It is a rite of summer that a group of current and washed-up old newspaper hacks, motorheads and assorted hangers-on gather downtown at Victory Field for an Indianapolis Indians game.
We go on a weeknight when the crowd is relatively light and we can sit more or less off to ourselves, the reason being that the conversation during the evening tends to include certain phrases and observations that shouldn’t be within earshot of children.
The group swaps stories and recollections that we all have heard before, but they still are uproariously funny—to us, anyway—after all these years. The ballgame and its leisurely pace provide the perfect backdrop.
In so many ways, our Victory Field experience is simply the best combination of fellowship and sports.
The experience caused me to recall that, over the years, I’ve given hundreds of presentations about the history of the Indianapolis sports initiative to various clubs and groups. Invariably, three questions are posed:
1. Could Indianapolis ever host a Super Bowl? (Resoundingly affirmatively answered.)
2. Could Indianapolis ever host an Olympics? (Not today, but once upon a time, no one thought we could host a Super Bowl, either.)
3. Could Indianapolis ever be home to a Major League team?
The last answer is simple: No, and why would we want one when we have a low-cost, family-friendly option in the Triple-A Indians and Victory Field?
With all due respect to my friend Art Angotti, who carried the torch for Major League Baseball here in the 1980s—remember the Indianapolis Arrows?—Indianapolis has never been a viable candidate for an MLB team.
For one, it is surrounded by too many franchises. Cincinnati, especially, would not want a team in Indy. Two, the sport lacks the cost-containment and revenue-sharing measures that would enable our small market to compete. It would take years to put together a farm system and develop a team from the bottom up and, quite frankly, I don’t think our populace would hang in for the long haul.
Then, under any circumstance, could a Major League franchise in Indy draw significant attendance over 81 home games in an already saturated sports market? I just don’t think so.
Bottom line, we have the Indians and there are no reasons to make apologies for that. The solid stewardship of longtime CEO Max Schumacher and General Manager Cal Burleson has made the franchise a model, churning out profits and paying down the debt on Victory Field, which cost only $14 million. Attendance is topping out above 600,000 per season and there isn’t a night that doesn’t have some kind of promotion going on.
The Vic, which opened in 1996, looks as nice—if not better, given continued improvements and upgrades—as it did on opening night. Joey Stevenson has been named two years running as the Triple A groundskeeper of the year. It’s literally easy to see why.
And I hesitate to say this, because the Indians and their management are competitive folks. They want to win. But, unlike watching the Indiana Pacers and Indianapolis Colts, the outcome of the games does not diminish the experience of being at the ballpark.
That said, the Indians are winning, and winning big. Their parent Pittsburgh Pirates (also having a great year) haven’t skimped on the farm system. The Indians have the best record in the International League and are dominating their West Division.
Dating back over the past four seasons, the Indians have an aggregate winning percentage slightly above .600. For the second straight year, a trip to the postseason playoffs is almost a certainty.
I recall the grumbling when the Indians departed the crumbling Bush Stadium on West 16th Street. But even the most hard-nosed anti-sports grump would have to concede the investment in the stadium is being returned and that the presence of the Indians is a valuable asset to the community.
In fact, as Burleson recently pointed out, from Memorial Day to the Fourth of July, Victory Field will have drawn 250,000 spectators downtown (the figure includes the IHSAA state championships).
Anyway, the hacks and motorheads had an outstanding gathering. Again. And, yes, the Indians won. Again. It was a perfect night.
On a closing note, I couldn’t be more pleased that Larry Bird has returned to the Pacers, though I never doubted he would stay away for long. Something tells me owner Herb Simon might eventually slice a piece of that pie and offer it to Bird, if he hasn’t already. And that would be another good thing.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.