By Benjamin Gleisser
A recent all-star game for minor league baseball’s South Atlantic League included one of the most memorable promotions ever, a home-run hitting contest held on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown.
Eric Krupa ’92, now in his seventh year as president of the Class A “Sally League,” smiles. “They put an inflatable batting cage on the deck, and people sat in bleachers on the sides. Batters hit the balls into the water, where guys on jet skis scooped them up. The players loved it!”
The fans loved it even more. In minor league baseball at all levels, the sideshows are as much of a draw for spectators of all ages as the opportunity to see talented, eager young players trying to make their way to the major leagues.
The Sally League is one of 18 minor league baseball organizations that are part of the farm system, now often referred to as the player development system, for major league teams. It’s the place where promising young players sign on for a shot at the big time. “Fans get to see the stars of tomorrow today,” Krupa says.
For example, Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper and Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year, came through the Sally League during Krupa’s time as president.
Sometimes the folks in the stands get to see today’s stars today, Krupa adds. The Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez had a rehab stint with the Charleston RiverDogs for three or four games. The appearance of a major leaguer of such renown—a sideshow in its own right—almost always guarantees a sell-out.
Among the noted alumni of the Sally League are Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Tommy Lasorda, Don Mattingly, and Ty Cobb.
And speaking of the RiverDogs, who hosted the Yorktown (in Charleston Harbor) and A-Rod (at their ballpark, which seats about 6,000), the team’s owner is actor Bill Murray, an attraction himself. “He’s a huge baseball fan and a tremendous ambassador for baseball,” Krupa says.
Because a minor league team doesn’t control its roster of players—this is the purview of the major league team with which it’s affiliated—entertainment value is a prime marketing tool for driving revenue. “Our No. 1 selling point is affordable family-friendly entertainment.” A family of four can attend a Sally League game for about $60—that includes two adult and two children’s tickets, four hot dogs, four sodas, two beers, and parking.
Some other stunts include people dressed in giant eyeball suits running around at the Lakewood BlueClaws park and races between people dressed as sausages at the Greensboro Grasshoppers park.
From producing the media guides for opening day in April to the Baseball Winter Meetings, the annual industry convention, Krupa’s “season” is year round.
Working several years ahead, he coordinates the creation of each season’s 140-game schedule for the league’s 14 teams, a task that encompasses about 11,000 variables.
“Thank goodness I learned great math and computer skills at Lafayette,” says Krupa, a mathematics-economics graduate who earned a master’s in sports administration and facility management from Ohio University. “Math professor Liz McMahon taught mathematics with enthusiasm, and I still use information I learned from Tom Yuster when I’m generating schedules.”
During the season, Krupa travels around the league to discuss club and industry issues with the teams’ front office executives. With his experience and knowledge of what has worked successfully for other teams, he can brainstorm to generate creative solutions to challenges in customer service, merchandising, or other aspects of the operation.
Of course, watching baseball played by talented young players in an intimate stadium is a real perk for Krupa, who loves sports. He played football at Lafayette, but his dreams of being a punter in the NFL ended after he tore his Achilles tendon while practicing in the offseason.
Before he joined the Sally League in 2008, he worked a decade for Minor League Baseball, the umbrella organization of about 160 minor league teams around the country. He served as director of business and finance and led the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp., which recruits, trains, and evaluates the 230 umpires throughout minor league baseball.