EVEN IN THE off-season, Nutzy steals the show. While Mayor Dwight Jones unveils his new ice skating rink on East Broad Street two days before Christmas, the towering mascot of the Richmond Flying Squirrels can't be ignored. Wearing a white beard and ice skates -- and winning stares away from Legendary Santa -- he stands directly across from the mayor, at the head of the crowd, while children gaze and gather around him.
Richmond is transforming “into our own little Rockefeller Center tonight,” the mayor proclaims. The suburbs have the malls, but they don't have this: hundreds of people donning skates, dancing to the choir under colored lights strung across an oval ice rink, framed by the city's street-lighted ambience.
“We can also call this the miracle on Sixth Street,” the mayor boasts, the crowd quietly jittering as though waiting for the pastor to finish a pre-feast prayer.
A small child sitting on his grandmother's shoulders can contain his excitement no longer. Forgive him if the mayor's politics, and Santa's pre-Christmas appearance, get lost in the moment. Jones barely finishes his speech before Kyle Gibson, 5, breaks the silence: “Yeah, Nutzy!”
In a year that was more about economic recovery, managing the aftershocks of the housing collapse and ever-tightening purse strings, Nutzy and the Squirrels offered a much-needed respite with their inaugural season. The baseball team became an unlikely hero, Nutzy a community icon, almost overnight.
After more than five years of threats and defeatism, the loss of the venerable Richmond Braves and developers' warning that no team would relocate here without a new stadium, the Squirrels came along and proved everyone wrong. The team's owners, led by New York-based boxing promoter Lou DiBella, invested $2 million of their money in The Diamond, a venue that many Richmonders had written off.
The outsiders were richly rewarded. The old stadium played host to 463,842 people in 2010, the best year in decades at the site of the old Parker Field. The team sold out on opening day, stretched Fourth of July fireworks over three days and treated every game like a party -- the Squirrels' general manager even wrestled an alligator. Richmond's new baseball team led all of minor league in merchandise sales, and led the Eastern League attendance, averaging 6,626 fans a game.
Developers told us baseball wouldn't be back without a new stadium. In the pathology of civic boosters, the debate was cast as a referendum: Those who didn't support building a new ballpark -- or convention center, or performing arts center -- were cast as nonbelievers, obstacles to progress. It turned bitingly political at times, influencing two mayoral campaigns. When Mayor Dwight Jones took office in 2009, the stadium question even took precedence over a budget-wracking recession, the worst in 75 years. The believers incredulously argued that a new $60 million stadium could be built for free, without a drop of public money. Plans were shelved only after the city determined it couldn't be constructed without taxpayer assistance.
The Squirrels' success offers a stark lesson for a city that has long been afflicted by Big Projectitis, the belief that only through millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded boondoggles can Richmond regain its former glory. The team's owners not only invested in an old, broken-down ballpark -- they invested in us. Which is why Style Weekly names the owners, managers and staff of the Richmond Flying Squirrels as the 2010 Richmonders of the Year.
“I WAS SCARED,” Lou DiBella recalls. It was late May 2009, and he'd recently been informed that his partners in Richmond, a group led by businessman Bryan Bostic, were unable to put up the money to relocate DiBella's team from Norwich, Conn., to Virginia's capital city.
For months DiBella had worked behind the scenes with Bostic's group to bring baseball back to the city as part of a controversial ballpark development proposal in Shockoe Bottom. The Richmond Braves had moved to Gwinnett, Ga., in 2008, and Bostic's group was working with Highwoods Properties to construct a massive $363 million complex in the Bottom, just north of the 17th Street Farmers' Market, complete with office towers, condos, restaurants and shops.
The project included a new $60 million ballpark, and the deal hinged on Bostic's ability to relocate a team to Richmond. DiBella's team in Norwich, the Connecticut Defenders, was an AA franchise of the San Francisco Giants, but was knee-deep in debt. The Defenders played in a stadium in an industrial park, in one of the smallest cities in minor league baseball's Eastern League. Harsh winters often spilled into spring, and bad weather led to early-season game postponements.
