coast League site, the team averages 5,349 per opening for 50 game days, good for tenth best of the 16 teams in the league. Of course, the actual attendance is nowhere near the number announced but that is also true of other teams.
Seeing the crowd on July 4 at far less than capacity was disappointing and a far cry from the heyday of the affiliation with the Houston Astros from 1997-2002, when the team always sold out its Independence Day game (on that day or close to it) and drew over 400,000 or more fans annually, including a record 519,484 in 1998, when the Zephyrs won the Pacific Coast League and the inaugural Triple-A World Series.
On the 1998 team alone, the Zephyrs had 37 players who had either played in the major leagues or went on to do so.
With the Astros, the franchise enjoyed a very solid partner, its best ever. At that time (and now), the Astros were good at the major league level and talent-rich at the minor league level.
New Orleans regularly enjoyed having players who went on to success, sometimes stardom at the major league level with names such as Bobby Abreu, Lance Berkman, Scott Elarton, Adam Everett, Julio Lugo, Morgan Ensberg, John Halama, Richard Hidalgo, Russ Johnson, Jason Lane, Brad Lidge, Wade Miller, Trever Miller, C.J. Nitkowski, Roy Oswalt, Chad Qualls, Chris Truby and Daryle Ward, among others.
For those who are hoping for a different, better affiliation, think again. New Orleans signed a Player Development Contract with the Marlins through 2020 in 2016.
New owner Lou Schwechheimer and general manager Cookie Rojas have infused new promotions, a new look and a new approach to the franchise. Staging other events at the ballpark, including prep football, is a positive step.
For the casual observer, there is a disconnect, a lack of understanding about how the team is built locally. Local ownership and management has nothing to do with it. You are at the mercy of the big league club.
It was great to see the Cakes sweep a doubleheader Sunday from El Paso and former St. Paul’s and LSU star Ryan Schimpf, who blasted three home runs over the weekend.
It was incredible to see the deluge that engulfed the stadium, its field, parking lot and dugouts with the monumental downpour the New Orleans area endured Saturday. The Cakes did not miss the opportunity to garner exposure from that, either, utilizing social media to post the amazing sights, via @cakesbaseball on Twitter.
Tonight's game has officially been called due to rain. We will play a doubleheader tomorrow starting at 1pm. pic.twitter.com/sIJEQcKGeg
— NOLA Baby Cakes (@cakesbaseball) August 5, 2017
— NOLA Baby Cakes (@cakesbaseball) August 5, 2017
The image perhaps captured the overall, overarching theme of the franchise, swimming upstream against a formidable current, fighting the good fight for its position in the marketplace. The local aspect is working hard, promoting diligently, and trying different ways to attract crowds and the community at large while remaining at the mercy of a major league affiliate devoid of depth and talent.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…