By STEVE KRAH
Downtown Fort Wayne has become a destination and TinCaps baseball is a big reason.
The minor league team welcomed a franchise-record 413,701 fans to Parkview Field for 68 dates in 2016 and was only slightly behind that pace in 2017 — the ninth at the ballpark on Ewing Street.
Fort Wayne, a San Diego Padres affiliate, drew 252,305 for its first 45 dates, including a single-game record 9,266 on July 4.
“The city has embraced us,” says TinCaps president Mike Nutter. “The people keep coming. It’s been an unbelievable 8 1/2 years and we just want to keep it going.”
A combination of exciting, young talent and ballpark amenities attracts fans from around the region.
“It’s an incredible sports market,” says Nutter, who notes that folks who who root for the Cubs, White Sox, Indians, Tigers, Reds and Cardinals agree that the TinCaps are their local team.
Before the streak was stopped in 2016, Fort Wayne had made the playoff seven straight seasons — a mark not matched in the minors or the majors.
Some people come to the park for the food and the promotions, but others want to see a winner and fondly recall the first season at Parkview when Fort Wayne, managed by Doug Dascenzo, won the 2009 Midwest League championship. Led by right-hander Mat Latos, 19 of those players landed in the big leagues.
Nutter has been with the franchise since the fall of 1999. The Fort Wayne Wizards played at the former Memorial Stadium from 1993-2008 and were affiliated with the Minnesota Twins through 1998.
“We were doing that and thought it was great,” says Nutter of the Memorial Stadium days. “We had a hard-working group.”
Current vice presidents David Lorenz, Brian Schackow and Michael Limmer were with the club in those days.
Before coming to the Summit City, Nutter had been in Nashville and watched that ownership have trouble getting a new ballpark (which eventually happened in 2015) so he knew new digs in Fort Wayne were not a sure thing.
“We didn’t know how realistic it was,” says Nutter. “Then it started to get legs and it started to move.”
The TinCaps are run by Hardball Capital. Jason Freier is chairman and CEO of that group, which also runs the Chattanooga Lookouts and Columbia Fireflies.
One idea TinCaps management had when they moved across town is still in place.
“When we came downtown we said lawn seats would be 5 bucks. We liked the way that sounded,” says Nutter. “At the old ballpark — again, not being criticial of it — the cheapest ticket was $6.50. Here was are in Year 9 and they’re still 5 bucks.”
Whether paying $5 or for more-expensive seats, patrons can see a TinCaps team that features three 18-year-olds in the starting infield, including Fernando Tatis Jr. at shortstop, Hudson Potts at third base and Reinaldo Ilarraza at second base.
Tatis, son of former MLB player Fernando Tatis Sr., has already been MWL Player of the Week twice in 2017 — the first Fort Wayne player to do that since Rymer Liriano in 2011. Baseball Prospectus ranks the young Tatis No. 22 among its Midseason Top 50 prospects.
“On a nightly basis, he stands out as the most-exciting player on the field,” says Sam Geaney, Padres director of player development. “From his raw ability and a lot of his performances, there’s a lot of positives.
“I love the way he plays. It seems like he enjoys playing the game.”
The Padres organization has definitely turned to teens to turn things around and that includes Fort Wayne.
“We are one of the youngest teams in the league,” says Geaney. “We understand there are going to be some growing pains.
“We had a lot of international signings. We have two 17-year-olds (Luis Almanzar and Justin Lopez) and an 18-year-old (Kelvin Melean) at (rookie-level) Tri-City playing on a nightly basis.
“When you sign guys from Latin America, for the most part those guys will be younger — 16 or 17 years old. It’s very clear with our staff that we’re trying to find the best players.”
Slugging first baseman Brad Zunica is a returnee from 2016.
“He’s just continuing to mature,” says Geaney of Zunica. “He had his first full professional season last year. There’s a maturing process that comes with that. He continues to tighten up his swing.
“With the combination of mechanical things and professional development, we’re going to see some results this year.”
With a re-worked pitching staff nurtured by veteran coach Burt Hooton, Fort Wayne manager Anthony Contreras had his team off to a 12-7 start in the second half after a league-worst 26-44 performance in the first half.
Michel Baez, a 6-foot-8 Cuban right-hander, made his first start in front of a paying crowd on American soil in the July 4 game and impressed by pitching five innings of two-hit shutout baseball with nine strikeouts
“The future is bright I think for the TinCaps in the second half and I know for the Padres in the future,” says Nutter.