The Hannibal Hoots baseball club has made strides during its first 10 months of operations and looks to build upon its inaugural season.
Matt Stembridge entered the Hannibal Hoots' inaugural season in the Prospect League well aware the franchise faced a steep learning curve.
The general manager likened his position this year to a college professor entering his or her first semester.
“This is more than I thought it would be and that's no secret. Your first year will always be the craziest. Same goes for teaching a college-level class,” said Stembridge, who taught and coached for 10 years at Quincy University and John Wood Community College.
“You've got to build the syllabus, make the PowerPoints, know the book in and out. Year 2, easier. Year 3, you're in a mode where you can knock it out.
“This first year, there was a lot to learn.”
The Hoots were scheduled to conclude the season Friday night at Clemens Field. They entered their final game 24-35 and eliminated from the playoffs.
Wins and losses aside, Hoots sole owner Rick DeStefane said he is proud of the progress the club has made in its first 10 months.
The front office evaluates the first summer of the franchise in three different aspects: fielding a competitive roster, food and beverage, and gameday experience for the fans.
Fielding a competitive roster
The Hoots announced their arrival at City Hall in October 2017, two months after most teams in the league began recruiting players for this season.
The club missed out on prospects who were part of the first recruiting wave for summer teams.
“I wanted to see better performance out of the team this year than what was exhibited, but in being fair with the process, we didn't get started until the third month of the recruiting process,” DeStefane said.
Stembridge mentioned he often was asked in the months leading into the season if he believed the inaugural squad could contend for a championship.
While that reality was possible, the GM said he had “tempered expectations” for on-field performance.
“The likelihood of us playing for a championship was very slim in Year 1,” Stembridge admitted. “Outside of the NHL this year with the Las Vegas Knights, nobody does that. That would have been pretty special, but I had an understanding it was going to be like this.”
The Hoots had a full roster signed by the end of last December, but only half of those players wound up playing for the team.
Recruiting was a constant challenge, as Stembridge was forced to seek additional players this spring and use his contacts to fill holes on the roster during the summer.
“I don't know if the recruiting ever stops,” he said.
With one year under his belt, Stembridge is confident the talent level of the team will rise next season.
He said he's OK with this summer's record.
“The fact we have 24 wins, I'm good with that,” Stembridge said of his team and first-year manager Clayton Hicks. “This is our first year and our guys overachieved to a certain degree.”
Food and beverage
The concessions offered at Clemens Field were a source of complaints against the former Cavemen franchise.
The Hoots made it a priority to change that narrative.
Stembridge contracted JJ's Catering to handle all food and beverage sales this season. The company belongs to Jimmie Louthan, owner of the Quincy Gems.
“JJ's has done a great job,” Stembridge said. “The whole goal was to let us gain experience while they're here operating so we can function this at a very high level going forward. We have gotten out of this exactly what we hoped.”
The Hannibal franchise intends to go a different direction with concessions next year, whether it's hiring another company outright or handling operations with its own staff.
“This offseason will help us identify that,” the GM said. “We could do it as a standalone, no problem. But we would have somebody else do it if it adds to the fan experience.”
The atmosphere fans experienced at games this summer is just a shell of what the Hoots want to create in future years.
“We touched on some things we could handle Year 1, and now we have building blocks we can improve upon,” Stembridge said.
A daily program sold at the home plate gate proved a success, especially over the second half of the season, he said. “Blackout nights” brought energy to the park, as did a Field of Dreams program and the booming voice of public address announcer Chris Yingling.
The team custom-ordered a mascot costume that didn't arrive from overseas until halfway through the summer. The still-nameless creature figures to have a more prominent role next year.
Stembridge also hopes to implement more sounds to keep fans engaged during games similar to what's amplified in many minor league parks across the country.
The GM noted the team can always do more to entertain fans.
“I sat in the park most nights,” Stembridge said. “I noticed the lull. There are times — especially when we're losing — that we can be more engaging in some way.”
The Hoots attracted 15,082 paid fans through the first 29 home games for an average of 559.
Both figures are third-lowest in the league but higher than the Cavemen's final season in 2016.
The team's best-drawing game was Opening Night.
“We know that we're the smallest market in the league,” Stembridge said. “We know attendance has been tough here in years past. But the numbers this year are a sign in the right direction.”
DeStefane mentioned his purpose behind owning the club is to bring the Northeast Missouri region together.
“From what I witnessed, the families had fun,” he said. “At the end of the day, that's what it's all about. It's about the community coming to the game, walking through those gates and having a great experience. I think we accomplished that, which is very encouraging.”
DeStefane stood near home plate May 30 before the first game of the season and made a promise the city of Hannibal would have baseball for the next 30 years.
The owner still feels the same way.
“We're going to be here every year,” he said. “There's no question about it. And we'll continue to improve.”
Stembridge said he would welcome Hicks back as field manager. Hicks expressed interest in returning to the dugout next year during an interview with the Courier-Post in late July.
Efforts are already underway to construct the 2019 roster. The club also has plans for cosmetic improvements to historic Clemens Field.
The Hoots view this summer as a stepping stone.
“We made some really good headway organizationally,” Stembridge said. “We will only get better from the experience we gained this year.”