When it comes to making Aeros fans happy, Ken Babby knows it takes a thief.
The new Aeros owner and CEO has been obsessed with details of the ballpark experience since he was a youngster growing up in the Washington, D.C., area and attending Baltimore Orioles games at Memorial Stadium with his dad.
He considers his beloved Camden Yards the gold standard and he’s not alone, with the quaint yet stunning brick stadium built adjacent to a warehouse known as much for its food and beverage choices as its architecture. The place was even buzzing for a game last June 29 against the Indians when the temperature was 100 degrees at first pitch.
Babby, 33, is constantly taking pictures and making notes on everything he sees that he likes at other venues, from food, promotions and community-service projects to what some would consider minutia.
In Babby’s mind, it seems there is no such thing as minutia.
He’s willing to think outside the box, which might explain Jim Tressel Bobblehead Night tonight at Canal Park to commemorate the former Ohio State football coach’s first anniversary as a University of Akron administrator. Tressel, whose statute has him dressed in a blue sweater vest, will throw out the first pitch and sign autographs. Babby’s roots are in the nation’s capital, but he knows OSU — and anything ever associated with it — sells. The 1,000 bobbleheads should go quickly.
Babby is not too proud to borrow from the best minor-league teams in the business. When the current six-game homestand concludes Wednesday afternoon, he’s taking the entire front office to Reading and Lehigh Valley, Pa.
He said Lehigh Valley is tops in attendance in all of Minor League Baseball, and Reading is known for its fan experience. Babby is also intrigued by Reading’s program that invites honor roll students on the field to talk to players and hopes to bring a version to the Aeros.
On Thursday, he and the Aeros’ food and beverage director visited the Lake County Captains.
Babby also continues to sell the Aeros’ “Extreme Eats” menu, devised under the previous ownership in 2011, all the while knowing Northeast Ohioans risk their cholesterol and calorie counts with the outrageous concoctions.
Items like “The Screamer,” a 5-pound sundae in a real batting helmet with 21 scoops of ice cream, four bananas, a pound of crumbled brownie, whipped cream and sprinkles, seem devised as much for publicity as for public consumption. On the Atkins diet? Then the “Nice 2 Meat You Burger” is for you, as long as you throw out the bun. It has a 1¼-pound hamburger stuffed with a half-pound hot dog and a quarter pound of bacon, cheese and onions. Such feasts have already gained mention on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and CNBC Sports.
On opening day, Babby unveiled the largest video board in AA baseball, unofficially the fourth largest in the minor leagues.
Talking frequently with Indians president Mark Shapiro, who likely filled him in on the popularity of fireworks nights, the Aeros have “doubled down,” adding Saturdays in June, July and August to their regular Fridays.
Babby might seem like a carnival barker, a modern day Bill Veeck ready to try anything short of a miniature man to get people in the seats. But that’s not all that drives him, even though he’s sunk his life savings into buying the Aeros. He wants fans to enjoy themselves, to be treated well, to fall in love with the game.
If the vendor serving those 21 scoops isn’t happy with his lot in life or the person on the other side of the counter thinks he only got 20, Babby knows he or she might not be back.
Speaking to the Akron Press Club on Friday at Canal Park, Babby shared the mission statement he wrote on a napkin one day when he stopped in Breezewood, Pa. With his purchase of the Aeros about to become official, he was making one of his many drives from Washington to Akron.
“ … To deliver lasting and memorable experiences for families night after night by creating a fun, safe and unique environment where people can unwind and slow down from life’s paces, to laugh, to cheer and enjoy time with the people they care about most, all in a rich, lively community setting at an affordable price,” Babby read.
He made his mission sound as much about making memories as making money.
Just a month into his first season, Babby doesn’t care how many brains he has to pick, how many field trips he has to take. He’s ready to load up the bus. For now it’s Reading and Lehigh Valley, but soon it might be Camden Yards or bust.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.