“Frankly, our balance sheet in Connecticut was very shaky,” DiBella says. “We could not have stayed in Norwich economically for much longer.”
The Eastern League approached DiBella near the end of the 2008 season about selling his team to the Richmond group, but the group had trouble raising the money. They needed DiBella to be a joint partner, and DiBella immediately saw an opportunity. Richmond was a bigger market with a rich baseball history, and DiBella was eager to relocate and get his team out of debt.
But the controversy over the Shockoe development had taken its toll. The community was split. The $300 million development threatened to encroach on the Bottom's rich history, and it despite assurances to the contrary, it would cost taxpayers millions of dollars. At the height of the recession, it became clear that the city simply couldn't afford such an ambitious proposal.
The deal fell through by mid-May. The city had released a much-anticipated consultants' report contradicting the developers' promise that the project wouldn't become a tax burden. Bostic and his partners, who originally intended to buy DiBella's team outright, needed $16 million to bring the Defenders to Richmond.
Minor league baseball officials told DiBella the opportunity was still there, but he needed to finance the move on his own. Other teams in other markets were pining to move to Richmond, so DiBella had to move quickly. He had less than two weeks.
DIBELLA, A LAWYER by profession, became a legend in the sports business during an 11-year stint at HBO Sports, where he promoted and built up the HBO Pay Per View division with a bevy of high-profile boxing matches. He got the job after getting shot down by George Steinbrenner, the late owner of the New York Yankees. A graduate of Harvard Law School, DiBella was a candidate for a job as the Yankees' general counsel in 1989. He was 29. The day he was set to interview with Steinbrenner, the baseball legend's secretary called DiBella at his Manhattan apartment. “George thought you were too young,” the secretary told him, explaining that his interview had been canceled. “He said, ‘I'm not interested in any 29-year-old kid for a lawyer.'”
The secretary felt sorry for DiBella, so she told him of a job opening at HBO. Still dressed in his suit, DiBella left his apartment and dropped off his resume. It was a Friday; by Tuesday he'd gotten the job. At HBO he recruited Floyd Mayweather, Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Jr. and Lennox Lewis for major boxing events, and developed the popular HBO series “Boxing After Dark.” DiBella parlayed the experience to the big screen, playing himself, a slick boxing promoter, in “Rocky Balboa,” and working behind the camera as producer of “Love Ranch,” starring Joe Pesci and Helen Mirren, and more recently as an associate producer of “The Fighter,” featuring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale.
But DiBella's no multimillionaire. “My name recognition in the sports industry far exceeds my net worth,” he says. “I was never in a position to write a big check. I had to go out and find new partners.”
He had 11 days to raise $6.5 million.
“For lack of a better word, I was scared shitless,” DiBella says. “I was scared of the ability to raise the appropriate money in a short amount of time.”
Ironically, he found little reception from Richmond's business community. After Bostic's group bowed out, DiBella approached local investors. No one was willing to pony up -- at least initially.
“When I was looking to raise the money, I had a meeting with one of the wealthiest guys in Richmond,” DiBella recalls, declining to name names. “He basically told me I would fail.”
The turning point came about six days after his fundraising spree began, when DiBella hooked Gary Green, a building services contractor in New York, and real estate investor Larry Botel. Green's company, Alliance Building Services in New York, has some of the biggest cleaning contracts in the city, including Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, and the Empire State Building. Green has invested in minor league baseball before, and he and DiBella had several mutual acquaintances. When Green looked at the Richmond deal, it didn't take him long to jump on board.
Richmond was “the largest city in the country without a professional sports team,” Green says. The demographics were strong, and after visiting Richmond, Green determined there was ample demand for baseball. So much so that he and his partners were interested in investing in DiBella's team only if the relocation was approved by minor league baseball. “We were only getting involved in the deal if the team was moving to Richmond,” Green says.
“We knew we'd be successful just from taking the temperature from being down there and understanding what it meant to lose baseball for a year,” Green says. “There was no apprehension. It was a very easy decision.”
