A. C. Cain

Finding the major stories in the minor leagues

Tag: Family

For Abby and Travis Rutt the Fightin’ Phils are a family affair

Former Fightin’ Phils employees Abby and Travis Rutt discuss the impact the organization has had on them and their growing family. Interview by Ariane Cain.

In their 50th season of affiliation with the Philadelphia Phillies, the longest running affiliation in baseball, the Reading Fightin’ Phils have clearly found a secret to success that not every minor league team finds. The organization and their home mean so much to the local community that Reading, PA has been officially named Baseballtown, and FirstEnergy Stadium is known as America’s Classic Ballpark.

The organization is truly something special, creating a family out of baseball fans from every major league team. Generations of families have visited the ballpark, and many look forward to the time when they can bring their children and grandchildren to enjoy the same experience they had as children.

Abby and Travis Rutt, former Fightin’s employees, look forward to the memories their daughter will make at FirstEnergy Stadium, the place her parents first met.

“She’s already been to a game!” Abby says laughing, while imagining what the stadium will mean to their 4-month old daughter.

When Abby began working at the stadium in 2003, Travis had already been there for several years, beginning in 1997 or 1998.

“I would tell people it was like getting paid to hang out with your friends,” Abby said. “It was fun, it was really fun to work there. And you got to hang out with people, and you got to know, because the same people would come back every summer to work, so it was, you know, a chance to see all those people again. It was just fun.”

“I could really say the same thing,” Travis added. “It was fun. All my friends worked there; all my closest friends.”

What began for both as a simple summer job became much more. Both had been to the stadium numerous times throughout their childhoods, and had seen it evolve from a small, simple ballpark to the elaborate, innovative stadium it has become.

“Another thing that was really cool was getting to sing the National Anthem, actually numerous times,” Abby said. “It’s an opportunity I’m not sure I would have gotten if I didn’t work there.”

The organization invited her to sing the anthem at a game the Reading Phillies played at Citizens Bank Park. She also had the opportunity to sing before a game in which former Phillies second baseman Chase Utley played for the Reading Phillies on a rehab assignment. Singing for Utley easily makes the list of her favorite memories of the stadium.

What makes the stadium truly special, the two agree, is the tradition that surrounds it. As much as things change, there are pieces of the ballpark that always stay the same.

“They have season ticket holders that are senior citizens. And, you know, they had the singing usher who was there singing during the seventh-inning stretch until he got too sick to be able to get to the ballpark.”

The Singing Usher, Neal Bechtel, was such a staple at the ballpark that the Fightin’s introduced the Neal Bechtel Employee of the Year Award after his passing. A video of Bechtel singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is still played during the seventh-inning stretch several times each season as the organization’s way of honoring the tradition he became.

“I think people really hold on to that stuff,” Abby said, trying to sum up exactly what makes the small, familiar touches at the ballpark so special. “Because it’s such a tradition, it’s such a staple of this area.”

The tradition is one the Rutts are determined to keep alive by passing it down to their daughter, and hoping that the old ballpark becomes as special to her as it has to them.

For the Fightin’ Phils it’s all in the family

The Reading Fightin’ Phils have maintained a strong presence and fan base through their 50 year history; thriving in a town where several other baseball organizations struggled to field a team that fans wanted to see. Despite not always being the best team in the league, the Fightin’s stadium is filled year after year. The team receives compliments on the great atmosphere and the wonderful experience every trip to the ballpark becomes.

The secret? Reading has a mostly homegrown front office staff with several fulltime positions filled by former interns and fans. The front office is a family that has grown from the larger family of Fightin’s fans and employees.

The Fightin’s have traditionally hired front office employees from within their successful internship program; former interns fill 19 of 23 front office positions. For some, however, the connection to the team goes back farther than just an internship.

Travis Hart, promoted to Director of Food and Beverage for the 2016 season, began working for the Fightin’s as a game staff employee in concessions in 2005. He remained a game staff employee until becoming a concessions intern in 2013, and joined the club full-time the following season. Through his 12 seasons with the club Hart has interacted closely with the fans, whether he is serving them food or providing them with new and improved food and drink options. He is, however, not the only front office member to have begun his tenure with the club as a game staff employee.

Mike Robinson, Executive Director of Fan Relations and Community Development, began working for the Fightin’s as an usher in 1993. He has watched the organization grow into the fan friendly organization it is today, and has even had a hand in collecting and implementing fan suggestions.

