MOOSIC, Pa. — A baseball game here at the base of Montage Mountain, a renowned Poconos ski resort, used to be a drab affair in a down-on-its-luck park that had some nice scenery in the outfield and not much more.
Times are different now after the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees left town last year and spent the entire 2012 season barnstorming through the International League. The bulk of their “home” games were played in Rochester’s Frontier Field with the rest spread around the IL.
Back home, PNC Field was undergoing a $43 million renovation that saw the entire ballpark torn down and a new one built around the same diamond. It was an ingenious process, and one that has produced a worthwhile one-tank trip for Buffalo baseball fans.
The team has been rebranded the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders but it’s still the Yankees’ affilate and Western New York Bronx Bombers fans can get their fix with just a 4-hour drive. In fact, the new PNC Field is one of six IL ballparks less than a 6-hour drive away from Buffalo’s Coca-Cola Field.
“It’s been great for us,” veteran Scranton manager Dave Miley said before a recent game against the Bisons. “You haven’t heard anybody complain and obviously first of all, we’ve got a home now. I did say last year that if you get through last summer, we’ll reap the benefits and that’s what we’re doing now.”
“The one thing we always tell people is that it’s totally new. It’s not a renovation,” said Rob Crain, the RailRiders’ president/general manager. “I always say you renovate your bathroom. This is a reconstruction, a brand new facility. We’re really driving home that point.”
The ballpark, located between Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, opened in 1989 as Lackawanna County Stadium and was often a political football with the county government as its operator. It was a two-deck concrete cavern built with the same outfield dimensions as old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia because the then-Red Barons were a Phillies affiliate.
The park had a scenic backdrop at the base of the mountain but was a scourge on the inside. The concourse was dank with limited concessions and no views of the field. The clubhouses were located right off the concourse and were spartan. Tunnels from the clubhouses to the field had such low ceilings and were so full of dirt and decay that players preferred to walk through the stands to and from batting practice until the gates were opened and they were forced to use them.
In more recent years, the park suffered from neglect, with plenty of concrete and water damage. Attendance dropped and the steep upper deck was often empty. When the franchise changed affiliates in 2007, it took the “Yankees” name but saw no appreciable impact.
The team was sold in May, 2012 by Lackawanna County to the Yankees themselves and their Mandalay Baseball Properties arm that runs several minor-league clubs. There are new colors, a new name chosen by fans, a new porcupine mascot and a leadership team using the every-game-is-an-event approach to minor-league baseball that the Bisons first popularized with the 1988 opening of then-Pilot Field.
“We wanted to start fresh and have the community’s team with a community feel,” Crain said. “We had them give us the name options, had them vote on them. It’s their franchise. There’s one Yankees. They’re in the Bronx. This is us going forward. The RailRiders brand and colors. Now it doesn’t matter if you’re a Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, Mets, Pirates fan, whoever you are. We really wanted that so you can be a RailRiders fan.”
In fact, Crain said the Yankees moniker may have worked against the franchise in recent years.
“As a guy growing up in Boston, I would not have bought a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees jersey or T-shirt or hat, and a lot of fans feel the same way,” he said. “Now, I have more RailRiders gear than I know what to do with.”
The only things kept from the old park were the diamond itself, the Scranton clubhouse and the pitch of the lower deck seating bowl, which is intimate and only about 15 rows from the field. All the seats were replaced, as was the upper deck.
In its place is a new club/suite level – sold out for three years – with a glass-enclosed restaurant. New multi-tiered party decks were built in left and right field, as were a grass berm in right and children’s game areas in left-center. Rock formations and forest remain in right field, creating a unique waterfall effect after rain.
The concourse is now completely open with 360-degree views all around the park. In fact, sponsored distance signs mark a concourse walking trail for fans – one lap around is 1 mile.
“We wanted to change not just the ballpark but our philosophy on the way we sell the ballpark and open it to the public to create that more family-friendly feeling,” Crain said. “You’re looking out to center field, there’s a 30-foot tall bouncehouse out there. It just shows our family-friendly viewpoint on life. We wanted to focus on that.”
The only part of the field that needed to be replaced was the warning track, which was used for all the heavy machinery and replaced all the way around the diamond.
“We made sure not to drive on the grass,” Crain joked. “We did our best there.”
There are about 7,200 fixed seats, with outfield seating and standing room that can bring capacity to about 10,000. The top ticket is just $12. Naturally, there are numerous food options. The restaurant has a full buffet each game. Concession stands feature items such as chicken and beef cheesesteaks and multiple nacho platters in addition to ballpark staples. A barbecue stand in right field utilizes a 750-pound smoker and serves pulled pork and brisket sandwiches served with a pierogi on top.
Attendance is about 5,490 a game, more than 900 per opening ahead of the 2011 total and that’s before the heavily promoted summer months start. Still, the RailRiders are finding a unique challenge to sell a market on a team that was gone for a year.
“People in the market figured another way to entertain themselves in 2012,” Crain said. “You ask them and they say, ‘Well, we did this last year.’ Now it’s retraining them, it’s us saying, ‘Come on out, we’re different.’ It’s a big education for the market, not only what PNC Field looks like but a total change of our business model with all kinds of promotions and giveaways.
“We’ve looked at every part of our business. We’ve brought back giveaways, have a different promotion every night. That was an easy goal of ours to start, something that had to be done. “
For the game on the field, there’s a new video board in left with stats scrolling on another HD board implanted inside the right-field fence. The visiting team’s digs are spacious as well, with the manager getting his own office and the team itself getting its own batting cage and pitcher’s mound. In many ballparks, such as Buffalo, teams share the underground areas. In Scranton’s old configuration, the only batting cage was in deep right field.
“This is really nice. It’s sure a big improvement from the old place,” said Bisons manager Marty Brown, who last visited in 2005. “You always remembered walking through that cave from the clubhouse but now they’ve got a good setup here.”
The Yankees were 13th in the 14-team IL in attendance in 2011, their previous year at home. Market size will likely keep the RailRaiders in the bottom half of the league most years, but they can come much closer to capacity than they have in the past, and they’re already up to ninth in tickets sold this year in just the first three months of play. And they expect enthusiasm for the new brand to grow.
“You go around Wilkes-Barre, Scranton and whatever bar/grill or restaurant or shop you see, you see the porcupine,” Miley said. “Everyone knows this is the home of the RailRiders now. People around town are wearing the new hats. We see them on the road too. It’s been nice. They’ve done a great job here.”