GREENSBORO — The city has been home to minor-league baseball teams for more than a century.
It’s a history that dates back to the Greensboro Farmers in 1902, a year when Teddy Roosevelt spoke softly and carried a big stick and Philadelphia’s Socks Seybold led the majors with 16 home runs.
So what could possibly be new about the old ballgame?
The Greensboro Grasshoppers have changed affiliates, divorcing the Miami Marlins after 16 years and signing on with the Pittsburgh Pirates for the next two seasons in the Class-A South Atlantic League.
It’s a move the average paying customer at First National Bank Field might not notice.
Ticket prices hold steady (and low, by comparison) at $7 to $11 for the fifth season in a row, after costing $6 to $10 for the first 10 seasons of the downtown ballpark.
The Grasshoppers’ logo, mascot and orange-and-green color scheme remain the same, although the old-school Pirates (established in 1887) require their minor leaguers to wear high socks with breeches cut at the knee.
That’s the only visible difference from the Marlins, who allowed players to choose their own pants style. Giancarlo Stanton, for instance, wore his long, even when he was 18-year-old “Mike” Stanton.
Most of the progress is behind the scenes.
The Pirates installed permanent high-definition cameras around the ballpark, using the captured video from different angles as a teaching tool.
In the clubhouse, the Pirates have a nutritionist on staff and spend more on food than the Marlins ever did, designing meals to fuel the young players. There are also more team meetings, and 35-year-old manager Miguel Pérez has as many one-on-one conversations as he can, using each as a teaching tool.
“I’m a player’s manager,” Pérez said. “I’m going to let you play, and I’m going to let you enjoy the game. But at the same time, you’ve got to play the game the right way. You’ve got to respect the game. If not, there are going to be consequences. … There’s not too many things that will get me (ticked) off. But the one thing that will make me mad every time is disrespecting the game.”
Pérez said he uses videos from the 1970s and ’80s that show players such as Pirates’ legend Roberto Clemente playing the game hard.
“They respected the game,” Pérez said. “So then you show a guy video of himself and tell him, ‘This is you right here, not running hard.’ And they get it. ‘That’s me? That looks bad.’ They understand. … I want my players to feel comfortable and I want to build relationships with them. One thing: I will always tell them the truth. I’m going to tell you what I saw and what I think, and you have to know it’s for your benefit.”
When the Grasshoppers decided to put their team on the market after last season, 12 Major League Baseball franchises were available. Most of them checked out Greensboro.
Larry Broadway, a former All-America infielder at Duke, is Pittsburgh’s senior director of minor-league operations. The 37-year-old executive, whose own playing career was derailed by knee and shoulder injuries at Class-AAA, said the opportunity in Greensboro was too good to pass up.
“The location in the center of the league is great from a travel perspective for our players,” Broadway said. “It’s a little more southern, so the weather is better. … It just feels like a really good fit. I know it’s a well-run operation. I’ve been in there over the years and so have our people, and you can’t help but notice how well the stadium is run and what a first-class facility it is.”
And Broadway noticed the crowds, too.
Greensboro had 11 losing records in 16 years with the Marlins, and yet finished first or second in the South Atlantic League in paid attendance every year since moving into the downtown ballpark in 2005. The Hoppers sold a league-high 322,156 tickets last season.
That’s about 210,000 more than West Virginia — the Pirates’ former Sally League home — drew last season.
“You see the crowds there, and I think that’s huge for player development,” Broadway said. “It’s always a benefit to play in front of more people. That’s what you’re expected to do in the Major Leagues, so the more experience you can get with that in the minors, the better. A fuller stadium is nothing but a benefit. It adds stress. It adds pressure. And it adds energy to the game. You want your players to experience that.”