Monday was the first day for a new owner on the local sports scene, but we’re not talking about Jimmy Haslam III buying the Browns.
Ken Babby’s sports dreams are on a smaller scale, but his passion to connect with the Akron baseball community appears to rival that of Haslam’s attempts to reach out to the area’s football fan base.
“I want to make Canal Park the destination place to be from April to September,” Babby said. “Despite all the hectic natures of our lives — difficult jobs, relationships, et cetera — we all need that place where for two or three hours we can relax, take a deep breath, rewind, slow down and enjoy ourselves.”
Babby, 32, spoke passionately about some of the changes he has in mind for the Indians’ Double-A affiliate, but he promised at least one thing would stay the same — the Aeros’ name.
“For the foreseeable future, it will remain the Aeros,” Babby first told Akron City Council members Monday afternoon, then reiterated to members of the Beacon Journal staff at the newspaper’s office.
If he were to ever decide to change the team’s name, Babby said he’d only do so at the urging of and with the input of members of the community.
Babby, who officially purchased the four-time Eastern League champion Aeros on Thursday and moved into his office Monday, is making the rounds to introduce himself to the movers and shakers in the city he now calls home.
Akron City Council unanimously approved a 25-year lease Thursday to keep the Aeros at Canal Park. Babby wasn’t able to attend the meeting, instead meeting some members of council for the first time Monday. The new lease calls for $3.5 million in improvements to Canal Park that will be paid through the team’s lease payments.
The city and the Summit County Port Authority will secure the $3.5 million through tax-exempt bonds. The port authority approved the financing Monday, and Babby enjoyed a warm reception from council members.
“Thank you for taking this on,” Councilman Bob Hoch said.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Babby said.
Councilman Mike Williams teased Babby that the Aeros won championships under the previous owners.
“We’ll do our best,” Babby said.
Mayor Don Plusquellic introduced Babby to the city council, saying he is excited about the youth and enthusiasm he brings to the Aeros. Then he confessed that he lost a bet about whether the team would change hands.
“I was never happier to lose a bet in my life,” said Plusquellic, who publicly butted heads with previous owner Mike Agganis since the franchise moved to Akron in 1997 from Canton.
Babby thanked Plusquellic and City Council for working quickly to approve the lease and the financing, the deal being pulled together in 30 days.
Babby has already relocated to Akron from Maryland, plans to vote here in the Nov. 6 election and has begun unpacking boxes in his stadium office.
He estimated he attended 35 to 40 Aeros home games last season and also took in other minor-league games across the country as he began an inventory of what he wants the Aeros’ new fan experience to be like beginning next season.
“I’m an obsessive fan of experience at these ballparks,” Babby said. “There’s something very special about it from the time you leave your car and walk into the ballpark. From when you first smell the ballpark food, to your first interaction with an usher. When you engage with team personnel, maybe in the kids’ fun zone, or watching the game itself or tasting that first hot dog, there’s something very unique about it. Our organization will be absolutely obsessed with fan experience — that’s our mission.”
Part of that experience will include physical improvements to Canal Park, including a new scoreboard and picnic-style and group-seating areas.
Public Service Director Rick Merolla said the new scoreboard, expected to cost about $1 million, will be added before the 2013 season begins in April. He also said the existing scoreboard will still be used. Other improvements will occur in the offseasons the next two years.