Maverick infielder Tim Friedman played in Canton, Ohio, during the 2002 Frontier League season. He knows what it’s like to play in front of nobody.
“I’d rather have a small stadium full of people than a big one with nobody in it,” Friedman said as a he surveyed Columbia’s Taylor Stadium for the first time on day one of spring training.
The other Canton veterans nodded. They were excited about General Manager Pat Daly’s predictions of about 2,000 people at the park every night. The average game attendance of the season ended up being 1,680.
Last season, they decided to count how many people were left in the stands by the end of a game in late July.
“It’ll be nice to play in front of somebody,” Friedman said.
The players weren’t disappointed. The Mid-Missouri Mavericks drew more fans, just more than 31,000, before the All-Star break. That’s more than the Canton Coyotes had in all of 2002, which was 30,971. Second baseman Adam Rittenhouse, who also played in Canton last year, noticed the difference.
“It makes a big difference to have 1,500 people in the stands instead of, let’s say, 250 on average,” Rittenhouse said. “The fans here have been great.”
Living a dream
Nathan Fischer and his father Steve started coming to games early in the season because they both love baseball. But 10-year-old Nathan says they keep coming back (they’re usually there at least once per home stand) because he wants to see his friends.
He’s not talking about buddies from his elementary school in Columbia. He’s referring to first baseman/outfielder Blake Blase and Rittenhouse. The Fischers sit in the right-field bleachers at Taylor Stadium, where a waist-high chain-link fence is all that separates them from the action. Nathan says when he comes to games early, the players will come talk to him while they’re warming up. Some will even sign autographs.
Then there’s the special bond he shares with Rittenhouse and Blase.
After seeing Nathan standing by the fence with his glove on several occasions, Rittenhouse asked the youngster if he would like to play catch. Of course Nathan said yes, so Rittenhouse invited him onto the field. The pair threw for a while as the players warmed up.
“If it brings some light into his life,” Rittenhouse said, “then I’m happy to do my part. A fan like Nathan is great. He comes down after games and waits until we’re done showering and everything, just to smile and tell us great game. It doesn’t matter to him what the result is.”
On another occasion, Nathan threw pitches to Blase while Rittenhouse served as umpire, calling balls and strikes. Mainly strikes. At one point, All-Star shortstop Cooper Vittitow even stood in to take a few “at-bats” against Nathan.
“It’s a really neat family atmosphere,” Steve Fischer said. “It’s fun to have so much interaction with the players ... that’s not something you get in the big leagues. But with these guys, it really feels like we have some friends on the team.”
Steve Fischer said he was skeptical when he first heard that minor league baseball was coming to Columbia. He wondered how good the team would be and whether people would come to the games. He got a lot more than he expected.
“These are professional athletes playing high-quality ball,” he said.
Nathan and Steve Fischer say Nathan’s learned a lot about the game by watching the team play. It reminds Steve Fischer of the days when he wanted to become a professional baseball player.
“It gives us all a chance to come out and see them living the dream that we always had when we were younger,” he said. “Or at least I did.”
Steve Fischer prods his son.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“A baseball player,” Nathan said with a smile, turning back to watch his favorite players.
A little boost
As Nathan continues to dream in right field, a man in a red shirt with white hair is in the grandstand trying to finance the dreams of the bigger boys.
Fred Seaman is the president of the Mid-Missouri Mavericks’ Booster Club. On this August night, he’s walking through the stands selling 50-50 raffle tickets. The club runs the promotion every night, giving half the proceeds to the winner. The other half goes to help the players. With a big smile and some persuasion, Seaman manages to convince many fans to buy.
Seaman and his family bought season tickets way back in December. Seaman admits that, at the time, he had no idea what the quality of play would be like, but he figured it was worth the risk. As a longtime Cardinals fan, he says it just takes too much time and effort to go see the team. The beauty of the Mavericks is that they’re right in his own back yard.
“It’s a really high quality product they are putting on the field, but it’s also a great gathering place,” Seaman said. “I used to live in Jefferson City, and I keep running into people at games that I haven’t seen in years. People come from all over. What else is there to do in Columbia for four bucks?”
Seaman pointed out that to be a Mavericks fan, you have to be a different kind of fan.
“You have to understand that it’s not all about winning; it’s about providing family entertainment and giving these guys a chance to live their dreams,” Seaman said. “It’s not like being a Cardinal fan, where you want them to have all the best players. We’re hoping that the best players here leave, because that means they are going up.”