Beach Bums’ first year considered a hit

TRAVERSE CITY – Traverse City has an appetite for baseball.

With the inaugural minor league season of the Traverse City Beach Bums coming to a close this month, the numbers tell a story of success.

And that's not just hitting a baseball, which the Beach Bums did well enough to contend for a playoff berth.

They led the league in average attendance, with more than 4,000 per game.

They created a buzz around minor league baseball with the unique design of their new stadium, the brainchild of owners John and Leslye Wuerfel.

The Wuerfels, who privately financed their $6 million stadium, made their money in the hotel business and then turned their hotel design into a state-of-the-art stadium that can hold more than 6,000 fans.

"The business of baseball has so many different aspects to it," said Leslye Wuerfel, the team's general manager, who sits on the board of directors of the Frontier League. "There is the team itself, the fans, the stadium upkeep, the concessions and the employees.

"We have had a successful first year, in large part, because of our first-class staff. They have had so much enthusiasm about their jobs and that came across to the fans. Between our team playing well, the look of the new stadium and the work of our employees, it all came together."

Beach Bums pitcher Tony Casoli, the league's winningest pitcher, echoed those sentiments.

"I knew this was going to be a good year after we lost our opener, 10-2, to Kalamazoo," he said. "Instead of hearing boos, the fans gave us a standing ovation. It was the pick-me-up we needed to hear. We haven't looked back sense. The fans have been tremendous."

They've also been hungry.

Randy Sharp, the director of concessions, has spent 35 years in the hospitality business and says feeding baseball fans has "been a challenge."

Despite not having a kitchen to prepare food, Sharp and his staff racked up some impressive numbers of their own this year.

They served:

– 6 miles of hot dogs and brats.

– 40,000 scoops of ice cream.

– 20,000 boxes of popcorn.

– 18,000 gallons of soft drink

products.

– 12,000 soft pretzels

– 7,500 gallons of beer

– 750 gallons of cheese sauce

"The numbers can be daunting," said Sharp. "But our job boiled down to the basics-producing large amounts of food as fast as possible. Our year has gone well, especially considering this is a first time venture."

Success has come with a price, said Wuerfel.

"There is always an incredible amount of work to do," she said. "We came in a lot of mornings during home games at 8:30 a.m. and didn't get home until 2:30 a.m. Then we would turn around a do it again. It's tough – and tiring – when we had a six-game home stand."

The rewards outweighed the work, she said.

"We've had people come up to us after a game and tell us they weren't baseball fans when they came to the park. But after experiencing a Beach Bums game for the first time, they were hooked."

How did the Beach Bums hook northern Michigan fans?

"It's just constant entertainment," said season ticket holder Charlie Johnston. "Besides the game itself, they have contests between innings where they draw little kids and adults out of the stands to participate. You see a lot of people you know at the park."

That's the other part of the Traverse City success story.

"Years ago, people used to gather at Thirlby Field on Friday nights for Trojan football games when there was just one high school. It was the place to be," said John Wuerfel, who oversees the stadium operations. "Now, Wuerfel Park serves that need for a community gathering place with a sporting atmosphere. You can walk from foul pole to foul pole and see lots of people you know. In fact, we've had lots of fans tell us they've renewed old friendships because of people they've seen here again at the park."

Frontier League commissioner Bill Lee has been impressed with the Traverse City franchise.

"Our league is just completing its 14th season and it's on the best financial footing it's ever been on," he said. "It's because of ownership groups like the Wuerfels. Our stadiums range from Evansville – which was built in 1915 and was used in the movie 'A League Of Their Own' – to Wuerfel Park. The unique part about our league is that the fans know the owners. That's the beauty of the Wuerfels in Traverse City. For almost 20 years people had been trying to bring professional baseball to Traverse City. Without the Wuerfels, it wouldn't have happened. What you are seeing is a real love for that team and that facility."

That "love" extends not only to the community, but to the businesses that serve Wuerfel Park, Blair Township and the entire Traverse City area.

"The ballpark has given people a good reason to come out this way," said Culver's owner Brad Johnson.

"The Beach Bums are a regional draw," said Brad Van Dommelen, president of the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We don't have any specific numbers about their economic impact at this point, but we do know they have given Traverse City a new product with great entertainment value."

That entertainment will temporarily end when the Frontier League playoffs come to a close in mid-September. Wuerfel Park will sit idle, at least this year.

"Our first year, we decided on doing baseball right," said Leslye Wuerfel. "Next year we'll take a look at doing concerts, a basketball tournament in our parking lot or an arts & crafts festival when the team is out of town in the summer.

"But this year, it was all about baseball. We wanted to make sure we got it right." BN

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