There are few people in town who care more about the Fresno Grizzlies than Chris Cummings. Of course, this is in large part because he’s the president of the team and one of the owners. But as I sat down with him recently to pick his brain about the team’s current success and its future, I also learned how much he cares about the city of Fresno itself.
One of the first things Chris expressed to me was his desire to provide wholesome entertainment for children. It was one of the reasons he and his partners in the Fresno Baseball Club bought the team. And really, they’ve done just that, with a fan-friendly ballpark that allows kids to interact with players and is filled with kid-friendly attractions like a carousel, giant inflatables and visits from popular children’s characters.
Unfortunately, getting families down to Chukchansi Park hasn’t always been the easiest of tasks.
Why the Fresno Grizzlies don’t have better regular attendance is a question that has long been analyzed, and there are a multitude of answers. Much of it is wrapped up in the state of Downtown Fresno itself, and the movement to revitalize it. A strong downtown means more Fresnans in the area, which means more traffic into the ballpark.
Chris told me that some of the strongest minor league baseball teams exist in Ohio, in areas that are economically challenged and should logically be struggling. The difference, he said, is that those cities have thriving downtowns. He has high hopes that the plans to remodel Fulton Mall will have the same effect in Downtown Fresno.
“This city should be able to hum,” he said, “Our zoo is world class. The baseball stadium is world class. Fresno State .. they’ve had some great teams. We’ve got to support the city.”
Chris was also quick to point out that downtown as it is right now is not really a scary place to go. An assessment I agree with, having spent a lot of time working in the area and attending numerous Grizzlies games. There is a strong police presence, and as long as you watch your surroundings, lock your cars and don’t walk alone (habits that, frankly, we all should be using everywhere), it’s pretty safe.
“This is not a dangerous area,” Chris said. “It’s not an area where I wouldn’t want my wife to be, or wouldn’t want my children to be.”
And once you get yourself down there, you’re in for a treat, for less than it cost to buy a movie ticket. The Fresno Grizzlies are fielding one of the best teams they’ve ever had, a group of young players from the Houston Astros’ system that has a real chance of making the playoffs this year.
“We’re linked to a … team with the best minor league system in baseball, with an unbelievable front office staff, with advanced thinking that makes [Oakland A’s GM] Billy Beane look like a dinosaur,” Chris said. “These kids are just, they’re ripping up baseball. They are just burning through their respective leagues, and of course, it’s happening up in the top, too. We’re finally linked to a winning team, and we are a winning team”
These kids, as Chris calls them, count on fans in the seats to cheer them on. Healthy attendance provides support for the young players who have been instructed to embrace Fresno as their community. The atmosphere is more fun, too.
“You come here on a day when there are 10,000 people in the ballpark, butts in seats, and measure the level of excitement on the fans’ part, on the players’ part, and it’s absolutely different than when you’re here when there’s 20 percent of that in the ballpark,” Chris said.
As proud as the Grizzlies are of being affiliated with the talented Astros roster, the staff has also been purposely rebranding this as Fresno’s baseball team. After all, the Astros are only guaranteed to be in town for two years right now. Professional baseball has been in the city since the early 1900’s.
“We’re not bragging as much on the Astros, and we’re not linking ourselves as much to our parent club,” Chris told me. “We’re linking ourselves to our city, and I’m pretty proud of being from Fresno. I like this city.”
This city actually stands in rare company, he reminded me. There are 30 cities in the country that have a Triple-A baseball team. They’re not easy to get.
So Chris (and I) are asking that you take advantage of this opportunity and come to a few games this season. There’s plenty of great baseball left, and some great promos, too.
“We’ve got to get people used to coming down here, used to having fun here, and we’re gonna be in great shape.”
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