Rather than catch the action on the diamond during Bellingham Bells’ home games last season, team owner Eddie Poplawski decided to spend each night at Joe Martin Field standing near the front gates.
As fans trickled down from the stadium’s green grandstands, he’d ask them questions any baseball lover would want to know: How many outs left in the inning? Who made that last play? How’s our pitcher looking?
The fans often wouldn’t have answers, Poplawski said. They’d just want to talk about how great a time they’d been having.
“There’s a real positive energy about being involved in baseball that really gets my heart beating,” Poplawski said. “I’m hoping to help build a community center where baseball is played; where lifetime memories are created.”
Entering his second season owning the Bells, a collegiate summer team that plays in the West Coast League, Poplawski said his focus on the fans’ experience was key to running the club.
As the WCL’s nine teams take the field to start the 2012 season this month – opening day is June 1 –they’ll be playing in a league that attracts a steady stream of top college talent, and which last season saw a 29 percent increase in league-wide attendance figures.
Despite the signs of success, owning a small baseball team is rarely a money-making enterprise, league president Ken Wilson said.
Though a couple of West Coast League teams are usually able to turn a profit at the end of each season, Wilson said for team owners, bringing in dollars isn’t the point.
“That’s not the main focus of these businesses,” Wilson said.
Poplawski said he bought the Bells in November 2010 for both his love of baseball and the fact his son, Danny, a college player at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., wanted to play summer ball in the Pacific Northwest where the family lives.
Danny ended up playing for the WCL’s Walla Walla Sweets during the 2010 season, which had recently been bought by a family friend.
After the season, Poplawski decided he wanted in on the business of baseball. His timing was perfect.
Brett Sports & Entertainment, which had owned the Bells since 2008, had just put the team on the market.
Poplawski said he jumped at the chance in part due to Bellingham’s proximity to his home in Bellevue, where he runs a real estate investment firm.
Bellingham is no stranger to baseball.
From 1973 to 1996, Joe Martin Field was home to a “single A” minor league team, which played in the Northwest League and featured a number of baseball greats throughout its history, including a young Ken Griffey Jr.
Poplawski was convinced Bellingham locals had passion for the Bells due to baseball’s long history in the city.
“It’s really second-to-none in the West Coast League,” he said. “I had a feeling there’d be a lot of pent-up demand.”
He wasted no time placing his mark on the team. The Bells received a complete makeover with new uniforms and a new logo prior to the 2011 season.
He had new stadium seats installed down the baselines. The bullpen area was also rebuilt, and a new patio for fans was placed just off third base.
Nick Caples, the Bells’ general manager, said the additions to the stadium would also benefit the youth, high school and amateur players who use the field – reflecting a desire of Poplawski and himself to support local baseball in all its forms.
“When we make these capital improvements, it’s not just for the Bells, it’s for the greater good of baseball,” Caples said.
By far the largest expense for the Bells, and true for any small baseball team, is travel.
Caples said the WCL has managed to find ways to keep travel costs manageable for its teams, including using buses instead of planes and tweaking the game schedule of the two-month season to save as much money as possible.
Wilson said team owners coordinate closely to set dates for games, ensuring a team won’t have to play back-to-back nights on either end of the league’s territory, which spans from Oregon to British Columbia.
Another big money-saver is the league’s host-family system.
Rather than pay to put up its full roster in a hotel for the summer, the Bells partner with local fans who volunteer to feed and house players for the duration of the season.
As the Bells open their 2012 campaign with a home series against the Wenatchee AppleSox, Caples said while there’s always a focus on winning games, going forward most of his attention will be centered on the fans.
“As competitive of a guy as I am, and as competitive a guy as Eddie is, we can’t control anything that happens on the field,” he said. “All of our attention is focused on making sure when those gates open, it’s a fun, clean, safe place for families to be.”
The Bellingham Bells are online at www.bellinghambells.com.