minor league baseball
Pulaski Mariners ‘You can’t put a dollar value on community pride’ by Mason Adams
ookie baseball players straight out of college start professional ball on the lowest rungs of the minor-league ladder. For some players in the Seattle Mariner farm system, that means Pulaski. With a population of nearly 9,100, according to the 2010 Census, Pulaski is the second smallest locality in the Appalachian League, a rookie league considered slightly higher than a pair of leagues in Arizona and Florida. Only Princeton, W.Va., is smaller. That doesn’t mean the team puts out a subpar product, says General Manager John Dittrich. “Attendance in Pulaski is just under 1,000 a game,” Dittrich says. “When you consider the town is only 9,000 people, that’s a heck of a lot. We do draw from the New River Valley area, from Radford down to Wytheville, but our core fans are still right here in Pulaski County.” Pulaski County has become an industrial driver for the region, home to a Volvo Trucks plant that’s a major regional employer. Its local industrial parks have filled with other, smaller manufacturers. The NRV Commerce Park — a facility operated by a regional authority consisting of 13 Roanoke and New River Valley governments — recently landed its first tenant with Red Sun Farms, an international company that will hydroponically grow organic vegetables and employ more than 200 people. Pulaski Town Manager Shawn Utt says the team has been there for residents through economic good times and bad. “It’s a point of pride for the town and its citizens,” Utt says. “We’ve had some economic loss over the years, and it’s nice to know that minor league baseball is the constant.” The Pulaski Mariners help drive the local economy, too. More than 40 people work in the front office, sell
Photo courtesy Pulaski Mariners
Pulaski is the second-smallest locality in the Appalachian League.
tickets and run concession stands. “It might not be the biggest economic driver in the world, but it’s definitely a plus, especially in a small community like Pulaski,” Dittrich says. While future stars may pass through the town on their way to higher-level teams, all but the biggest college stars still are unknown names when they come to play in Pulaski. That means the team can’t rely on star power to get fans in the stands. “I think when fans come out, they’ll be pleased by the quality of the players — they were, after all, drafted by major league teams,” Dittrich says. “But we have to rely on family entertainment as our sales pitch and not the baseball.” The small size of the team limits its range of options, too. It can’t afford expensive mascot costumes, for instance. Instead, it uses a lot of theme nights, like an Elvis night, 1960s night or even “adopt-a-pet” night. Games that feature food and beverage specials are popular, too. “People here live on budgets, and it’s a good way for people to get together at the ballpark,” Dittrich says. Of course, concession sales have an economic impact, generating
business for food suppliers and tax revenue for the town. “We run more dollars through [our concessions] in just three months than a nice busy restaurant runs the whole year,” Dittrich says. Other economic impacts from having a team include the use of hotels by visiting teams and umpires, employment and operating costs that benefit regional suppliers and contractors. “It’s hard to define as far as how many people go to the restaurants and stuff like that, but at the end of the day you know that out of the 1,000 people who come each night, several are going to the gas stations or to restaurants beforehand,” says Utt. “Bigger than that is just the fact they’re coming to Pulaski. We’re getting folks coming to town who may not have come without the baseball. It’s that attraction we need to build off of.” Perhaps the best thing about the team, at least in Dittrich’s opinion, is the role it plays as common denominator and point of pride for town and county residents. “The ball team is a big part of the culture here because we have a small town,” Dittrich says. “You can’t put a dollar value on community pride.” ROANOKE BUSINESS