Marek Warszawski

This minor-league baseball team makes big-league jump with new ownership

Opening day for the Fresno Grizzlies may be seven weeks away, but what I saw and heard Tuesday afternoon at Chukchansi Park can only be described as a home run for local baseball fans.

Talk about a strong first impression. Michael Baker, the Grizzlies’ new managing general partner, made himself bushels of friends by slashing beer prices to $5 for 20-ounce drafts. By promoting Derek Franks to team president, Baker ingratiated himself to season-ticket holders and team employees alike.

Most of all, Baker and the new ownership group redoubled the team’s commitment to the future of Triple-A baseball in downtown Fresno. Not just in words, but through actions that will soon be visible to everyone who attends a game. And not just because they are contractually obligated to do so.

“We never wanted to buy this team and move — that was never our intention and we never considered doing that,” Baker said. “From the very beginning the first thing we said to Mayor (Lee) Brand is, ‘We’re staying here.’ That was the basis of the negotiation. We are committed to Fresno for the long term.”

Brand, his staff and the City Council also deserve kudos for making this happen. Even though it took 13 months of deal-making, the thorniest point was never the final sales price (a source told me between $17 million and $18 million) or the terms of the stadium lease that has been extended through 2036.

The tough sledding involved the exact wording of a “non-relocation agreement” that requires the new owners to pay the city for outstanding debt remaining on the stadium should the new owners opt to move.

How much debt are we talking about? More than $40 million.

“That’s a payment we’ll never make,” Baker said. “We could never afford to make it. Quite frankly the mayor insisted upon it based on all the things that have happened in the past. (Brand) said, ‘We need to keep you here. You need to commit to this city and to this stadium for the long term’ and we said, ‘Absolutely. We’re ready to do it.’ ”

The last thing Fresno needed were new owners with one foot out the door and an unwillingness to invest in the stadium. We’ve already lived through five years of that limbo. What we needed was ownership with deep pockets that believed in this region and eager to play a role in the revitalization of downtown.

In Fresno Sports and Events LLC, a group that includes Ray Baker of Colorado (Michael’s dad) and Jim Coufos of Newport Beach, we got all three.

“This is not a résumé-builder for us,” Michael Baker said. “This is the top of the mountain. We never thought we’d have the opportunity to purchase a team in a market this large, and we’re just thrilled about it.”

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A remodeled hospitality and fan area planned for the left-field corner will make Chukchansi Park a more modern facility similar to other Triple-A and major-league ballparks. Three sections of seats will be removed. Fresno Grizzlies

Besides the $5 beers and what Baker described as “modest” reductions in ticket prices, the most visible short-term change will be in the stadium’s left-field corner. Three sections of seats are being torn out and replaced by a hospitality area with a bar, flat-screen TVs, shade and misters.

Chukchansi Park lacked such a gathering spot — unless you forked out for a suite or a seat in the club area. There will be no entrance fee. Anyone with a ticket can sit there.

“If you look at some of the stadiums being built recently, Nashville and El Paso, there’s less seats and more of these social destinations inside the ballpark,” Franks said. “It’s what the fans what.”

Costs of the remodel will be covered by a newly created capital improvement fund. That fund currently sits at $5 million with the previous ownership group contributing $1.2 million, the new owners $1 million and the city covering the rest. Starting in 2020, the team and city will each be required to add $300,000 per year to the fund, which is controlled by the city and can only be used for stadium improvements and maintenance.

The Grizzlies and city officials met Wednesday to talk through the hospitality area remodel. Baker wouldn’t commit to an exact timeline, only that the new bar area will open sometime in 2018. Future improvements are to include a new video board and a designated family section beyond right field.

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Fresno Grizzlies fans will have the opportunity to be more social during the games in a new hospitality and social area that will be built this season at Chukchansi Park. The area will include a bar with flat-screen TVs, shade and misters. Fresno Grizzlies

“The days of sitting in your seat for 3 hours to watch a baseball game are sort of over,” Michael Baker said.

President of a Denver-based commercial real estate firm, Baker will continue to make Colorado his full-time residence. (The 39-year-old is married. He and his wife have three young children.) Nonetheless, Baker pledged to make frequent trips to Fresno, something he’s already been doing for the past 3½ months.

“We’re not throwing the keys to Derek,” he said. “I would consider us hands-on and involved owners. But Derek has the reins of the team in the sense of day-to-day operations, absolutely.”

The Bakers and Coufos made an outstanding move by promoting the 33-year-old Franks, who has been with the Grizzlies since 2004. No one is more devoted to the team’s success. Director of Marketing Sam Hansen, the person responsible for all those creative, nationally recognized promotions, is still there, as are other key directors and managers. Yes, mascots Parker and Cilantro Gomez are still around, too.

The result is a new sense of energy and reinvigorated pride that Grizzlies fans will be able to sense.

“You wake up and you feel different when you have new ownership and you have the backing and support we have now,” said Franks, who began as a box office intern.

“I think it changes the culture to have a youthful, energetic (ownership) group, and of course to have finances behind that and the stability that’s coming in, it really excites the staff and takes a weight off of our shoulders that was there. It’s a really exciting time, to say the least.”

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