As the Director of Fan Relations, Robinson gets to interact with the Fightin’s fans in several unique ways. Robinson gets to coordinate groups coming to the ballpark each season, always being sure to bring something new for the fans. He makes several trips out into the community each season, allowing him to interact with both the fans and the team in unique and exciting ways. As the director of interns, Robinson also gets the opportunity to find and bring new faces into the organization, as well as promote the organization to potential future employees.

Matt Jackson, the Fightin’ Phils’ Executive Director of Graphic Arts and Game Entertainment, has one of the most unique and strongest relationships with the Fightin’s fans. In his 18th season with the club, Jackson began as a game staff employee before becoming an intern and then joining the front office. The role he is most known for around the ballpark, however, is that of the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor.

An ostrich riding, hot dog throwing character, the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor rose to instant fame both within the organization and across baseball. His popularity with the fans sparked a major rebranding in 2012, when the Reading Phillies became the Reading Fightin’ Phils with a new logo featuring an ostrich. The team also housed two live ostriches at the stadium for a couple of seasons.

Jackson’s Crazy Hot Dog Vendor has become a fan favorite mascot, with everyone clamoring to catch a free hotdog at the end of the second inning when he takes the field. The annual game celebrating the Hot Dog Vendor’s birthday is always one of the most popular games for the younger fans, when they have the opportunity to take the field with the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor.

While Jackson’s connection to the fans may be the most unique, nearly every front office member has a history with the organization and the fans. The understanding of the organization’s past, and the importance of the future, helps to keep Fightin Phils’ games a place where everyone feels like family, and every game is a great time, regardless of whether the team wins or looses.

Fightin’ Phils’ fan experience is constantly evolving

The Reading Fightin’ Phils have remained in the city for 50 years in large part because of the strong fan base that continues to support the team each season. With attendance figures that frequently lead the Eastern League, or at least finish in the top three, the franchise clearly knows how to draw in fans.

Stadium Journey has ranked FirstEnergy Stadium in its list of the “Top 100 Stadium Experiences of 2015” at number 69. With a ballpark built in 1952, far older than the majority of the newer stadiums that make the list, the Fightin’ Phils have to work a bit harder to make their “classic” ballpark welcoming and relevant for fans.

As a result, the fan experiences are numerous and varied at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Fightin’s are constantly changing and improving the experience for the fans, making any trip to the ballpark new and exciting.

The new Grove Dental Photo Booth at FirstEnergy Stadium. (Photo: Ariane Cain)

The new Grove Dental Photo Booth at FirstEnergy Stadium. (Photo: Ariane Cain)

One of the new additions for the 2016 season is the Grove Dental Photo Booth. Fans and their families have the opportunity to have a picture taken in front of a backdrop featuring Fightin’ Phils’ players J.P. Crawford, Jorge Alfaro, and Roman Quinn. The photos are then emailed to the family, for free, and fans are encouraged to share them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with the tag #GroveDental.

The photo booth expands on a previous fan experience, the BB&T Social Media Vault. Fans are encouraged to share photos on social media throughout the game with #fightins. In the seventh inning, the best photos of the nights are shown on the video board, and the best photo of the night wins a prize. The Grove Dental Photo Booth photos are also included in the Social Media Vault.

The Fightin’s have also added to the fan experience this season by being the first Minor League stadium to test a new “Craft Beer Me” feature. The feature allows fans to order from a list of 50 craft beers in the MiLB Inside the Park app, and the drink will be delivered to their seat within minutes. The feature allows fans to enjoy every moment of the game without having to worry about waiting in line and missing the action.

In addition to the 50 craft beers offered through the app, the ballpark is serving an unprecedented 87 different beers throughout the ballpark to help celebrate the historic 50th season.

The Savage 61 Dugout Suite is another new fan experience added this season. The Dugout Suite allows fans to sit in a dugout just like the players, located along the right field line. In addition to the regular ticket, which includes a pre-game party on the warning track during batting practice, fans can add waitress service, all-you-can-eat, and all-you-can-drink. The luxury suite is very unique, and gives fans a whole new view of the game.

The Plaza Dance Party helps to keep the younger fans entertained throughout the game. (Photo: Ariane Cain)

The Plaza Dance Party helps to keep the younger fans entertained throughout the game. (Photo: Ariane Cain)

Along with these new experiences, the Fightin’s maintain some of the old activities that fans have always enjoyed. Each game features a dance party in the plaza, perfect for young kids that are getting antsy sitting and watching the game. Also for the younger fans, Phunland provides plenty of games, rides, and prizes.

