Squatting down behind home plate at Canal Park, sporting a large mitt and nabbing one misguided pitch after another, Ken Babby looked the part of a minor-league catcher.
But this was the new Aeros owner wearing a black pinstriped suit and purple tie instead of the home white and purple. Yet the gusto with which Babby caught the high, off-target and one-hop pitches from those who took the mound to throw out a mock first pitch could be seen from above in the press box.
It is 172 days until the Aeros’ first Opening Day under Babby, but even Mayor Don Plusquellic and City Council President Marco Sommerville didn’t shy away from joining in the baseball fun after a news conference Tuesday afternoon that formally introduced Babby to the Aeros baseball community.
The pair joined the ranks of businessmen waiting in line and in the Aeros dugout before taking off their sports coats, warming up their arms and then tossing a pitch to Babby.
After each catch, Babby sprang up from his crouch with a smile, jogged to the mound and thanked each one with a handshake and pat on the back as a photographer took pictures to commemorate.
There’s no mistaking the passion of the Aeros’ latest baseball boss, but Babby’s love for the game actually had him in uniform for several years while growing up.
“I was horribly afraid of the ball when I was I kid, so my dad suggested I try catcher because of all of the equipment to protect me,” Babby, 32, said, referring to his father, Lon Babby, a former sports agent and current president of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.
The idea worked, as the younger Babby soon realized that a baseball whizzing toward him didn’t seem so scary while clad in a mask, chest protector and knee guards. In fact, he grew to love the game and position and played baseball all the way through high school at St. Andrews Episcopal in Bethesda, Md.
“Obviously I wasn’t good enough to play professionally at a minor-league park like this,” said Babby, who remembered to bring his old high school glove with him when he recently moved to Akron. “But I got a chance to live that dream a little bit today, too, I guess.”
Before having some fun on the field, Eastern League President Joe McEacharn and Indians farm director Ross Atkins joined Plusquellic and Babby at a table inside Canal Park, the four men seated in front of the Aeros’ large blue and red 2012 Eastern League Championship banner.
The scene was symbolic of the fact that even though the Aeros had claimed four league titles under the previous owners Mike and Greg Agganis (who have been based out of Florida and Boston, respectively), Babby’s presence is expected to bring new life to the once thriving franchise.
“Ken is going to bring a new enthusiasm, excitement and commitment,” McEacharn said. “And he’s going to be local, [which] we find can really engage an entire community.”
McEacharn was the main man behind the scenes who worked tirelessly to get Babby (a former Washington Post executive), officials from the city of Akron and the Agganises to broker a deal. And that he did. Babby purchased the team, extended the Canal Park lease with the city for another 25 years and agreed to at least another four years of a player development arrangement with the Indians.
“It was a unique situation,” said McEacharn, who was first approached by Babby to buy an Eastern League franchise back in February or March. “We talked, then I reached out to some people to kind of vet him a little bit. … In the meantime, I reached out to the Agganises to get an idea of how serious they were in selling at this point. As we kept moving forward I realized this was going to be a good fit and it was just a matter of working out the details between the three groups.”