NILES - After nine games on the road to start the 1999 New York-Penn League season, the Ted Kubiak-led Mahoning Valley Scrappers returned to Niles at 3 a.m. through foggy skies on a late-June night.
"The lights were on," Kubiak said. "It was a neat-looking stadium with the paint colors and everything. This was a really nice park and it still is. They do a nice job keeping it up."
Eastwood Field remains a grand stage for valley entertainment, and 2013 may be its biggest year yet. The team announced this campaign as a "Scrapperganza" - a unique twist for the team's 15th season.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Mahoning Valley’s Robel Garcia, left, celebrates his fourth- inning home run against Williamsport with teammate Josh McAdams during this July 29 game at Eastwood Field. This year is the 15th season for the Mahoning Valley organization.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Scrappy, left, interacts with fans during a series with Auburn.
"We wanted it to be something more than the generic, 'Hooray, it's the 15th season,'" said Matt Thompson, Assistant General Manager of Sales.
Kubiak, who had a nine-year Major League playing career, is back with the Scrappers for his third stint. In five years he's compiled a 178-167 record, including two first place Pinckney Division finishes, two postseason appearances and the second-best season in franchise history (48-28 in 2000). Currently, Mahoning Valley has a 20-25 record and has won five of its last six games.
"I've been with the organization for 20 years, so I guess I'm doing something right in their minds," Kubiak said. "This has been a good place. From the fan support to the front office passion and the young players - we all work well together and I'm happy to be here."
He's not the only one.
From the beginning
Gail Drushel sat in Eastwood Field dugouts, before there were Eastwood Field dugouts. She was at the stadium's groundbreaking in 2007 and ventured to a snow-covered field just waiting for spring time and the new novelty of professional baseball in her backyard.
"I found out we were getting a franchise from my aunt, Betty Peebles," Drushel said. "She was one of the first female sportswriters and she worked in Erie."
The Erie Seawolves were moving up from Short Season Single A to AA, leaving a void in the New York-Penn League.
"She told me, 'You better get things going down there,'" Drushel said.
So she did, as one of the founding members of the Mahoning Valley Professional Baseball Association. It started with 300 original members. There were some doubters, though, that a minor league franchise would even come to fruition.
"When they heard around here that we were possibly going to have a stadium, (former Hubbard mayor and county commissioner) Art McGee told us we'd have a baseball stadium in Trumbull County when pigs fly," Drushel said.
McGee has since passed away, but he still is forever honored at the 6,000-seat baseball stadium in Trumbull County, as a pink pig windsock is implanted in the right field picnic garden. They named it Art.
Now, the Scrappers Backers have about 60 members, but have raised $60,000 in scholarship money for the benefit of 60 local college-bound students. On Aug. 11, the organization will present checks to four more students.
Drushel is easy to recognize around the park's concourse. If you don't see her pin-infested hat or baseball-covered apron, you'll hear her encouraging voice and boisterous cowbells.
"I've missed 11 games in 15 years," she said, proudly. "That's it."
Brian Sturgeon grew up in Youngstown, playing baseball for the Mill Creek Junior League at Kramer Fields.
"I remember going to a few Scrappers games with my little league teams," he said. "Back then, I thought it was the coolest thing ever to get the Scrappers' autographs. I got (former Cleveland Indian) Einar Diaz to sign a ball when he was here on a rehab assignment."
Now, Sturgeon, 24, is an account executive in the Scrappers' front office.
"When I sign up little league teams for the Field of Dreams promotion or schedule Youth League Nights, I enjoy watching the kids interact with the players and see how much excitement they get out of it," he said.
Because of its Class-A affiliation, the organization isn't just for developing future baseball stars. It's a good start for someone wanting to enter the sports management industry.
"It really introduced me to the behind-the-scenes aspect of baseball production," said Chris Miller, a production intern in 2011 and 2012. Miller is now working with the AAA Indianapolis Indians - a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate.
"The skills I gained and what I produced helped me become more marketable to larger organizations," said Miller, a Zanesville native.
Chris Summer, a Champion High School graduate, first set foot on the playing surface at Eastwood Field in 2006, playing in the annual Mahoning-Trumbull All-Star Game.
"Playing on the field with players such as CC Sabathia, Victor Martinez, even Robinson Cano and Evan Longoria who came through here was definitely a thrill," he said.
Many local high schools have the chance to play on the professional field during the spring season. Sumner, the Group Sales Manager, does public address announcing for some of those games.
"Eastwood Field is a great time for all ages and we provide fun-filled entertainment at a very affordable price during the Scrappers season and throughout the year," Sumner said.
Sumner started as a promotions intern with the team in 2010. Sturgeon interned last year and Stephanie Novak, a Lowellville native who is now the box office and Merchandise Manager, was an intern in 2010 and 2011.
