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Alum fills park with home-run ideas

Drew Weber

by John Bach

Drew Weber may own the most successful losing team in America.

Despite the fact that the Lowell Spinners consistently lose more baseball games than they win, their 5,000-seat stadium sells out game after game. So why do fans beat a path to Lowell, Mass., to watch the Boston Red Sox minor-league affiliate?

Weber, BusAd '66, says it is a combination of a terrific baseball market, a beautiful new stadium and a staff that loves to have fun. The fans say it is the family friendly experience. Judging by the media play that the mere Class-A club receives (not an easy task, particularly in the Boston press), the key ingredient to the team's success appears to be Weber's marketing genius.

Unlike the major leagues, the hallmark of the minors is that taking in a game is often less about balls and strikes and more about what takes place outside the foul lines. For example, a typical night of "Spinnertainment" includes sumo wrestling in the stands, magic acts and mascot races. And that's just between innings. Before the game, fans will find players signing autographs, clowns making balloon animals and a border collie catching Frisbees. The Spinners roll out zany, off-beat promotions nearly every home game. And that's the part Weber enjoys most.

"When I bought the team, it wasn"t for the baseball," he says. "It was the marketing. I was a marketing major at UC. It is that total freedom -- the entertainment, the promotions and all the things you can do to bring families in -- that I like."

This past season wouldn't have been complete without Hercules, the world's heaviest dog; stadium-style Simon Says; and the world's fastest man on two hands. The experience is often characterized in the press as a circus, and Weber does not deny his role as ringmaster.

Past antics have included a wedding ceremony at home plate, "Bald is Beautiful Night," "Twins Night," "Shirt Off Our Back Night" and the time $1,000 was hidden in hot-dog wrappers. One of the seasonal favorites is the money drop. Twenty fans get to run onto the field and dash for hundreds of dollar bills.

None of the giveaways or wacky promos, however, have compared to the international attention that Weber's "Birth Night" received in '99. The team handed out free pairs of tickets to local expectant mothers. The first to go into labor won a year's supply of free diapers. About 30 mothers sat behind home plate as a childbirth coach led the entire crowd in breathing exercises. Though a baby's cry wailed through the speakers and a dozen ambulances idled outside, the eventual winner (Lisa Armstrong) didn't deliver until four days later.

From the beginning, Drew and Joann Weber have kept the turnstiles at Edward LeLacheur Park (The Big Ed) clicking by adhering to two very simple principles: Put the fan first and keep it fun. It is a distinctly different postulate than that of most professional sports teams.

Nothing is exactly what you would expect at the ballpark because the Webers aren't typical owners. They don't watch the game from a skybox. When they aren't manning a souvenir booth, they sit in the stands or stroll the concourse. And after the game, they position themselves near the exits shaking hands, thanking their patrons for their business and inviting them back.

The Lowell Spinners team mascot, the Canaligator, may be the only one more enthusiastic about minor-league baseball than owners Drew and Joann Wever. Drew, BusAd '56, bought the Massachusetts team to feed his love for marketing. -- photo courtesy of Lowell Spinners

The Lowell Spinners team mascot, the Canaligator. Photo courtesy of Lowell Spinners

"You get to know so many of the people," says Joann, who is in charge of merchandising. "They come up to tell me things like their wife passed away. One little girl handed me her school paper where she had written about coming here with her Dad.

Perhaps even more important than their rapport with the fans is the fact that a family can take in the whole experience without a major-league sting to their bank account. "When I was a kid, I'd go with my parents to see the Brooklyn Dodgers," Weber recalls. "It was no big deal. Now, for a family of four, it is a business decision. They can't afford to go more than once or twice a season."

Much has changed about the game since young Drew sat in the sun-soaked stands of Ebbets Field — wide-eyed, mouth agape, his senses under full assault by the buzz of the crowd, the wafting aroma from concessions and the manicured grassy field. For one, the Brooklyn Dodgers left town and headed west in '58, a move for which Weber holds a permanent grudge. Players now earn multimillion dollar salaries, and families can barely afford anything but nosebleed seats.

A recent survey of major-league teams found that a family of four will spend an average of $145 to attend a game (that's four tickets, two small beers, four small soft drinks, four hot dogs, two programs, two caps and parking). At Red Sox games, the priciest in the country, the figure jumps to $228. Just 30 miles north, however, the same family can catch a Spinners game with all the absurd trimmings for $84. Comparing average ticket prices alone, Fenway Park will soak you for just under $40, while Big Ed hits you up for only about $6.50.

"We could pay for our Spinners season tickets for what we pay at just two games at Fenway," says Stephen Hinckley, whose family of four catches about 30 of 38 home games a year. "They do absolutely everything they can to make families feel comfortable."

Workers at the park even know his sons, Drew and Daniel, by name.

"I go because of the whole atmosphere," he says. "My kids love it. If the Spinners happen to win, well that's a bonus. The players are accessible, and they will sign autographs until they have writer's cramp."

One more reason to come to the park. Win or lose.

The Bearcat Connection

Drew Weber knows a good shirt when he sees one. The 56-year-old New Jersey native spent 22 years as a jobber in Manhattan, wholesaling men’s apparel and importing fine garments from around the world.

It was only after he and his brother sold their century-old family business, however, that a single piece of clothing — a University of Cincinnati knit Polo shirt no less — proved invaluable to his career and his life. As the story goes, Weber, BusAd '66, was in the middle of what his wife, Joann, refers to as a "midlife crisis" and had convinced himself he needed to buy a baseball team. In pursuit of that dream, he attended the 1996 winter baseball meetings in Los Angeles, checkbook in hand.


"I knew a lot of major-league ballplayers," Weber says. "They would come in and get personal suits and ask why I didn't buy a minor-league team."
Following his departure from the importing business, the idea became more feasible, and he started asking himself the same question. Soon he made acquiring a minor-league team his goal, then an "obsession." Weber crisscrossed the country visiting franchises, looking for the right fit.

Part of the problem was making the right connections, permeating the inner circles of baseball. His break came when he met Bearcat classmate Clyde Smoll, Ed '67, in L.A. six years ago. Smoll, who owned a minor-league franchise that he was moving from Elmira, N.Y., to Lowell, Mass., wasn't wearing traditional owner garb, a sport coat or a shirt with his team's logo. He donned a University of Cincinnati knit Polo shirt. It was the perfect ice breaker.

"I was introduced to a lot of different owners," Weber says. "In 99 percent of the cases, I got the quick blowoff. Then I was introduced to Clyde Smoll. It would have been the same had he not been wearing a UC shirt. We wound up spending the evening together at Disney World."

Months later, the UC connection paid off. Smoll phoned Weber and asked if he was still interested in buying his team. Soon the deal was done, and the Webers finally had their team, the Spinners, the Red Sox Class A affiliate in Lowell, Mass. Today, the team is in its fifth year in the pristine Edward LeLacheur Park on the banks of the Merrimack River with a scenic view of the Aiken Street Bridge.

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Long climb to the majors for Bearcat/Spinner/Red Sox Kevin Youkilis


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