IN LATE SEPTEMBER 2009, it was official. Minor league baseball had approved the relocation of the Defenders to Richmond. DiBella and Green say that perhaps the biggest factor in the sale hinged on the new team's management. DiBella hired three of the top people in the business: Chuck Domino, five-time winner of the Eastern League's executive of the year award, along with Todd “Parney” Parnell and Bill Papierniak.
Domino is renowned in minor league baseball as a savvy chief executive who's resurrected several baseball franchises, including the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs in Allentown, Penn. Domino took over the AAA team in 2006. In 2008, the team opened in a new stadium and has averaged more than 9,000 fans for home games over the last three years, with yearly attendance topping 650,000.
Parnell had a similar reputation, having recently worked as president of the State College Spikes in Pennsylvania and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in South Carolina, which underwent similar revivals. Papierniak had been working as general manager of the much smaller Dayton Cubs in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he oversaw a 200-percent increase in attendance during his seven years with the team, from 60,000 fans a year to 180,000.
DiBella first contacted Domino in early June, and quickly sold him on starting a new team in Richmond. “When I was contacted by [DiBella] to consider heading up the team, I didn't have to think too much about it,” Domino says. “It was a large market, geographically it wasn't going to be difficult for me to get there. And I had a couple of people in mind.”
Domino contacted Parnell in late June 2009, and it only took “two or three conversations,” Parnell says. “I was interested in building something from the beginning,” he says. “With the market size and the potential, it seemed like it could potentially turn into something historic.”
Parnell, the team's vice president and chief operating officer, is big and gregarious -- the ultimate pitchman, the consummate prankster. As general manager of the Altoona Curve in Pennsylvania, Parnell once donned an adult diaper at a home game and sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Papierniak was the organizer, the “leader in the office,” Domino says, which allowed Parnell to take the lead on community outreach -- everything from strategic bar-hopping to speaking at local schools.
Domino and Parnell came to Richmond first, in early August 2009, with Papierniak joining them in September. The three bonded almost instantly. While Domino commuted from Pennsylvania, Papierniak and Parnell rented apartments in Shockoe Bottom. While the team hired additional staff, they melded like family. They worked long hours gathered around a card table in the locker room, with metal folding chairs. They went out to local bars almost every night. The staff grew from the three to five to eight to 16 within a matter of weeks.
“We all basically lived together,” Papierniak says. “Our entire staff lived within a couple-block radius of one another in Shockoe Bottom. We all lived, ate and breathed Squirrels baseball.”
They didn't have much time.
“In five and a half months, we had to get approved by minor league baseball. We had to hire an entire staff. We had to set pricing. We had to name the team. We had to get a logo. We had to get merchandise,” Parnell says. “All this stuff happened at such a fast pace in a town that we really didn't know a whole lot about.”
In late January 2010, the team's name was unveiled -- the Flying Squirrels -- and reception from the community was mixed. After launching a name-the-team contest in mid-December, the team's owners and staff had gone back and forth between the Rhinos, Flatheads and Squirrels. Parnell favored the Rhinos, primarily because his father hated the Squirrels name and he had visions of unleashing a live rhino onto the field “every time we scored runs.” Domino also wasn't sure.
“Any time that I would start to waver and go back to plan B,” Domino says, “they would say you have more flexibility with mascots, with logos … with the flying squirrels than with any other name.” The team store became the Squirrels Nest, the stadium the Nuthouse, women's T-shirts splashed with “Squirrels Gone Wild.” The mascot himself, with a menacing snarl and bulging biceps, dons a cape.
“I was a Flying Squirrel guy from the first time I heard it,” DiBella says, despite the early criticism that the name generated. Some people thought it was too much of a novelty, too silly. “All of a sudden people said, ‘Wow, I get it.' I said you know what, this is going to work.” During the Major League Baseball's winter meetings in Orlando, Fla., the Squirrels' logo dominated the trade show, DiBella says, and Ballpark Digest recently named the Flying Squirrels its logo of the year.
