It was just two weeks after Aeros ownership had changed hands from the longtime father/son duo of Mike and Greg Agganis to new owner Ken Babby.
Feeling a bit giddy with the process complete and entertaining his childhood best friend David Troha, Babby decided to take advantage of the spoils of being a new owner on a gorgeous fall evening.
“We’re walking downtown one night and we just can’t believe that this childhood fantasy had come true, that I actually had a key to the ballpark,” said Babby, 33.
So they did what they’d always dreamed of doing. They unlocked a door to the ballpark, made their way down to the control room in the bowels of the stadium and turned on the light towers so they could walk around on the same field the Indians’ Double-A players do en route to the big leagues.
“It was a really special feeling that I got to enjoy for oh, about five minutes,” Babby said. “Here, I’m walking down on the field when my cellphone rang and someone left a voice mail.”
It was Mayor Don Plusquellic, calling from his penthouse apartment that overlooks Canal Park’s center-field wall.
“I remember the voice mail vividly,” Babby said with a laugh. “He said, ‘I’m not going to do this every night, but I just want to let you know somebody left the lights on over there and I’m just looking out for you.’
“I thought to myself, how cool is that? Like, where else does that happen in the country?’ That was a special night for me. It was one of the first nights where it all really sunk in for me.”
When it comes to baseball, there are two dates that will be forever etched in Ken Babby’s memory.
The first is Oct. 11, 2012, the day he officially became the new owner of the Aeros, after serving as the team’s No. 1 fan for months in the background while the impending ownership transition was under way.
The second will be Thursday, when the gates of a revamped Canal Park swing open for the first time in 2013 and Babby and his staff welcome fans to what’s been dubbed “a whole new ballpark experience.”
To understand why Babby gets so excited by the idea of other people enjoying themselves at a baseball game, it helps to understand that his path to Akron began with the end of his 12-year newspaper career at the Washington Post.
“Over a year ago, I made a conscious decision that I was ready for a career change,” said Babby, who grew up around the sporting scene as the son of longtime sports agent and executive Lon Babby. “I’d worked at the Post since I was 19 [working his way up from an intern to chief revenue officer and general manager of digital content of Washingtonpost.com]. I’d made a promise to myself many years ago that I wanted to be in sports and the timing just felt right.”
Babby was a few years removed from a divorce, ending a marriage that produced something even more dear to him than baseball — his 4-year-old son Josh.
“I was ready for a fresh start,” Babby said. “My family’s all been from Washington and at that point I’d lived there for 32 years of my life, other than when I was in Massachusetts for college [at Wheaton College]. The D.C. area is a wonderful, thriving place to live. But it didn’t match what I wanted to do professionally.”
Despite becoming an Akron resident, Babby has maintained consistent contact with his son. His rule is to never go more than five days without seeing him, whether that be traveling to Washington on a weekend off, Josh coming to Akron or thanks to modern technology and a computer screen on Skype.
“Right now Josh thinks his father is a professional baseball player,” Babby said with a grin. “Someday he’s going to be widely disappointed to learn that his dad really just sits in meetings and does spreadsheets all day.”
But that’s all right for now, because Babby is already beginning to play second fiddle to Josh’s new favorite person to hang out with — a big orange space cat named Orbit.
For the love of baseball
Not only was Babby prepared to leave the nation’s capital to chase his dream, he always knew the sport he’d eventually settle in was the nation’s pastime.
“I just have an incredible passion for the game of baseball,” he said. “Particularly in the fan-experience area. Minor-league baseball was the only arena I could find that allowed me to solely focus on the experience piece but also have the benefit of being a part of the game itself.”
Babby’s love for baseball was born out of his time as an impressionable youth on business trips with his dad while Lon Babby served as general counsel for the Baltimore Orioles.
“My father was deeply involved in the building of Camden Yards,” he said. “I was able to watch that as a kid and be part of that, hanging around the clubhouse and being fortunate enough to be a bat boy in spring training.”
Babby soaked up the culture of the game like so many of the players’ kids do, but by the time he was 12 he was already paying close attention to the fan experience.
“I watched how the community responded to this building of a new downtown ballpark, how other businesses thrived as a result of the baseball team and how the Orioles in the community redefined themselves,” Babby said.
