Photograph by Jason Wilkins
Big changes are in store for Frawley Stadium.
Imagine a sunny, steamy Sunday afternoon at Frawley Stadium in July. It’s a beautiful day on the Wilmington Riverfront, but the Blue Rocks and Frederick Keys are only in the second inning and the kids are already stir-crazy. What to do?
For 23 years, Wilmington’s minor league baseball experience has remained largely unchanged. But new owners Clark Minker and Dave Heller aim to blow it up. They have developed an ambitious plan to inject new life into the Blue Rocks franchise, the stadium and the fan experience—all within the next several seasons.
Proposed changes include fielding a Class AA minor-league affiliate (the Rocks are currently a single A franchise), modernizing the stadium, adding a wrap-around concourse that would include a splash park, complete with a moving pirate ship and water cannons, and even constructing condominiums beyond the right-field wall that would allow residents to look into the stadium. Fans this season have already noticed more in-game entertainment, the stadium’s first helicopter candy drop and more bobblehead giveaways than ever.
“I have a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old—two boys,” Heller says. “When it comes to baseball, my 4-year-old is like a fifth starter on a major-league team—if he can give me five good innings, you’ve really accomplished something. So the idea of having all of these other amusements and areas of enjoyment for kids is an integral part of our vision about providing good, clean, affordable, family-friendly fun.” Heller, who grew up in Baltimore, is the visionary of the new ownership group. His Main Street Baseball LLC is majority owner of the Blue Rocks and also owns other minor-league baseball teams. Heller is well-known for crowd-pleasing innovations, like erecting a giant Ferris wheel outside one of his stadiums.
Minker, the club’s managing partner, is the local boy returning to complete his family legacy. His father, Matt Minker, built Frawley Stadium and, as the Blue Rocks’ long-time owner, set the modern-day franchise on its current path before he died in 2007. “I miss him sorely,” Clark Minker says. “He laid out the vision and part of what I’m trying to do is to finish what he is not here to finish. And that’s getting a Double A baseball team and breathing new life into the stadium for the next generation of kids and families and baseball fans. I’ve looked at that as my responsibility. I need to make that happen to finish that legacy.”
Minker and Heller expect to begin making stadium improvements as soon as the current season ends in September. Many of the initial changes will go unnoticed by fans, including upgrading the stadium’s field lights and replacing elevators and roofs. One feature that fans will notice: Many of Frawley’s aluminum bench seats will be replaced with individual stadium seats. The stadium is owned by the Delaware Stadium Corp., and the Blue Rocks are simply tenants, so the new owners must work with the state as they move forward with stadium improvements. The renovations would come full circle after the 2016 season with construction of a wrap-around concourse, a new, larger video board and the pirate ship.
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Heller says a mini-train that would also run around the stadium is another possibility, citing the stadium’s proximity to the Amtrak station—fans can see the trains zip by just past the left-field wall. “That’s something that doesn’t exist in any ballpark, minor or major, right now,” Heller says. The Blue Rocks have retained the services of EwingCole, the Philadelphia-based architectural firm that designed Citizens Bank Park, as well as Indiana-based JPR, to develop designs for the concourse and splash park.
Photograph By Luis Javy Diaz
New Blue Rocks owners Clark Minker (left) and Dave Heller have big plans.
Another possible change to the stadium would be a mixed-use development in the parking lot beyond right-center field. The brick structure would be patterned after nearby buildings and lend a feel similar to the landmark B&O Warehouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
The concourse would run between the building and the outfield wall.
“Our thought is, wouldn’t it be cool if you were a recent college graduate and you accepted a job in Wilmington working for, say, Barclays, and you’re going to live and work on the riverfront?” says Minker. “Wouldn’t it be neat to wake up looking at the stadium? We’re looking at that as a vehicle to help pay for the [stadium] renovation.” Minker explains that currently the parking lot generates no income for the state. A privately held residential building would generate property taxes for the city and state, and the sale of the land could go toward paying the state back for the bonds needed for stadium renovations.
“We’re not asking the state for something for nothing,” Minker says. “We don’t want them to dump money into the stadium under the same terms and agreements that we have now. We’ve gone to them and said, ‘Hey, allow us to create additional revenue streams that our current lease prohibits to help you pay for these things.’”
Perhaps Minker’s biggest dream would be to bring a Class AA club to Wilmington—something his father always wanted to do. At press time, Heller and Minker were involved in a lawsuit that, if settled, would allow them to purchase the New York Mets’ Class AA, Eastern League team, the Binghamton Mets. That move, in turn, would allow the Blue Rocks franchise to be sold to a Texas Rangers affiliate. The new AA club—with its higher caliber of players and higher quality baseball—would ideally start playing in Wilmington in 2017.
In the meantime, Heller and Minker continue to focus on the fan experience. As Heller puts it: The owners don’t control who the players are or how successful the team will be in terms of wins and losses. But the owners can control just about every other aspect of the fan experience. “To base your marketing philosophy on success on the field the way a major league team would, it’s crazy,” Heller says. “I am much more interested in making sure that everybody who comes to the ballpark has a memorable time. We are not in the sports business. We are in the memory-making business. And if we can make a memory for a young child, then we’ve really done something that day.
“I tell our staff all the time, if our fans leave knowing the score, then we haven’t done our job.”