On April 15, the team sold out its home opener. The parking lot was filled with tailgaters, instant fans already wearing the red-and-black colors of the team. Games were filled with people from all walks of life, all ages, some who'd never set foot in The Diamond. They quickly were introduced to a much different atmosphere from the previous tenant, encountering quirky fan-interactive games, vendors dressed in costumes, Nutzy riding a skateboard -- even cross-dressing maids performing a choreographed routine while raking the field, promoting a local cleaning service.
And the baseball, of course. The new team had found a welcome home.
THE SQUIRRELS' SUCCESS comes with an inherent risk. DiBella says he likely wouldn't have relocated to Richmond without the promise of a new ballpark in the near future, and questions about when and where a new ballpark would be constructed have dogged DiBella since the moment he got here.
“There is movement ongoing. There are feasibility studies being done. I do believe that there will be a new ballpark, and it will be located on the Boulevard,” DiBella vows. The mayor committed in 2009 to building a new stadium for the Squirrels -- eventually. While DiBella anticipates opening the 2014 season in a new stadium, the city also is studying whether to renovate the Richmond Coliseum, or build anew. Potential sites include on the Boulevard, next to The Diamond, which could complicate the timing and location for a new ballpark.
In late December Mayor Jones reiterated that the city is committed to building a new ballpark, as well. “I think a new stadium is imminent,” Jones tells Style Weekly, adding that the owners' willingness to renovate The Diamond and relocate to Richmond without a specific timeline for a new facility bodes well politically. “It helps their cause to have skin in the game,” he says.
But there are no guarantees. In addition to the years-long push for a new ballpark in Shockoe Bottom -- which drew protest from the Church Hill, preservationists and proponents of turning the Bottom into a slave-history tourist destination -- developers positioned a new ballpark as an economic catalyst. That was a critical mistake, says David Swindell, a sports economist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“Economics tells us not to make these investments,” Swindell says. It's one of the few, nearly universally agreed-upon conclusions in sports economics: new multimillion-dollar stadiums become such a tax drain that they siphon away any possible economic impact outside of the ballpark. The illusion of a new ballpark drawing new restaurants and businesses to locate around it are just that, Swindell says -- an illusion. Studies show people go the ballpark, eat and drink at the ballpark, and then go home.
Rob Baade, professor of economics at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Ill., concurs. “There is this kind of fantasy that bigger stadiums, grander stadiums, this sort of edifice complex where mayors want to build pyramids -- it's all kind of silly,” Baade says. “Economically, it doesn't matter.”
Swindell says the economic argument for new stadiums started disappearing from sports propaganda years ago. In the mid-1990s, new stadium plans for both that city's major league baseball and football teams, the Cincinnati Reds and Bengals, generated enormous backlash, until the city's mayor endorsed a new concept: Forget the economic benefit, think about the city.
“Finally the mayor came out with a campaign ad, ‘It's not about jobs, it's about Cincinnati,'” Swindell recalls. The argument shifted from an economic one to a sociological one. “The psychological benefits of having a new facility for the home team far outweigh the economic impact. … This argument, this sociological argument -- the reason we invest in sports is you give [people] distractions from the doldrums of a bad economic or a war that's going on. It's Americana.”
Indeed, one of the reasons for the Squirrels' early success, Swindell says, is that minor league baseball is a cheap date. Unlike the major leagues, the minors are relatively affordable and family friendly. It's a key reason that attendance across minor league baseball was up in 2010, not just in Richmond.
And then there's the honeymoon effect. When a team enters a new market there's almost always a spike in attendance. A couple of years later, the numbers begin to flatten, and the newness wears off.
DiBella and Domino know this all too well. But they say the Squirrels can continue to bring thousands of fans to the ballgame with savvy marketing, and a commitment to the community. It's one of the reasons they were willing to come to Richmond and play ball in a 25-year-old stadium. They wanted to show their willingness to put up the money first. They'd come before it was built.
We were willing to roll the dice in that respect,” DiBella says. “We thought it was fair that we had to prove ourselves.”
Shifting paradigms, however, don't come easy. To continue Richmond's honeymoon, at some point the city and the region will need to give something back.
“I think that approach worked great. I think we proved ourselves to the city. We proved ourselves to the civic leaders,” DiBella says. “We held up our end of the bargain.”