BAYHAM: Let Wichita Eat (Baby) Cake!

Recently there were two pieces of big baseball news in the Crescent City.

The first was the East Bank All-Stars winning the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, bringing home to Louisiana the state’s first little league title.  And then just a short drive away from River Ridge there was far less auspicious news on Airline Drive when the New Orleans AAA baseball team played what is believed to be its final home game, ironically on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall.

I don’t think anyone was either surprised or terribly saddened by the latter as it became apparent the second that the Zephyrs minor league baseball team was rechristened the “Baby Cakes” that a relocation was in the cards.

I understand that the trend for minor league teams to embrace quirky names.  Take the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp for example.

But the name Baby Cakes was a giant foam middle finger to baseball fans throughout the New Orleans area.

It was if the team’s ownership wasn’t just daring folks to support the team but was outright encouraging locals not to.

In fact the first thing that popped in my mind was that this was a “Major League” (as in the Charlie Sheen film not the actual league) move to kill attendance so they could justify moving the team.

And voila!

Sure the Times Picayune’s entertainment writer Doug McCash  wrote a column gushing over the name.  But he earns a pay check covering the goings on of Big Freedia, so yeah.

The fans did not take a shine to it.  In 2016 the Z’s drew 339,400 fans to the Shrine on Airline. Not tops but slightly more than San Antonio, Memphis, and Las Vegas teams. After the new name dropped in 2017, 349,883 went to see the Baby Cakes.  And then reality checked in.

In 2018, the Nola baseball team only attracted 252,614, falling a staggering 97,260- the biggest loss of fans for any minor league franchise. And then things bottomed out this season.  You could say the verdict was in on both the Baby Cakes and its managing general partner Lou Schwechheimer.

In 2019, the Baby Cakes’ attendance was a paltry 188,092.  The next to last Pacific Coast League team in terms of attendance was the Memphis Redbirds, who brought 327,753 into the stands.

On to “wheater” pastures.

“We made a commitment to come here and we are all in,” declared Schwechheimer to Wichita.

If I lived in Kansas’s largest city, I would not borrow any money against that statement. Or have faith in an organization that admitted it “intended” to deceive the residents of their new home.

As if you could not tell by the abortion of a name like Baby Cakes, you can understand that naming franchises isn’t a strength of Schwechheimer-owned concerns.

Last month the Wichita River Rider logo and name got leaked on the Wichita baseball social media site.

The cat was out of the bag.

Or was it?

A team executive said that to the contrary the team name was not yet settled and that the moniker release was not just fake or a mix up but a deliberate move to “create interest” as the actual name won’t be announced until November, claiming seven possible names will be selected from over 3,000 names that were proposed.

Seriously, don’t believe a word anyone from that organization says about anything.

To our AAA heirs in Wichita: take it from New Orleans, get used to getting jerked around by these people.  A more appropriate name would be the “Music Men.”  Because you never know when Schwechheimer is going to give Iowa a try.

The team has stirred quite a bit of controversy in Wichita, Kansas as the very generous stadium land deal figures prominently in this year’s mayor race.

Curiously enough the Baby Cakes have yet to surrender their lease in Metairie.  That’s a particularly churlish move since it’s obvious they not staying here and the Wichita stadium is supposed to be completed by November, many months before 2020 opening day.

To my chagrin New Orleans is not a baseball town.  We will never have a major league team parked here (though the Astros almost did a temporary residence in the Superdome while the GOP was using the Astrodome for their national convention in 1992) because of a combination of insufficient population, corporate support, and broad interest. But having a professional team even on the minor league level is good for promoting the sport in a major American metropolitan area, especially as it continues to sink in popularity, particularly with millennials.

Despite our market weaknesses, the 504 does have a respectable baseball legacy in players such as Mel Ott and Will Clark and the New Orleans Pelicans AA team was the city’s first and longest tenured sports franchise.  In longevity the Saints have yet to eclipse the Pelicans. The likes of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Bob Lemon, Earl Weaver, and Tony LaRussa all passed through the New Orleans minor league club.

Despite being a lifelong baseball fan, I refused to participate in that mockery of a franchise brand and abstained from “Cakes Baseball” until their last home game.  I didn’t come to see them play but see them leave and mercifully the departing organization possessed a modicum of class and equipped the home team in throwback Pelicans gear that evening.

Just prior to the pyro show the public announcer, struggling to contain emotion and likely taking great personal liberty in his role, encouraged the fans to not dwell on the negativity of the situation as the fireworks boomed in the night sky as the ironic music selection “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” played on the stadium speakers.  As the remaining folks shuffled out the Shrine on Airline appropriately enough to Madonna’s “This Used to Be My Playground” from A League of Our Own.

Though I suspect the stadium will be occupied by a different team in the future.

New Orleans deserved better than the situation they were handed with the soon-to-be-moved AAA team that was affiliated with an MLB franchise with zero popularity in the region.

Hopefully the next team, likely a AA squad, will have ownership and leadership committed to the New Orleans area and respect for the game and fans.

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