HANNIBAL – Matt Stembridge was eager after the conclusion of the Prospect League last season.
The Hannibal Hoots only won 25 games in their inaugural season, but the club’s general manager thought the future was bright in terms of being competitive, bringing the community back to Clemens Field and becoming an efficiently run ballclub.
"We had a ton of momentum," Stembridge said. "We got a ton of feedback after the season and got response from our season ticketholders. We made the type of progress we had hoped."
Flood waters washed any notion of that away.
The rising water levels from the Mississippi River entered the stadium and playing surface twice in the weeks leading up to the start of the regular season in April and May. That forced the Hoots to play their entire schedule at QU Stadium – home of the Quincy University baseball team and the Quincy Gems – and in turn meant the Hoots virtually played 60 road games this season.
That also meant if Hannibal residents wanted to watch their hometown team, they had to drive 30 minutes away.
It caused Stembridge headaches for season tickets along with sponsors and organizations that either had planned outings and tickets for the suites at Clemens Field.
"This is absolutely a more challenging year than last year," Stembridge said. "You’re walking on land mines the entire year because you’re leaning on relationships with Quincy University and the Gems. But nothing’s yours, the players are playing 60 road games and out of vehicles. It’s just putting out fires the entire time."
Stembridge believes the Hoots handled those the best they could. He hopes that allows the club to rebound.
Fairly soon after last season ended, Stembridge became focused on the 2019 season.
He got in touch with colleges and coaches to bring in better talent, and worked with businesses in and around Hannibal as potential sponsors.
"I felt really good about the roster," Stembridge said. "We had more engagement from sponsors and a lot of positive things going on. Then the water started coming up."
The floodwaters started threatening the field in late March, and Stembridge said sponsors were worried about the Hoots being able to play at Clemens Field. At the time, he believed games would still be played in Hannibal and assured those sponsors.
"There was a lot of reluctance, and I understood that," Stembridge said. "We thought the water was going to go down. Then the season was a couple weeks away and we felt like something was up. We were doing everything we needed to do to prep to play in Hannibal."
The waters still kept rising, however, and there was more unease about playing in Hannibal. Stembridge, however, knew one way or another the Hoots were going to play this summer.
"I think there’s a lot of owners in this league that might have just shut the doors because you can’t afford to operate a season with a significant loss like this is going to be," Stembridge said. "But (Hoots owner Rick DeStefane) made a commitment to the players, to the sponsors and to the fans that we were going to play this year. With that said, we had to provide the best experience for these players. We needed a really good manager to galvanize the players, and I think (Hoots manager Clayton Hicks) did a really good job of that."
However, Stembridge said the Hoots operated with about 70 percent of the sponsorships they had from last summer. Stembridge said the club expected to have more sponsorships had the clubs played in Clemens Field.
Stembridge said those sponsors that backed out will be the ones he wants to bring back for next summer. In the meantime, Stembridge wanted to do the best to honor the sponsors that stayed on with signage on the scoreboard among other things around QU Stadium.
"We want to be proactive," Stembridge said. "We knew the attendance was going to be down this year."
He didn’t realize how much it would be down.
Stembridge and the Hoots tried pulling out the stops to lure Hoots fans from Hannibal.
They tried to be more active on social media and had more sales. They did giveaways and discounted tickets to try and get those fans to QU Stadium. The diehard fans showed up, namely, the Brawley family that attended nearly every game this season. However, Stembridge learned they couldn’t overcome the distance.
"We just couldn’t," he said. "There’s been a disconnect and people have other things scheduled. The distance was just enough. If I had an answer, we would have fixed it a long time ago."
The Hoots averaged 155 fans in the 23 games with listed attendance and had a total of 3,563 fans attend games. Both figures were second-worst in the league behind the DuPage Pistol Shrimp.
"It’s less than I thought," Stembridge said. "Our goal was to average 1,000 a night. If we sold out our Hoot and Holler nights, that pushes up our average. We’ve had nights here where we’ve had 27 people in the crowd."
Stembridge said the Hoots best night for attendance was around 530. At Clemens Field, that would have been the worst turnout a season ago.
"I just wasn’t expecting it to be that bad," Stembridge said. "That part’s been most humbling."
Stembridge anticipates the Hoots returning to Clemens Field for the 2020 season.
However, there’s work to be done by then.
Stembridge said there’s around $1 million in flood damages at Clemens Field that needs repaired. The decking around the field will need repaired and replaced and entire new grass will need to be planted for the playing surface.
The city owns the field, and officials told the Courier-Post in July money will need to be used to make the stadium suitable for baseball again.
"There is going to be some money (spent) trying to get (Clemens Field) up and going again," Hannibal’s Director of Central Services Andy Dorain told the Courier-Post in July.
The team’s clubhouse building beyond left field, however, is owned by the Hoots and is up to the club to repair.
How much money the city uses to repair Clemens Field is unknown, and how much money DeStefane will use is also unknown. Stembridge said there’s a possibility FEMA funding could help cover some costs.
Those numbers have to be settled before the Hoots can think about playing at Clemens Field again. Stembridge is optimistic.
"There’s a still lot up in the air, to be honest," Stembridge said. "There’s still a lot of dialogue, and they’re working together to try and figure it out. It’s a tough spot, and I think both sides are willing to find solutions."
Stembridge believes there are several things the Hoots did well this season despite not being at home.
One of those is bringing in a better crop of players. Jered Wegner, for instance, was not only the Hoots’ biggest offensive weapon, but had offensive numbers that stacked up against the rest of the Prospect League.
I think our player recruitment has gotten better," Stembridge said. "I really do believe that. You have to start somewhere, and I think this year we made a jump."
Among other things, Stembridge liked how the staff tried to created a minor league environment as much as possible, and liked the new on-field games like the Mark Twain Casino dice roll and the rubber chicken toss.
"Last year we didn’t do much of that because we just needed to learn how to do our jobs," he said. "I really thought we grew in that regard."
He also thought the marketing staff improved as well as the game operations. He sees those getting even better next summer.
With the season now finished, Stembridge is now focused on helping the Hoots get back to Clemens Field.
"It’s absolutely a wasted year in terms of financially," Stembridge said. "It’s a wasted year in terms of fan engagement, sponsor engagement and all the things you’d evaluate as how you measure success. But I can’t call this a waste because we had 40 players come through the roster and three coaches and host families and all of us went through a very, very challenging endeavor and we’re all made better from it. I can’t change what happened, so we had to get something out of it."