Coming to Akron
It’s only fitting that Babby’s first visit to Canal Park with a friend during a late June weekend reminded him instantly of Camden Yards. Canal Park’s brick façade, its downtown location and having a “venue within a venue,” such as the park’s restaurant just beyond the right-field wall, all had a mini-Camden feel to it.
Two days wasn’t nearly enough. Babby returned to Akron a week later, attending each game of a weeklong homestand. Each day he’d buy a ticket, sit three or four rows deep in the left-field corner near the disabled rocket’s launch deck.
“I wanted to see the flavor of the park,” he said. “I was evaluating the staff and needed a quiet place away from everyone else.”
With a notebook in hand, Babby started a log of what he saw and experienced. His notes included questions and observations such as:
• Service experience at concession stand can be improved.
• Families love this place, but how many people know about it?
• Is the price of food correct?
• Are the bathrooms clean?
Babby took in a game on a big promotion night. He came on a buyout night to see how the park “felt” when filled with fans. He even braved a summer morning Education Day game, enduring the constant hum of thousands of chatty kids running around the park for seven innings.
It didn’t take long for Babby to realize he and Canal Park could be a good fit.
He’d already been in the midst of talks with Eastern League President Joe McEacharn, who pointed him in Akron’s direction with the Agganises showing interest in selling the team they’d owned since 1981 and had moved from Massachusetts to Vermont to Canton and finally to Akron in 1997.
During Babby’s third trip to town, he met with Plusquellic, whom he now considers a “good friend” despite sensing some hesitation during their first meeting.
“The mayor was clearly excited, but also cautious,” Babby said. “He didn’t really believe that the sale would ever happen. Given past dynamics [during the Agganis ownership, the family and the city were notorious for arguing over who was responsible for stadium repairs] his enthusiasm for the process early on was carefully controlled.”
But as the process played out over the next few months, Plusquellic was “probably second to me as the most excited,” Babby said.
“You just get the sense that he believed the ballpark hadn’t become what he thought it should have and now he senses that it can. If I can play a small role in doing that, then that would be a wonderful thing.”
The feelings are mutual.
“Ken’s a really phenomenal, gung-ho owner who really wants to improve the experience here for the fans,” Plusquellic said.
Babby, who’s gone out of his way during the offseason to speak at just about every event he’s been invited to in Akron, isn’t merely a part of Akron, he’s becoming Mr. Akron.
“We’ve always enjoyed our relationship with Akron and are excited to continue it with Ken,” Indians farm director Ross Atkins said. “He’s extremely motivated, has been very communicative and it seems as though he’s really enjoyed taking the brand in a new direction. Certainly nothing against prior ownership, but we’re very excited by his energy, his motivation, his intellect, his experience and his communication has been incredible.”
The right people
Babby’s lack of a baseball background has been eased by his willingness to surround himself with others who have the experience he lacks.
“If there was a question about his inexperience initially, he’s answered it by being so inquisitive and wanting to surround himself with experienced people who have a better feel for the industry,” Atkins said.
Aeros General Manager Jim Pfander, an Akron native, is one of the first such people. Pfander didn’t fare well under the team’s previous ownership when he served as executive vice president and chief operating officer during the 2011 season.
So when Babby flew to Sarasota, Fla., in September to court Pfander (who spent the 2012 season as the general manager of the Charlotte Stone Crabs in the Class-A Florida State League) hoping to convince him to return home for a second time, Pfander was reluctant.
“I was ready with a list of reasons why I wasn’t interested in the job,” said Pfander, an Archbishop Hoban graduate. “But Ken just went right down the list and had an answer for each one. His energy was hard to miss, his vision for the Aeros exciting. After he left, I told my wife, ‘I know you’re not going to believe this, but I think we need to think about going back to Akron.’ ”
Babby had already made up his mind.
“I knew it would be tough to get him to come home,” Babby said. “But I flew back north that afternoon and made him an offer the moment I landed. He was smart, calm, creative and a proven leader everywhere he’d been. He was my guy.”
With an intense desire to connect with his adopted community, a long-term lease in hand, a huge scoreboard to unveil on Opening Day and Canal Park finally getting the interior face-lift it’s desperately needed the past few years, Babby has already left an indelible mark on the local baseball scene.
“Some nights after a bad day or just a long day, I put on a pair of sneakers and take a jog around the warning track,” he said. “It helps put things in perspective, why we’re doing all this. I look at the empty seats and think they represent families, fans and kids that are going to come here and enjoy themselves.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.