RailCats open another season at home as role in community continues to evolve
By Carole Carlson firstname.lastname@example.org May 20, 2014 5:28PM
The U.S. Steel Yard is nearly ready for Thursday's opening night as the SouthShore RailCats host the Wichita Wing Nuts at 7 p.m. The stadium boasts a new $205,168 electronic scoreboard, at left. A new LED sign, at right, was being erected on Monday. | Carole Carlson~Sun-Times Media
at The Steel Yard
GAME TIME: 7:10 p.m. Thursday
WHO: RailCats host Wichita Wing Nuts
GATES OPEN: 6 p.m.
FAN TREAT: First 1,500 adults will receive a 2013 RailCats replica championship ring
CEREMONY: Ring ceremony for players at 6:40 p.m.
ANTHEM: Jim Cornelison will sing the “Star Spangled Banner”
LEARN MORE: Call 882-2255 or visit www.railcatsbaseball.com
Updated: June 23, 2014 11:38AM
GARY — The shelves in the gift shop at U.S. Steel Yard are stocked with fresh gear, marking the Gary SouthShore RailCats’ 2013 championship season.
A new scoreboard is wired with the latest in high-tech features. Fans who can’t attend games can watch via new media technology.
And Rusty and Rascal are polishing their shtick to entertain young fans.
On Thursday night, an umpire will yell “Play ball,” and the city’s boys of summer will begin the defense of their American Association title against the Wichita Wing Nuts.
RailCats officials hope to repeat the team’s success on the field, and in the stands. New general manager Pete Lavin said the team drew about 165,000 at home last year, about 3,500 per game.
Jacob Mefford, of Lake Station, on Monday bought six tickets for opening night for his family.
“I’ve been a fan since Day 1,” he said. “We try to attend 10 to 15 games, sometimes more. It’s close to home, and it’s inexpensive.”
The RailCats have a strong fan base, but it’s mostly composed of folks from Gary’s surrounding towns.
“We’d love for people from the hometown to come out more and be part of the demographic,” Lavin said, adding that the team tries to buy from Gary businesses whenever it can.
The RailCats set aside certain games every season for Gary residents. There are Gary sorority and fraternity nights, and on May 28 the RailCats are treating students in the Gary Community School Corp. to a game. A salute to Michael Jackson is set for June 21.
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said the city has never fully realized the pro sports potential that its leaders once envisioned. Although the city spent millions in casino money to pump up the Gary Steelheads semi-pro basketball team at the Genesis Center, the team faded as did a successor.
Despite the lack of amenities around the stadium, the RailCats’ attendance has held steady and the team has won three championships in its 12 years.
The Steelheads and RailCats were supposed to ignite an economy-boosting “stadium corridor” that never reached first base.
A 14,000-square-foot restaurant complex across from The Steel Yard is largely closed now. About $3.4 million in federal funds built the complex, once occupied by Dustie’s Soul Food Buffet and Kenny’s Ribs. The restaurants were supposed to employ about 100 people, but Dustie’s was evicted in 2009 for failing to pay rent.
Meanwhile, the restaurant leased by Bennigan’s, built with $2 million the city turned over to the RailCats in 2002, remains closed. RailCats owner Patrick Salvi evicted Bennigan’s in 2009 because he said the restaurant failed to meet the terms of its lease.
It’s left to Freeman-Wilson now to find a game plan for success. She’s eyeing a revitalization of four northern neighborhoods, buoyed with more federal dollars.
“We’ve not really realized the economic benefits, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t,” Freeman-Wilson said of the $45 million baseball stadium.
The RailCats pay the city $150,000 a year in a lease agreement, and the city maintains the park.
When the RailCats began play a dozen years ago, maintaining it wasn’t a problem. Since then, property tax caps have made that a financial challenge for the city.
The city relied on a special taxing district to pay for its share of the new $205,168 electronic scoreboard. It also used money from the tax district to pay for a $307,000 LED sign to replace one that toppled in a storm last year.