Clemens Field is a buzzing place as the Hannibal Hoots baseball club counts down to the Opening Day of its inaugural season.
Jerseys, hats and equipment are delivered to the franchise headquarters on a daily basis. Work continues to get the historic field in game condition. And in just over a week, the 32 players on the roster will arrive in America's Hometown.
The Hoots bring the Prospect League back to Hannibal following a brief hiatus caused by the folding of the former Cavemen team that operated from 2009-2016.
Local businessman Rick DeStefane is the Hoots' sole owner.
Hannibal opens the campaign with a home game against the Danville Dans at 6:35 p.m. on Wednesday, May 30.
"There are a thousand moving parts that have to be aligned by the time that game starts," said Hoots general manager Matt Stembridge. "But am I happy with our progress so far? Absolutely. We've exceeded lots of our expectations for the first year."
The team has sold nearly 200 season tickets and secured sponsorships from 49 businesses within the region.
Those figures have been pleasant surprises for a front office concerned that grudges against the past Hannibal club could damage the franchise of the present and future.
"In January and February, we probably took at least 100 meetings," Stembridge said. "It was every day at civic clubs and businesses where we addressed some of the problems. Those grievances were super helpful because it gave us the knowledge of what not to do and how to walk this path."
The franchise hopes to attract an average of at least 700 fans per game this summer at Clemens Field, which has a capacity of about 1,800.
To reach that number, Stembridge is focused on the game day experience as much as anything else.
"For this franchise to be successful, baseball can't be the only sell," he said. "There has to be more. The game becomes secondary to the experience. It's the food, the music and the other extracurriculars that keep people coming back."
The club plans to host a variety of theme nights over its 30-game home schedule, including "blackout nights" where local businesses and charities are paired together in an effort to raise money to pour back into the community.
The Hoots will put on eight "city nights at the park" as well as five elementary school nights, for which the team is working with local schools to welcome kids for free.
Stembridge expects to give away $600 of prizes at each home game through a daily program sponsored by local businesses. The programs will be available to fans at each game and include lucky numbers that will be announced between innings.
"We've got a base of supporters we expect to be there all the time, and I think the events we've got planned throughout the year will serve to get more people in the door," Stembridge said.
The Hoots have made it a priority in their initial seven months to expand their marketing footprint further into the outlying Northeast Missouri region.
"It was very dependent on Hannibal, the city of, in years past, but we have relationships in Palmyra, Bowling Green, Monroe City, Quincy, Pittsfield," Stembridge said. "It's regional. We have the smallest market in the league, so we have to be a regional presence."
J.J.'s Catering Company will manage food and beverage at the ballpark during home games.
Stembridge noted concessions were among the top concerns voiced by the community about the previous franchise.
"J.J.'s has done the Quincy Gems for years," he said of the food company, noting its connection to the nearby Prospect League team. "We've contracted them in this first year to really clean that up."
Hannibal Parks & Recreation director Andy Dorian and members of his staff have helped the Hoots prepare the playing surface. The city of Hannibal owns Clemens Field and leases it to the Hoots.
The newest feature at the ballpark this season will be a batting tunnel in the south concourse area.
"The entire playing surface was something that had to be addressed," Stembridge said. "Andy Dorian with the city has been awesome. His guys have been great. They've been out here probably non-stop for three weeks helping us. It's coming along."
The team remains in search of more host families to open up their home to players this summer. Anyone interested should contact Diane Rash at 573-795-2302 or email@example.com.
The importance of winning is not lost on Stembridge.
The Cavemen went 29-87 to finish in last place over their final two seasons of operations.
Hoots head coach Clayton Hicks will lead a roster comprising players across the nation and is focused on changing that narrative.
"Winning needs to take care of itself, but my biggest goal would be that we’re productive members in the community and giving back to the city of Hannibal that’s going to give us a lot this summer," Hicks said shortly after his hire.
Stembridge offered an "honest assertation" for what to expect from the Hoots on the field this summer.
"We got involved two months later than some in recruiting, but I like our roster because it's good people," he said. "Let them have a good experience, let them overachieve here, and we can attract better and better players each year. And we've got kids who can come back. I like to think we'll be pretty competitive."
DeStefane, a nursing home executive and former Cavemen co-owner, mentioned he plans for the Hoots franchise to be here to stay.
"I'm looking for a long-term situation here," the owner said at an October press conference. "This is not my team. This is your team. I don't do this for a living. I do this because I love Hannibal and I love baseball."