It’s time to get on board.
As a fan of minor league baseball, I love having several teams to choose from within a couple of hours. From the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, to the Syracuse Chiefs, to the Tri-City ValleyCats, to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, there are plenty of options.
But one team sticks out as one that has turned a pretty good corner over the past several years – the Chiefs.
One of the major reasons for the changes is general manager Jason Smorol and his staff, which is among the smallest in Triple-A baseball, according to Smorol.
My first interaction with Smorol came during his first year. I had gone to the team store in search of the Baseball Passport stamp. The people couldn’t find it, but said they’d track it down and took down where I was sitting. A couple of innings into the game, the stamp was found.
Who delivered it?
Since then, when I go to games in Syracuse, I still see Smorol doing his thing. He gets out and talks with people. He remembers fans. He makes connections. For being a step away from the majors (Syracuse is the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals), he still seems to carry the type of feel you’d get from a general manager at a much lower level of play. He still pops by our seats, too, remembering who we are and where we sit.
“Talking to people is super important to me,” Smorol said on a sunny early spring day, as his team played a double-header for its second and third games of the year. “We need to connect with fans.”
Not everybody thinks this way.
On a road trip last year, a couple of us visited a park of a team in a very low-level Single-A league. The stamp, again, couldn’t be found. But the GM wouldn’t be bothered, so the store manager tried to help us. It wasn’t found.
In my years in newspapers and covering minor league baseball for six years, not all GMs in the Single-A league I covered were this way (though, to be fair, I only dealt with a handful of them).
Baseball is a business, though. The year before Smorol took over the Chiefs, the team was $1.2M in the hole. Last year the team turned a profit of $67,000. That might not seem like a ton, but obviously Smorol and his staff are doing something right to have that kind of turnaround in fewer than four full seasons.
“We’re still here,” he said. “Each year has gotten better. It’s selling fence signs, getting more groups, and having more promotions.”
Attendance has also been on an increase in his three seasons, and the numbers seem more legit than in the past. Of the games I’ve been to, the announced attendance seems to be – give or take – about right, when you factor in all variables.
In 2016, the Chiefs drew an announced 274,427, which is about 28,000 more than in 2013.
It seems people are getting on board, which is the slogan for the team.
“We’re the choo-choo Chiefs,” Smorol said. “We needed a call to action. Get On Board. This train will not stop. It gives you something to ask the fans.”
Syracuse’s franchise has a long history with Syracuse. Smorol, who is a Syracause-area native and who has served as the neighboring Auburn Doubledays general manager several years ago, knows and appreciates the history and what the team means to the area.
“We want to be here,” he said of the community owned team. “This is good for the community.”
Despite the more than two-hour trip to get to Syracuse, I have over the past few years attended a bunch of games. There’s a good energy. There are really good promotions and concessions. And there’s truly not a bad seat at NBT Bank Stadium. This season, I opted to buy a 10-ticket flex pack, so I’ll be getting to a bunch of games this year.
Smorol said he is happy with the progress the team has made and knows there is still a lot of work to be done. In a dream world, Smorol says this is would be his final stop for his career.
“I knew it would take 3-to-5 years, but I thought it could be quicker,” he said. “I’m proud of our staff. What we are able to do with our budget and staff – I couldn’t be prouder. I don’t know if anybody thought we’d still be here. There are a lot of people pulling for the Chiefs.”
I’ve gotten On Board with the Chiefs – the question is, are you?