Walla Walla Sweets' season was just plain fun

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WALLA WALLA - The West Coast League's maiden season in Walla Walla was, well, sweet.

With general manager Zachary Fraser successfully manipulating the strings, the Walla Walla Sweets wood-bat baseball team turned Borleske Stadium into a summertime party each and every game that would have made Jimmy Buffett proud. It was just plain fun.

And successful, too.

Despite losing more games than they won and falling short of the WCL playoffs, the Sweets led the league in attendance by averaging in excess of 1,400 fans for their 28-game home schedule. Walla Walla crowds averaged 1,451 for 24 league games and another 1,409 for an additional four non-league tilts, boosting the season total to 40,461 fun-seeking fans who found their way inside the stadium gates for collegiate-style baseball in a professional atmosphere.

The Wenatchee AppleSox, who won the WCL's Eastern Division title with a 29-19 record, were second in attendance, drawing 38,970 fans for 30 home dates.

Fraser, hired to run the operation by an ownership group headed by Whitman College graduate John Stanton, founder and former CEO of Western Wireless Corporation, and former Major League infielder Jeff Cirillo, couldn't have been happier.

"It went really, really well," Fraser said. "We exceeded all of our budgeted expectations in regard to revenue.

"It didn't surprise me that we were able to lead the league in attendance, because that's what we planned for," Fraser added. "Everything we put into it was to fill the park every night.

"What did surprise me was the consistency. Even for great teams that do well in attendance, you see a burst of attendance to begin the season, a drop off and then another burst at the end. We saw that burst at the beginning, but it never dropped off."

The Sweets opened their season at Borleske Stadium on June 8 before an announced crowd of 1,744. The only crowd to exceed that came on Aug. 2, the team's home finale, when 1,891 filed into the stadium.

Ironically, the season's smallest crowd came one day earlier when 602 fans were on hand for the season's final day game.

"We learned that Walla Walla is not a day baseball town," Fraser said.

"But that's not a slam on Walla Walla," he quickly added. "We had a great day-game crowd early on, the last day of school, when we had a special $6 offer for a ticket, a 'dog and a drink. Kids got out of school early and we had a great crowd that day, and if we can get the schedules to coincide we want to make that a fun tradition that we maintain.

"But one thing I learned is that Walla Walla has some of the most beautiful evening weather I have ever seen."

Fraser indicated that his ownership group was as pleased as he was with the way Walla Wallans embraced the team.

"They loved it," the GM said. "They had more fun with this team than just about anything they have done. I think, collectively and individually, they found a lot of joy in being part of this process."

Which is not to say that they are content with the status quo. Improvements can be made and there is much to be done, Fraser suggested.

"Like just about all first-year businesses, we also exceeded our (anticipated) costs," Fraser said. "And that's the next step in the process, to figure out how to continue to maintain a strong product, offer a great customer experience and at the same time make it more efficient."

That said, the Sweets' owners don't expect to "make their millions in life" operating a baseball team in the WCL, Fraser emphasized.

"I think their goal is to put together a championship-caliber product that the community can be proud of and is positive for the community as a whole," he said. "And they want to create an opportunity for (players) to develop professionally. At the end of the day, if they end up making money that is a good thing."

And the organization's commitment to Walla Walla is long term, the GM insisted.

"When I tell people that we have signed a 10-year lease with Borleske Stadium, I see their jaws drop," Fraser said. "We are not going anywhere and we are not tearing down the stadium."

In fact, Fraser is contemplating additional improvements to the stadium, including expanded seating and possibly a press box behind home plate and a seating area beyond the right field wall.

"I think we can convert this ball park to where it can comfortably seat 2,000 per night," Fraser said.

As for the team's 18-30 final record in the WCL, which left it 11 games out of first place in the Eastern Division and four games out of the playoffs, Fraser was not at all discouraged.

"With a week-and-a-half to go, we were just a half game out of the playoffs," he said. "There was a stretch in July where we won seven games in a row and nine out of 10. We certainly jelled as a team and went on a stretch where we were one of the best teams in the league in terms of wins and losses."

One thing Fraser and his coaching staff - manager J.C. Biagi, pitching coach Mark Michaud, bench coach Dan Thigpen and strength and conditioning coach Ben Jewkes - learned this season is to be more Borleske Stadium-specific in signing players for the 2011 season.

"If you are a player with power to the right-field gap, Borleske's not the best place to come play, because it's from here to Seattle out there," Fraser said. "But if you are a pitcher who gives up a lot of fly balls, it's not a bad place to be because of how big the outfield is."

And a deeper player pool is another key goal.

"Collectively, we signed 45 players this season," Fraser said. "Seven or eight never made it because they were either drafted or injured. We had a handful of guys who got hurt during the season - four of them were pitchers - and a handful of guys who didn't work out for one reason or another."

And the process of restocking the roster has already begun.

"We are in full swing," Fraser said. "And we now know better what kind of players we want, both in terms of the stadium and those who fit with our coaching staff."

As far as Biagi and his assistant coaches are concerned, the GM said he couldn't be more pleased with their professional growth during the season.

"I can't tell you how happy and proud I am of the coaching staff," Fraser said. "No one is going to be perfect, but you want to see people learn and continue to work hard and strive for perfection. That's what I saw in our coaches."

Fraser, of course, has goals of his own in mind. And he has set his sights high.

"I want Chuck Armstrong's job," he said, only half jokingly, in reference to the Seattle Mariners president.

"But in the meantime, I'm happy here in Walla Walla. And if I wind up spending 15 years in Walla Walla, that's not a bad gig."

Most important, Fraser said, he is doing what he loves to do.

"I live a Groundhog Day life," he said. "At the end of every baseball season, I just start over again."

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