The city needs to fall in love with baseball again
There is something quintessentially New Orleans about loving our institutions and neglecting them at the same time. The long tradition of Heinemann Park and the erstwhile Pelicans was a sizable chunk of the growth of professional sport in New Orleans. Enduring 75 years, mostly at the corner of Carrollton and Tulane, it was the one and only professional sports team in the city until the arrival of the Saints in 1967. The location of the old ballpark was in the heart of the city—a huge, old Mid-City structure not far from the current Rock ‘n’ Bowl, at the juncture of the town’s crossroads and on the streetcar line—so its prominence is not difficult to imagine. There is something to be said about the correlation between baseball and the vitality of a city. If Major League Baseball had had the 30 teams it does today instead of the 16 teams in existence in 1959 (when the Pelicans closed up shop), New Orleans would certainly have been in line for a major league franchise. While obviously that is no longer the case, it still says something that the Zephyrs chose to move from Denver
to New Orleans rather than someplace else. Nonetheless, when Heinemann Park closed and was torn down in 1957, only 941 fans showed up for the finale, perhaps a victim of the growth of televised sports, which of course led to a boom of seismic proportions for the majors but continues to affect minor league attendance to this day.
And so when the Zephyrs marked the return of pro baseball to New Orleans in 1993, it seemed to coincide with a potential new dawning of civic pride. To the credit of Jefferson Parish, and to the detriment of Orleans Parish, the new ballpark was opened in Metairie in 1997 and quickly proved a huge draw, tallying more than 500,000 fans. It is hard to comprehend the city of New Orleans saying “no thanks” to such a venture, and yet that was and is the case. And meanwhile the Z’s continue to thrive on Airline Highway, and the fans continue to come, though in lesser numbers. The team is currently aligned with the hottest team in the majors and what has become possibly the best franchise in terms of developing young talent quickly, the Florida Marlins. Fans will likely see all of several players–including pitchers Willie Collazo, Nate Field and Tim Wood, first basemen Gaby Sanchez and John Lindsey, catcher Brett Hayes, and infielders Chris Coghlan and Andy Gonzalez–develop and have a legitimate shot at playing in the majors this year.
The franchise provides an affordable sports and entertainment alternative for New Orleans families and young city dwellers: The tickets are as low as $6, and the premium, lower box seats are just $10 and generally available on a walk-up basis. Compare the NFL’s Saints and the NBA’s Hornets, where a premium beer can’t be bought for six bucks and a night at the game can cost at least five times as much as the Zephyrs’ fare. The Z’s franchise prides itself on its community involvement, featuring large group seating and dedicated event nights to local businesses, groups and charities, and a great deal of attention is dedicated to keeping the attention of children occupied, from dizzy-bat races to build-a-burger competitions. The team offers something for everyone, from kids in grammar school to college students, working adults and seniors.
And yet the organization faces ongoing challenges. Aside from a lack of support from the city of New Orleans itself (has Mayor Nagin ever been to a game?) and a seeming unwillingness of The Times-Picayune to devote front- page-sports-section resources to the city’s primary summer season pro team, there are also more ingrained issues relating to the city itself.
Overall, New Orleans can be viewed as a tough market. Not only do the Saints and Hornets soak up potential season ticket holders every year, but there are a lot of things to do in New Orleans and a lot of ways for people to use their discretionary income. The Zephyrs have responded to this by making a point of having almost never compromised on their affordability. Saints and Hornets game attendees can likely not imagine it, but Zephyrs tickets have hardly gone up more than a dollar in several years. This comes with a cost in itself, as the stadium, Zephyrs Field, an inherently well-built, pleasantly comfortable stadium with excellent sight lines, is in need of some upgrades (especially due to some lingering effects from Katrina), which in fact are under way.
The Saints and Hornets could also learn something from Zephyr Field’s selection of foods and drink (the 100 percent Black Angus hot dog might just be the best ballpark food item available in a town that considers itself epicurean at all times, except, oddly enough, at sporting events). But, still, given that the stadium itself is more or less square, plumb out in the middle of Airline Highway, and aside from the occasional fan contest, there is almost nothing to focus on at the game besides the game itself. Which is fine and beautiful, because what you will see at a Zephyrs game is a truly New Orleans event–the game allows for prolonged appreciation of baseball as a sport: the fans watch the players grow into the majors, while fans mingle, turn and discuss the goings-on of politics and the daily events. It is a slow, enjoyable, languorous experience, which fits our city’s personality–and it’s time for New Orleanians to rediscover it.