News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 26, 2011

FROM THE PRESS BOX: Rex feed summer need … and there’s baseball, too

Todd Golden
The Tribune-Star

---- — The Terre Haute Rex are into their second season of Prospect League baseball at Bob Warn Field. In terms of growing a brand, the second year is always tougher than the first year.

During the first year, you have the advantage of being new, being something unique. No one has any preconceived notions of how good or bad you might be. You get a chance to make a first impression.

Add in the fact that organized summer baseball hasn’t been part of the Terre Haute scene since the late 1950s, and you have the advantage of selling summer baseball’s return to Terre Haute.

All of those factors are gone by the second season. By year two, fans have had a chance to make up their minds as to how worthy you are as an entertainment option. So it’s encouraging that the Terre Haute Rex still seem to be a path of growth, attendance-wise.

Through 11 home dates, the Rex are averaging 886 fans per game. That’s up from 825 fans they averaged in 2010, despite the fact gas prices are significantly higher and that the Rex have been up-and-down on the field.

It also confirms the role I’ve always thought the Rex would play from the time I began writing columns in the mid 2000s advocating summer baseball’s return to town. The Rex fill a significant summer entertainment gap for Hauteans, both sports fans and non-sports fans alike, that was missing for years upon years.

Applying my own amateur zen, attending a summer league baseball game isn’t really about baseball. The baseball is secondary to the experience of hanging out, having a good time, laughing and drinking with friends — and once-in-a-while — getting a thrill off the crack of the bat or a booming home run.

That relaxed summer vibe and long-ingrained nationwide tradition of summer baseball is a major psychological advantage the Rex have over, say, Indiana State baseball.

Unfortunately, I’ve heard grousing from (some) ISU baseball observers who figuratively roll their eyes at the inferiority of Prospect League baseball compared to Missouri Valley Conference baseball. Some of those dissenting voices wish that the ISU Foundation marketing team that does an excellent job to drive attendance and promotions at Rex games should also be tapped to boost the numbers at ISU games too.

It has become a bit petty — to the point where the small Rex promotional sign on the corner of Locust and Third Streets has become one source of irritation for (some) ISU baseball observers and alumni who bristle at the slogan that says “Baseball Is Back” in Terre Haute.

They say it never went away.

I don’t know about you, but if I notice the sign at all (my complaint is that the slogan is a year out of date, but that’s neither here nor there), it’s pretty clear to me that it heralds the return of summer baseball and isn’t intended in any way, shape or form as a slap in the face of ISU’s baseball tradition.

But that hasn’t stopped feelings from being hurt and there are rumors that ISU alums want to erect a bigger ISU sign to make sure no one has forgotten that the Sycamores play at Sycamore Field.

A sign war? As my kids might sarcastically say … “really?”

Having seen plenty of both, I agree that the quality of Missouri Valley Conference baseball is superior to Prospect League baseball. The Prospect League is far from perfect — witness the fact that it couldn’t get umpires to Springfield, Ill., on time Thursday for a rescheduled game against the Rex, among other issues it has.

But playing the “Rex interest versus ISU interest game” is an apples-and-oranges thing, even if the sport is the same.

More than anything else, ISU and NCAA baseball as a whole suffers from its lack of timing. Fans are predisposed to summer baseball. No one in late February or early March is ready to trek to the ballpark when its barely above freezing and college basketball is at its zenith.

Fans also want to be entertained, and in a “minor” league environment, that means all manner of on-field and off-field zaniness that collegiate programs can’t or won’t embrace.

College baseball is far more conservative in its willingness to entertain, which is odd, because many NCAA football and basketball venues provide a rollicking experience.

To wit, a few years ago, ISU banned walk-up music for its players when they batted (the music has since been reinstated). The reason expressed to me at the time was that baseball was good enough to sell itself and didn’t need gimmicks.

I’d love if that were true, because I’m an old school, old fogey who enjoys sports on its own terms, but this isn’t 1920 and those types of attitudes aren’t helpful in growing interest and attendance.

It is true that ISU’s athletic department can’t summon the marketing resources the Foundation can to create a Bill Veeck-like atmosphere at Sycamore games. (Now is as good a time as any to point out that the ISU athletic department and ISU Foundation are separate entities that collaborate, but that are run independently of one another.)

Unfortunately, when you have the disadvantage of timing that ISU baseball has, that’s exactly what has to be done to bring new fans in, especially students, who like it the weirder the better.

Finally, there’s beer. We’ll never know what Rex attendance would be like if they didn’t have beer and alcohol sales, and my guess is, the Rex never want to know. It’s unlikely ISU will ever enjoy the same benefit of alcohol sales that the Rex do, which is a shame, but it’s a choice of ISU’s own making, as it doesn’t allow alcohol sales to the general public at its events.

None of the challenges ISU baseball faces are necessarily its own fault. The disadvantage of season, the lesser marketing resources and the inability to sell beer is not new. These challenges would exist whether the Rex were here or not.

I just think it’s unfair to channel the reality of those problems into resentment of the Rex. It’s not the Foundation’s fault that they found a way to fill a summer void that Hauteans had missed since the late 1950s.

People love to chill out and watch baseball in the summer. And who can fault them for that? Based on the Rex attendance, no one in Terre Haute seems to feel too bad about it.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or