BY STEVE KRAH
A baseball and entertainment destination can be found in Lafayette, Ind.
The Lafayette Aviators came off the runway in 2016 at the old Loeb Stadium (which made its debut in 1940).
In 2021, a new Loeb Stadium was unveiled on the same site (Wallace Avenue and Main Street) next to Columbian Park Zoo and Tropincanoe Cove water park.
Only this time the field that the Aviators and Lafayette Jefferson High School baseball and soccer call home was flipped to face the other way and had a turf field and was more fan-friendly with its amenities.
David Krakower is Aviators general manager. His career stops include those in Major League Baseball, Minor League Baseball, independent pro baseball as well at the National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, United Soccer League and on the business side with ESPN for college football.
Krakower took the time to talk about the Aviators as the franchise wraps up the second season in the new park in 2022.
“When I moved here in October 2020 it took me all of five minutes to know that between August and May Purdue runs this town and the Greater Lafayette area and that’s great,” says Krakower. “We wanted to carve out a niche. We can own this town from May to August when nothing’s going on at Purdue. So you make tickets affordable. There’s no charge for parking. You keep concessions and merchandise as reasonable as you can. A family of four can come out without spending a ton of money.”
Since the Aviators play in the wood bat summer collegiate Prospect League, players are not paid. That makes a difference in budgeting and operating expenses versus a professional team.
While the Aviators season is short (June 1-Aug. 6 for the regular season), there is a large local impact.
“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is the sense of community here,” says Krakower. “The fans know that they have such a limited window with these players. We’ve got two and a half months over the summer and then they’re back to college. (Fans) development an instantaneous connection to them.
“And then they watch them grow as they continue their collegiate careers or eventually get drafted and move on.”
Just this week, Krakower took a call from a former host family letting him know the latest on a player that stayed with them five years ago.
“There is a definite sense of community here — unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been,” says Krakower. “A part of that is they get attached to the Aviators and the brand.
“It doesn’t seem to matter what players we bring in, they fans seem to have an attachment to the name on the front of the jersey.”
As an example, Krakow points out that the 2021 Aviators set a record for most regular-season wins (41) and came within four outs of a league title while drawing 40,985 fans to city-owned Loeb. The biggest crowd was 2,049.
“It was as magical a season as we could have had without winning the championship,” says Krakower.
With two home dates remaining in 2022, the team has brought in 40,762 spectators and the club is 24-32 overall. The biggest house has been 2,193. There were 257 season ticket holders.
The Aviators have promotions and on-field activities going on at each home game. One of the most-popular dates of the season is when the team hosts a street fair with food trucks, player autographs and live music in June.
The team also wears specialty jerseys that fans can bid on like the colorful tops worn on Mexican Heritage Day or Wizardry Night. There are giveaway nights with plenty of Aviators swag — jerseys, caps and baseballs.
Ace The Aviator is a popular mustachioed mascot.
This week, there was a Lafayette Police Department National Night Out.
Ticket packages are sometimes tied in with the zoo or the water park.
The Prospect League allows 32 players per roster with a maximum of four from a particular school. With pitchers reaching innings limits, injuries or players shutting down early to get ready to ready to their university, there can be as many as 60 players who don the colors in Lafayette each summer.
Krakower, who maintains relationships with college coaches all over the country, has already began the process of recruiting for the 2023 season. If he has players on the team that he likes that have remaining college eligibility he will invite them to come back.
The Aviators have four full-time employees plus three or four interns in the spring and summer. On game days, there are 60 to 70 people in seasonal jobs. Some have been with the team since its inaugural season of 2016.
“I think we’ve got about 80 percent of our staff or seasonal staff from last year back this year because they love working at the new park,” says Krakower.
The Aviators are to host games Thursday (Aug. 4) vs. Terre Haute and Saturday (Aug. 6) vs. Illinois Valley. Saturday is Fan Appreciation Day. First pitch for both contests is slated for 7 p.m.