Fans have the opportunity to view the game from nearly anywhere in the park, including the left-field deck. Fans on the deck win Unique pretzels whenever the left fielder, affectionately called the Deck Head, gets on base. Fans are also encouraged to root for the Red Robin RBI Man who can earn free Red Robin appetizers for the crowd with an RBI. The Moe’s home run inning gives fans an opportunity to win free queso if the Fightin’s hit a home run.

The Fightin’ Phils respect their history, the main concourse is essentially a museum dedicated to baseball in Reading, but in order to maintain the strong fan base the team knows it needs to continue to evolve each season. Thanks to this constant evolution, no two trips to the ballpark are ever exactly the same, and the fans keep coming back for more.

How to entertain the entire family at a minor league sporting event

Finding new and exciting ways to entertain the entire family can be difficult and, depending on the size of the family, expensive. Minor league sporting events can offer the perfect solution, as they boast family-friendly environments, are less expensive than their major league counterparts.

According to MiLB.com, during the 2015 season a family of four could enjoy a game for an average of $64.18, making it one of the most budget friendly options in sports. Other lower-level professional sports offer fans the same perks. Families can make the most of these inexpensive, unique options by following a few simple steps.

The view from the top of the grandstand at FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Reading Fighting' Phils. The least expensive reserved seats give families a great view.

The view from the top of the grandstand at FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Reading Fightin’ Phils. Photo: Ariane Cain

Step 1: Arrive early to the game. Teams frequently provide giveaways to a certain number of fans, and an early arrival guarantees that your family will get some. Arriving early also makes you eligible for some great deals. The Reading Fightin’ Phils feature a happy hour before most games with one dollar off of select beers and free Phunland for the kids. The Fightin’ Phils provide a complete promotional schedule listing theme nights, giveaways, and gate opening times. The Reading Royals post the same information. Be sure to check the team website or your tickets for gate opening times and plan accordingly.

Step 2: Look for posted rules and listen to announcements. Rules that are prominently posted or announced are important for assuring fan safety. All family members should be made aware of all important rules in order to make the event safer and more enjoyable. Most organizations provide an opportunity to read up on important rules before arriving at the game to leave more time for fun. The Reading Royals provide fans with a basic rundown of rules and official signals to avoid confusion and make the night more enjoyable.

Step 3: Explore the venue. By doing this you can make note of intriguing food stands and streamline your trips away from the seats later. Also, most sporting venues feature some sort of area for kids with games and contests, and several themed areas. Taking a lap or two around the stadium will allow every member of your family to find something that interests them.

Santander Arena, home of the Reading Royals, before the crowds have arrived. Photo by Benjamin Smith

Santander Arena, home of the Reading Royals, before the crowds have arrived.
Photo: Benjamin Smith

Step 4: Talk to the employees. They spend more time at the stadium than anyone else, and chances are that they are the team’s biggest fans. Ask them for suggestions such as their favorite food or favorite spot to view the action from. You never know what secrets they’ll tell you, and sampling some of their favorites might make your experience more interesting.

Step 5: Don’t feel compelled to remain in your seat during game action and only leave between innings or periods. Most of the entertainment happens during the breaks in the action in the form of games and contests, and your family will surely enjoy seeing it. Nearly every venue will have televisions in the areas where the game is not visible, so you won’t miss much action even when standing in line for a burger.

You never know what surprises you'll find at a minor league game! This past summer the Fighting' Phils hosted a surprise appearance by the Galapagos Gang, friends of the Phillie Phanatic, from Citizen's Bank Park.

This past summer the Fighting’ Phils hosted a surprise appearance by the Galapagos Gang, friends of the Phillie Phanatic, from Citizen’s Bank Park. Photo: Ariane Cain

Step 6: Be alert for in-game announcements regarding mascot appearances. You may be able to catch them in the stands, but nearly every organization has a designated area where mascots will appear at specific times throughout the game for pictures and autographs.

Searching for other ways to make the most of your experience? Try talking to other fans and following their suggestions. Many teams feature specific games or contests, so ask around and sign your family up for any that accept volunteers. Give your family their chance in the spotlight! You can also check to see if the organization features any sort of kid’s club, which are generally free and offer prizes and giveaways for the youngest members of the family. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to try new things and step out of your comfort zone!

Professional sports may not be the first thought on the search for affordable family entertainment, but the minor leagues provide an inexpensive, enjoyable night for the entire family without much work or preparation.

For more information on games and other family friendly events hosted by the Reading Fightin’ Phils or the Reading Royals be sure to visit their websites.
www.fightins.com
www.royalshockey.com

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