Sunday, June 29, 2003

Fans, wins elude Florence's team

Crowds thin at Hamilton stadium

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HAMILTON - Florence's Frontier League baseball team, which is playing its inaugural season in Hamilton, hasn't been getting many home runs or people in the stands.

The team had hoped to attract 1,500 fans a game at Hamilton's Foundation Field this season while it waits for its baseball park in Florence to be built. But so far, the Florence Freedom, in last place in its division with a 5-24 record through Friday, has averaged only about 600 fans per game.

Yet the attendance hasn't discouraged Hamilton officials and investors from pursuing a Frontier League baseball team for the city or from trying to arrange the financing to build a baseball stadium. They still see a Frontier League team and a stadium as key to reviving downtown and developing Hamilton's riverfront.

"We're moving forward," said Terry Bridge, who organized a group of potential investors. "We're working hard on our end to make sure we secure a franchise for Hamilton."

He and other baseball activists don't view the disappointing attendance at the Florence Freedom's home games as a bad omen.

They blame empty seats at Foundation Field on bad weather; the sudden resignation of manager Chris Sabo and the team's general manager before the season began; a shakeup in the team ownership group; the team's losing record; and the temporary status of the team's home.

"The team's new," Hamilton Mayor Donald Ryan said. "Like any new business, word's got to get out for it to do well. It's only been a few weeks since the first home game. I've been to two games and enjoyed them both."

"People will embrace a team we bring here a little more because it will be Hamilton's team," Bridge said. "Florence didn't have a whole lot of time to market their team before the season."

Connie Hildebrant, general manager of the Florence Freedom, said she thinks the losing record of the team hurt attendance as much as any other factor.

However, she's still upbeat about the team, now managed by former Reds pitcher Tom Browning.

"We've lost 12 games by one run," Hildebrant said. "So it's not like we've been blown out of the water. We're a young team. Tom stays very positive and is really good at working with the kids. We're really happy he's on board."

Hildebrant also stressed that Hamilton officials have been enormously helpful to the team.

Florence Mayor Diane Whalen said she isn't disturbed by the team's record or attendance.

"It's a young team," she said. "When you bring a new group of kids together, it takes time to build a team."


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