"It's been a great ride," Sumner said. "There's nothing better than coming to the ballpark everyday for work. I really enjoy meeting new people and interacting with fans."
Fans still coming
It's a regiment that began 15 years ago. Paul Anderson, a Warren resident, walks through the home plate gate at Eastwood Field, grabs a roster and checks the lineup board. He'll copy down the day's lineup in his personal scorebook and take his seat in the grandstand.
"Every game," he said. "I keep score every game I go to. I've filled up a few books now."
The economic collapse of 2008 concerned Thompson, a front office employee for eight years, but the turnstiles kept turning.
"I've actually been quite impressed even when the economy around here was at its low point," he said. "And this area got hit harder than most.
"We never dipped below 3,000 in average attendance. Fans have continued to support the team and when you talk to them, they really appreciate the product that we bring to the area and the affordability for families, young adults and companies."
It's a rare occurrence when the Hughes family of Howland isn't at Eastwood Field on a warm summer night. Jesse and Jennifer and their young children, Abbey and Collin, might be the most loyal fans the Indians farm system has seen. Not only do they attend upwards of 25 games at Eastwood Field each year, they also go to Lake County, Akron and they're currently on a summer vacation in North Carolina checking in on the Mudcats.
"We like to follow the players from the beginning of their careers all the way until they hopefully make the Indians," Jesse said. "They're so good with the kids and feel like they have a special bond."
The kids are autograph hounds, volunteers for on-field games and all-around baseball fans.
"They get so excited for summer because they know that means it's time to go to games again," Jennifer said.
Whether it's a T-shirt, logo ball or bobblehead, the giveaways are usually the first thing fans look at when the promotional schedule is released in the spring for the upcoming season. This year's giveaways included four bobblehead dates, a youth jersey, comic book and a poster.
The most popular promotion isn't material, but it is cheap. Thursday nights are Buck Nights - wondrous, welcoming words to thousands across the Mahoning Valley. Included in the deal are dollar hot dogs, 16 oz. drinks, general admission tickets and beer. Yes, beer.
"Anytime you can go to a baseball game for a dollar and get beers for a dollar, you have to take advantage," said Andrew Rush of Struthers. "It's a winning combination."
A winner at the box office, too. So far in the 2013 season there have been four Buck Nights with the average attendance being 4,959. According to Novak, the Scrappers also have the highest walk-up attendance of all 14 NYPL teams.
"We'd like to get people to buy tickets earlier, or in group packages," she said. "But it still goes to show how much people in our area care about baseball, the Scrappers and fun family entertainment."
The Scrappers presented their first Princess Night in 2013 and continued a successful 2012 promotion - Zombie Apocalypse Night.
"That's the beauty of minor league baseball and the Scrappers really do that well," said Ben Hill of MiLB.com. "They have as much fun with the zombie apocalypse as they do with princesses and every other event they plan."
Hill, a comprehensive chronicler of Minor League Baseball promotions and operations, travels the country while blogging and writing feature articles on different ballparks, teams and fans. He stopped by Eastwood Field on opening day in 2011.
"It's kind of easy to get overlooked, honestly," Hill said. "I found it a little disconcerting to be going through a mall and a shopping center (the Eastwood Mall Complex). But when you actually get in the ballpark, itself, it's very scenic and outdoorsy. It's better than what I expected. It's a very pleasant experience.
"I think Mahoning Valley is kind of interesting in the context of the New York-Penn League; it's a league of two very distinct styles. There's the old-school like Jamestown, Auburn, Vermont - places that are more rustic ballpark environments. Then you have the A-list of Staten Island, Brooklyn and Lowell, and Mahoning Valley falls in the middle of that spectrum. It's not bells and whistles; it's not decaying, either. They're doing a really good job in that complex of holding it down."
Niles occasionally turns into Hollywood with celebrity appearances. Soap Opera stars Brady Black, Rafe Hernandez and E.J. DiMera recently showed up with professional wrestlers Mick Foley, George The Animal Steele and Jimmy Hart also bringing out a large crowd.
For the 2009 season, Scrappy- the team's mascot - underwent a makeover and the team experienced its second uniform change. This update was much more dramatic than the minor uniform tweak of 2004. The maroon and blue color scheme was unleashed and new "teeth" hats debuted. The blue hat with a dog's grin is a consistent top-10 seller in all of minor league baseball.
"Just keeping everything fresh," Thompson said.
Current Scrapper Ben Heller has only been in the organization a few months and his first professional season is soon coming to a close.
"This was the nicest place to start my career," he said. "The ballpark is beautiful, the fan support is great and this team really bonded from the first day we met."
The front office is a close-knit group, too.
"We have a great group," Thompson said. "Heather Sahli (Director of Marketing and Promotions) and Jordan Taylor (General Manager) are always thinking of new and improved ideas."
Added Sumner, "The past 15 seasons have been great, but the next 15 will be even greater."
It's a future as bright as Kubiak's first night.