HOME ABOUT US ADVERTISING INFORMATION CIRCULATION & DISTRIBUTION CONTACT US
The first two years,
Baseball overall has
For the 25th anniversary of
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
by Julie Clay
WITH MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL in full swing, our Southwest Florida spring training ballparks are taken over by the farm teams, and that means good ol family fun all summer long with the Fort Myers Miracle at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers. This year, the Miracle celebrate 25 years as an organization, so a visit to the Centurylink Sports Complex and a chat with John Kuhn, their Senior Director of Business Development, was in order.
Johns a familiar face round here. His family moved to Fort Myers in 1970 and hes worked in varying capacities with the Miracle since their inception in 1992. OK, mayyyybe he was there for a few years, left for almost two decades to work elsewhere in the industry, then found himself back in Southwest Florida in 2012, where really not much had changed at all. (note sarcasm )
When youre gone for 17 years, its an entire generation, John remembers, There was nothing here past Fiddlesticks back then. Fort Myers was still kind of a big small town when I left and maybe I felt like I knew everyone when I grew up here. Coming back, it was entirely different. The growth was incredible.
He recalls his first go around from 1992-95. The team was run by Mike Veeck, whose father Bill, an owner of the Cleveland Indians at one point and Baseball Hall of Famer, was also known as the greatest promoter in the history of baseball. Mike inherited that know-how, making a name for himself as the funniest man in baseball, a moniker he more than lived up to, says Kuhn.
Mr. Veeck created an atmosphere of wanting to be here. The first two years we were here we were in last place. The team was so bad we did stuff, says John, the memories rolling out, Our mascot was Jericho the Miracle Dog. We did post-game séances to call up the spirit of Thomas Edison, the spirit of nighttime baseball. We showed movies on the centerfield backdrop on bedsheets stitched together by my grandmother. Until they renovated the stadium we had the pulleys to hold it up. We did a Field of Screams event on Halloween in 1992, and we had the Beach Boys play here. We had 7,300 people for that show. We had post-game toy scrambles and CD scrambles, adding, Mike said we didnt want to be boring.
It even went so far as introducing a recurring character. I was the Phantom of the Ballpark, laughs John, I dressed in all black with a black & white catchers mask. In 1992 Phantom of the Opera was real big so I was the Phantom of the Ballpark. The music would play and the kids would chase me and try to unmask the Phantom. Wed play the music a couple times a game, then the Phantom would come out.
He recalls the family atmosphere that developed around the fledgling team, Starting here and learning the business with Mike, we were such a small group of people, we did everything together. We had no walkie talkies, no cell phones. It became a family with the fans. We didnt have enough people to pull the tarp when it rained so fans would jump down and help. Parents would pull up and drop a carload of kids off at the gate. We would take care of them. I would drive some kids home. I would see a kid I hadnt seen before and take him to a room full of stuff and give him five minutes to grab stuff. Nowadays, parents freak out, because they dont know you. So that was a big mindset change. Now there are kids that come every day that love to help out.
One correction here. There actually was a cellphone in those early days. ONE. The biggest thing we had, in 92-93, at the end of the concourse, was a walk-in cellular phone booth, laughs Kuhn, We had a bag phone hanging there and people would stand in line to make phone calls! We were the only ball park that had that.
John left in 1995 to work with other minor league teams, with stops in the upper Midwest, Canada and Massachusetts before coming back to The Miracle in June 2012. One of the biggest changes he noticed upon his return was the younger audience due in large part to Florida Gulf Coast University. Baseball overall has not done the best job of marketing to younger people, but the Miracle has. He says, The market got younger, especially with FGCU. John remembers discovering that hed gone to college with the head baseball coach at FGCU, and at the first game upon returning running into a guy with whom hed played college baseball.
Its almost as if hed never left. Miracle General Manager Andrew Seymour reflects on how Kuhn is the quintessential, prodigal son-comes-home story, John embodies the passion and enthusiasm that makes the ball park a great place to come to. He's the engine that drives the workplace and he has the care that makes every guest feel like they are the most important person in the ball park."
Kuhn adds that the family atmosphere is strong with the fanbase, We have a lot of longtime fans. One lady who comes has been here since we started. She comes every night. She and her husband have seats in front of her father, who has been coming since the first year. We now have a video board, and the biggest test is how to incorporate the video board into something that has always been so human-driven. I think people really enjoy going to a place where youre familiar with the people that are there. Ive missed two games in 25 years of doing baseball. People notice when youre not there. When my wife got really sick last year people would ask me how she was doing. When that feeling goes away I might leave. Our job when people come is to make them feel at home. Theyre guests as well as fans.
And fans get the weather, particularly the hot, sticky, rainy Florida summer. We had to know how the team operates under such unpredictable, tropical conditions, Kuhn says, Weather is the most important thing. Its the toughest part and people dont understand. The number one factor in drawing fans is the weather. You grin and bear it. The hard part is it might be pouring in Naples and Bonita Springs, but it might not be raining here. We keep our tarp clothes in our offices. There are times you put it on and take it off three times in one day. When we had the league All-Star game the weather was perfect in July. He adds that the 2015 renovations created many more shaded seats, and with the removal of the team store and a section of seats, more than 200 fans enjoy improved airflow behind the plate, and a nice breeze to cool down the area.
This being the big 25th anniversary for the Miracle, John shares that fans can expect lots of extra fun on the field, including fireworks after every Friday night game, Independence Day fireworks after the game on July 3, and on July 8 a post-game comedy show with local comedians atop the Miracle dugout.
For information, call 768-4210.