The City of High Point’s checklist for the 2019 baseball season:
- Build shiny new multi-million dollar stadium. Check.
- Hire staff, vendors and players. Check.
- Publicize the tar out of it. Check, check and check.
High Point officials are certainly excited about the major downtown renovation project now coming together around a new baseball stadium and new baseball team – the High Point Rockers – however, Greg Suire, the longtime owner and president of the HiToms baseball team, said he can’t help but wonder if there isn’t one thing High Point overlooked…
Suire said the central element of the entire project seems to have been an afterthought. He said that, as someone who knows the game of baseball and the local market very well, he’s been surprised by a number of decisions made in establishing the new team.
Some will say that Suire’s comments are to be expected given that the HiToms will be competing head to head with the Rockers for fans. The HiToms, who play at Finch Field in Thomasville, draw from southern High Point and the Thomasville area – the same fan base the new High Point Rockers are seeking to attract. In fact, the two stadiums are just 3.2 miles apart.
Suire said that’s not it.
“I wish them no ill-will,” he said. “This is America and they have a right to start a baseball team if they want – but we’ll see how well they have done their research.”
He said that, in all the hype about economic revitalization, the actual “baseball” part of the equation has gotten short shrift. Suire said the new stadium was expensive to build for this market and Rockers opponents are from cities far away – which means no natural rivalries and greater travel expenses. The central theme of High Point’s effort has been economic development rather than a community oriented team that engages the public – the model that’s worked for the HiToms for years.
The Rockers will play in the Atlantic League, an independent baseball league that’s very spread out geographically. The HiToms play in the Coastal Plain League – a collegiate summer league that features up and coming college players.
“At the end of the day, this is baseball,” he said. “Baseball is the attraction that keeps you coming back. “
It certainly is true that, in several meetings in 2018, High Point’s project leaders stated that people come to games to drink beer and see other people rather than watch baseball, though High Point officials and the team’s management now seem to be taking the baseball side of things very seriously. The organization does an excellent job working with the media and the Rockers team has hired Frank Viola to the coaching staff. Viola is a three-time Major League Baseball All-Star who led the Minnesota Twins to the 1987 World Series and was named the series Most Valuable Player. A year later he won the Cy Young Award given annually to the league’s best pitchers.
The Rockers recently named three new players to their 2019 roster: Breland Almadova, Josh Mazzola, and Nick Sarianides, who have all helped win minor league championships at one point in their professional careers.
High Point Rockers Manager Jamie Keefe said the team is bringing in winners and there will be a high-level play when the Rockers are on the field.
“All three of these guys have won at different levels in their professional career,” Keefe said. “When you look at the four players currently on our roster, the championship pedigree they possess is an example of the kind of baseball we expect and will be looking for here in High Point.”
Suire said the Atlantic League the Rockers are in features players who were once very good, but are now on the tail end of their careers, while, with the HiToms, he said, the focus is on developing young players on the way up.
Suire said he doesn’t accept the claim that some High Point officials have made that the quality of Rockers ball will be higher than that of the HiToms. He added that there’s a pretty straightforward way to settle that quality of play question: Have the two teams go head to head.
“I would love for them to come to Finch Field and play us,” he said.
Suire said the HiToms center on young players on the way up and makes it a point to spread the love of baseball in the community.
“We’re predicated on developing baseball players and seeing young people succeed,” he said.
Another advantage for the HiToms, he said, is its long-standing ties to the community – especially to young kids. He said those kids get really excited about seeing the players and that helps get a new generation interested in baseball.
For instance, in a just announced program – “Read Around the Bases” – the HiToms have partnered with eight area schools and launched a reading achievement program that incentivizes young students to read more.
He said the team is “extremely excited to launch this program as part of our longstanding commitment to the community,” and added, “At the end of the day, it’s about connecting with them and inspiring them.”
The HiToms players will hit schools such as Thomasville Primary, Pilot Elementary and Allen Jay Elementary and HiToms will check on the progress of the young readers. The rewards system will have a baseball theme, with scorecards to track students’ progress. Achievers will receive rewards like pens, coupons, and free HiToms tickets as they reach bases. At the end of the school year, all eight schools will be the HiToms’ special guests at two games.
The HiToms began playing in the 1930s and played each year until 1970. Nearly three decades later, 1998, the HiToms started up again.