Monday, May 12, 2008
Introducing the Grand Prairie AirHogs
The AirHogs will kick off their home season at the brand new QuikTrip Park on Friday, May 16.
This past weekend kicked off the inaugural season of the Grand Prairie AirHogs, a member of the 10-team American Association, a minor league whose teams are not affiliated with Major League teams. The AirHogs started the season in St. Paul, Minnesota for four games, then travel to Shreveport for games Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday before coming home to open up QuikTrip Park in Grand Prairie.
The team is owned by Ventura Sports Group, and the team president and managing partner is Mark Schuster, who has spent 19 years in minor league baseball. His experience spans from Triple-A with the Portland Beavers down to Single-A teams such as the Charleston River Dogs. David Burke became the general manager of the team last August. Burke has been in minor league baseball for 18 years, including the past seven years with minor league affiliates of the Tampa Bay Rays and Minnesota Twins. They bring a wealth of baseball marketing experience to the AirHogs organization. Last October, they named former Ranger Pete Incaviglia to be the first manager of the AirHogs. Incaviglia has most recently been involved in player development in the Detroit Tigers organization.
In case you were wondering…
The term “AirHog” was a slang term used by pilots during World War II. When they took flight they wanted to “hog the air.” Hence the term was born. The team selected “AirHogs” from more than 700 entries submitted in a name the team contest. Mike Hasty of Grand Prairie submitted the winning entry.
“AirHogs was chosen because it complemented the stadium’s aviation inspired architecture and the local aeronautical industry,” Schuster said.
The team has a snazzy logo with a pig that has wings and pilot’s goggles. It was designed by More Branding + Communication, a Tulsa firm.
This past weekend’s games are the start of a 96-game season that ends in late August. The American Association is divided into two divisions, and the AirHogs will be playing in South Division against teams based in El Paso, Ft. Worth, Shreveport and Pensacola, Fla. The North Division has teams in St. Paul, Wichita, Kan, Lincoln, Neb., and two in Sioux City, Iowa. There are approximately 60 unaffiliated teams around the country, providing opportunities for approximately 1,400 players to either get into professional baseball or try to resurrect their professional career.
The AirHogs start the season with a 21-player roster, one less than the league allows. The youngest player on the team is Rodney Brantley at 22, while the oldest is Billy Munoz at 32. The teams have a salary cap of $100,000 for their roster, which by league rule can include no more than four veteran players, and must include a minimum of four “rookie” players. “Veterans” are defined as players that have played professional baseball on any level for more than five years, while “rookies” are players with less than a year of professional experience. The league also requires no more than four players in addition to the veterans with at least four years of professional experience. These rules are designed to provide balance. In effect, they make the league a “first chance and last chance” for players to get into traditional minor leagues affiliated with Major League teams.
A local flavor
The initial AirHogs’ roster is heavy on local players. Pitchers Justin Garcia and Michael Gardner are from Arlington, while Kieran Mattison is from Dallas, Rodney Zantley is from Garland, and outfielder Drew Holder is from Plano. There are also four more players from Texas; and among the roster, four players played college ball at Dallas Baptist University.
Clint Smith is a relief pitcher from Waco who made the team after being out of professional baseball for three years. He’s 30 years old and runs a baseball academy in Waco. “I’ve been coaching a select team of 13-year-olds, too,” Smith said. “I missed it (playing professionally) and wanted to get back.” He harbors hopes of getting signed by an affiliated team, and thinks the layoff may have been good for him. “My body feels good. My arm feels strong. I think I’m physically more fit.”
David Espinosa is a 26 year-old outfielder who is classified as one of the team’s “veterans.” Incaviglia was his batting coach in AA, when he was in the Tigers’ farm system, and he’s looking for the opportunity to get back with an affiliated team. He’s mostly played middle infield in his career, but he’s excited to get to play multiple positions with the AirHogs. “It’s going to benefit me. The more positions I can play, the more value I can have to a team.”
The team’s 21-man roster includes just 10 position players, so many of them will be playing multiple positions. The projected starting lineup is:
J. B. Tucker – catcher
Billy Munoz – 1B
Demetrius Heath – 2B
Paul Bartolucci – SS
Edwin Maldonado – 3B
Aaron Garza – LF
Drew Holder - CF
David Espinosa – RF
Derek Nicholson – DH
The starting pitchers are:
James Morrison is the closer.
The goal for these guys is to get noticed by a Major League team and get back into a Major League team’s system. Incaviglia says he thinks realistically that three to five players could get signed.
The AirHogs will have their share of promotions such as dollar beer nights (“Thirsty Thursdays”) and pre-game concerts. There is a school day for Grand Prairie ISD students, and Renaldo from American Idol will be at the park on May 27. Other promotions include “Pick Up Truck Appreciation Night” and a “Charity Poker Challenge.” Most Major League ballpark promotions have their genesis in minor league baseball, and the AirHogs will do their best to show the Rangers the promotions they need to utilize.
The Grand Prairie AirHogs offer a unique entertainment experience for area baseball fans. The ballpark is really special, clearly state of the art for its size and scope. Fans can watch baseball from a quality vantage point with all if not more amenities than they get at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. There is entertainment for younger fans, and it all comes at a fraction of the price of Major League Baseball.
QuickTrip Park will open next week when the AirHogs return for their home opener May 16 against the Wichita Wingnuts. The park has become a reality in warp speed. Grand Prairie citizens approved the proposition to fund the construction in an election held on May 12, 2007. The ceremonial groundbreaking took place May 30, but the real construction didn’t begin until July 5. The park needs just the final touches to be finished for next week’s home opener. It’s been built for the approximate cost of $20 million.
The stadium is located adjacent to Lone Star Park and the Nokia Theater near the intersection of I-30 and Belt Line Road. It seats 5,445, which includes 13 boxes and three suites. It is “family-friendly” with a supervised play area (Wide World of Parks Kid Zone) for young children behind the first base line seating, which includes a basketball court and jungle gym.
There is a 6,000 square feet club restaurant and sports bar beyond the left field fence. It has a cigar bar and 35 flat screen televisions. In right-center field fence is a swimming pool. There is also a picnic area down the third base line. (The AirHogs will occupy the third base dugout.)
The park was designed architecturally to remind of Grand Prairie’s aviation history. There is a huge archway at the entrance to give the appearance of an airplane hangar. The park has a feeling of intimacy. Literally every seat provides a close to the action view.
In terms of amenities, the park is already the finest in the American Association. It’s clearly “state of the art”, and in some areas surpasses Frisco’s Dr. Pepper Ballpark that is home to the RoughRiders. It will be an attraction even if the ball club isn’t on the field.
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