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Eric Peterson, Published June 30 2012

RedHawks have become a community fixture over 17 seasons

Fargo

Bruce Thom and then-Northern League commissioner Miles Wolff walked in the outfield grass at the baseball stadium that is now called Newman Outdoor Field.

Seams were still visible in the freshly laid sod, which hadn’t had adequate time to mesh together and adhere to the earth below.

“I said, ‘Walk lightly,’ ” said Thom, the president of the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks independent baseball franchise. “It hadn’t pieced together yet. It was a wing and a prayer that really got us going during those early days.”

The year was 1996, and the fledgling RedHawks – in their first season of existence – were in a rush to start play in their new stadium on that June night.

Wolff had the final say on whether the field was playable.

“I remember walking on the outfield with Bruce Thom and the sod … if you kicked it hard, it would come up, but it was such a beautiful new stadium, we were going to play,” Wolff said. “I don’t remember that opening game there being a problem with the sod. It held for the night, and over the next weeks, it knit into the ground so it was OK.”

Much like that fresh sod, the team has been rooted into the community since that summer night.

“It’s a mainstay now,” said Thom, who remains the team president of the club, which is in the midst of its 17th season.

F-M is on pace to have its 3 millionth fan for regular-season games pass through the turnstile later this summer. Brad Thom, the team’s chief executive officer, said he expects that milestone to happen between late July and early August.

“It’s a ‘wow’ factor, the 3 millionth fan,” Bruce Thom said.

Bruce Thom credits four main ingredients for the team’s staying power: manager Doug Simunic and his staff, Newman Outdoor Field, a commitment to making games family friendly, and a solid staff in the front office.

Simunic has been with the team since 1996.

The RedHawks have only missed the playoffs twice under Simunic, who has guided the team to five league championships.

“That was a key, to hire Doug Simunic and Jeff Bittiger, the two of them from Day 1,” Bruce Thom said. “It’s been a great relationship from Day 1.”

Bittiger initially was a player and coach for the RedHawks and now serves as a team consultant. Simunic is in the final year of his contract, but Bruce Thom expects the team to retain Simunic beyond this season.

“Doug is as much as the team’s success as anyone and there’s no reason to think that isn’t going to continue,” Bruce Thom said. “We intend to meet with Doug prior to the end of the season and renew a contract with him.”

Simunic said general manager Josh Buchholz has developed into an important part of the organization.

“Josh has just done a marvelous job,” Simunic said. “I had Josh as a clubhouse kid. Now Josh is the general manager who runs and aoperation and knows what to do. He’s worth a lot in this organization.”

The RedHawks played their first game in the then-unnamed Newman Outdoor Field on June 21, 1996, after having to play their first six games at Jack Williams Stadium. The facility – which was built for a total price tag of around $5.7 million – has been a solid investment.

“Such a good stadium was built,” Wolff said. “That was another factor in the longevity. It wasn’t just thrown up. This was a good solid stadium that you could be proud of. It’s well done.”

Bruce Thom said he’s proud the RedHawks are near the end of paying back the $5,244,933 they owe to the City of Fargo. Thom said the team has $270,000 left to pay off, and that amount will be completed by early 2014.

Bruce Thom said the goal from Day 1 was to make coming to a RedHawks game affordable and family friendly.

For example, hot dogs are $1.50 and a kid’s meal is $2.50. The price of a season ticket has gone up $40 ($335 in 2002, $375 in 2012) over the past decade.

Brad Thom recently overheard a fan on the concourse comment: “Can you believe this, a $1.50 hot dog? This would be 5-and-a-half dollars at the Twins stadium.”

“We priced ourselves right. That’s part of why we’ve been successful,” Bruce Thom said.

Bruce Thom added a strong front-office staff has played a key role in the success, promoting the team in the offseason whether it be advertising or season tickets.

Brad Thom said the season-ticket base is around 1,200 this season and there is normally a 10 to 20 percent turnover each year. The Thoms said that 1,200 number is about the perfect mix for a stadium that seats around 4,500 fans.

“The season-ticket base is very, very important because it gives you a plateau to start on,” Bruce Thom said.

F-M has averaged around 3,900 fans per game in the team’s more than 700 regular-season home dates since 1996.

“Players like to play in front of crowds also. We get those here,” said Simunic, whose team played before 5,144 fans Friday night. “I think it’s all meshed into a great marriage. … I think they go hand in hand. It’s a nice place to come a watch a game. If you watch it from the seats, it has plenty of character.”

Thom said the team did lose money in each of the first five years, mostly due to startup costs. Every year since, however, the team has turned a profit.

“Any business has to be profitable to be successful,” Bruce Thom said. “From the very beginning, the worry was would the baseball generate enough revenue to make it worth the while.”

The RedHawks spent 15 seasons in the re-formed Northern League, which was an eight-team league (that included St. Paul, Winnipeg, Sioux Falls and Sioux City) when they joined in 1996. That league grew to as many as 18 teams in 2002 when it was merged with a league based in the eastern United States.

F-M survived St. Paul, Sioux Falls, Sioux City and Lincoln leaving the Northern to help form the American Association, which started in 2006. The Northern League shrunk to a six-team league for a couple seasons.

The RedHawks reunited with St. Paul, Sioux City, Sioux Falls and Lincoln in the American Association prior to the 2011 season, a move that led to the end of the Northern League.

Joining the American Association also realigned the RedHawks with Wolff, who Thom said played an important role in getting the franchise started.

“He worked really hard in early ’95 to make baseball a possibility here,” Bruce Thom said. “It was really Miles Wolff who said ‘This can go.’ ”

Wolff said he thought Fargo would be a good market because it “had a good baseball history.” The community previously had Northern League and minor league baseball and a baseball icon like Roger Maris.

Wolff said the RedHawks have done a good job of consistently drawing fans since their inception.

“I think most teams have a three-year novelty factor, the honeymoon,” Wolff said. “And after that, they start falling off. You can’t expect the honeymoon to last so you’ve got to work at it. Those teams that have been consistent really have worked the market.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter

Eric Peterson at (701) 241-5513.

Peterson’s blog can be found

at peterson.areavoices.com