History of The Tides
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When the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals faced off in the 2014 World Series, buried amidst the pile of fielding stats, batting percentages and dugout second-guessing was a piece of baseball trivia that may have been missed: Both managers, Bruce Bochy of the Giants and the Royals’ Ned Yost, spent the early, formative parts of their baseball careers with the Tidewater Tides, which is now known as the Norfolk Tides.
“The Tides have been around for more than 50 years,” Joe Gregory, the Triple-A team’s general manager, says. “You look over the list and there are guys who have gone on to great things managing in the major leagues, not just Bochy and Yost but Davey Johnson, Bobby Valentine, Ron Gardenhire ... ” Actually, Valentine became the first Tides manager ever to be called up to the Major Leagues mid-season. But I digress. Baseball makes you do that.
It’s a month before the first game of the season at Harbor Park, the scenic, 12,067-capacity stadium nestled along the Elizabeth River near Norfolk’s downtown. The Norfolk Tides players and coaching staff are away, losing their winter fat and getting evaluated at the Baltimore Orioles spring training facility in St. Lucie, Fla. Gregory sits in his mostly-quiet office surveying the year before him while dealing with a nosy reporter. Right now, he has only a roundabout idea of what the Tides’ imminent roster will look like—decisions are being made in Florida on which players will play for the O’s at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, and which ones will be dispersed throughout the farm clubs for the 2015–2016 season.
For years, the Tides, which plays in the 14-team International League, was famously affiliated with the New York Mets; today’s squad is with the Orioles, who have other affiliated franchises at different development levels scattered throughout the region, including the Bowie Baysox, Frederick Keys and Aberdeen IronBirds in Maryland.
“Matt Weiters, Manny Machado, those [Orioles stars] aren’t in any danger of being sent down to the minors,” Gregory informs. “but for other guys, it’s their time to shine or to become free agents. Spring training is when you get a chance to look at all of your players in depth.”
But Gregory and his staff aren’t just thinking baseball—they also have to put on a show
“You want to create an experience people will want over and over again,” he says of Harbor Park home games, which attracted 358,000 ticket-buyers last year. Fan giveaways (mugs, bobble-head dolls, etc.) and in-between inning entertainment is important, like the antics of the team’s blue mascot, Rip Tide, who looks like a blue hillbilly version of Elmo from Sesame Street, with a baseball for a nose. (Read more about Rip Tide here.)
“We’ve got a guy who will light himself on fire and run around the bases,” Gregory says. “This year, we are doing a flip-flop night where ticket holders get free flip-flops.” Last year’s most popular fan giveaway? “We had garden gnomes made to look like the club’s manager Ron Johnson.”
Gregory, who also oversees the Norfolk Admirals minor league hockey team (both teams are owned by the same company, Maryland Baseball Holdings), says that it’s not just about getting a hot dog now. “You have to offer food options. And you can’t offer just Budweiser; you have to carry the craft beers. It’s changing with the times.”
Norfolk’s team, playing in an area with so many military families and transient come-heres, has to reach out to the community, he says. One Tides initiative, Youth Field Makeover, sees Tides groundskeepers go into little league parks from Phoebus to Suffolk, Smithfield to Nassawadox. “We go out and renovate the fields, rebuilding mounds and home plates, rebuilding dugouts.”
But it’s an ongoing marketing challenge, he says. The community is always changing. “Even with our history, someone coming in from New York, or Pennsylvania or Ohio might not even know that there is a minor league baseball team in Norfolk.”