History of The Tides
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.”
“Let Me Root Root Root for the Home Team” / “If They Don’t Win It’s a Shame.”
All hail The King of Baseball.
Dave Rosenfield, former general manager of the Tides, current radio play-by-play man for Tides home games—a figure large of size and baseball knowledge —was handed the distinguished crown in 2004. This custom was established more than 60 years ago by Major League Baseball to honor “a veteran of the professional baseball world for long-time dedication and service.
Although he retired as Tides GM in 2011 after nearly 50 years with the team, the 86-year-old Rosenfield still reports to the office every day. “I just get to come in an hour and a half late,” he chuckles. “I’m still doing a lot of the same stuff I used to do.”
“Rosie is an institution here,” Joe Gregory says of his long-standing predecessor. “He’ll be here as long as he wants to be here. He is such a great resource; he knows so much history about not only what happened here but in baseball in general.
Rosenfield recently penned an autobiography called Baseball: One Helluva Life and has mellowed somewhat in so-called retirement. But his legendary blunt candor remains. He points out that the Tides have not been fielding great teams over the past few seasons. And, yes, the club posted its worst-ever showing of 56–87 the year he retired. After a better showing in 2012 and 2013, it produced a lousy 65–79 effort last season.
“This year, I think we’re going to have a good club. We’ve got two kids, Christian Walker, a big first baseman out of the University of South Carolina, and a Cuban player named Dariel Alvarez. We’ve got good young pitching too. Mike Wright, out of East Carolina, he was here all last year, and a kid out of the University of Virginia, Tyler Wilson, a very good-looking young pitcher. We’ve got Julio Borbone, a great defensive outfielder, pretty good hitte
The King also reveals a little secret about playing minor league baseball. “Winning is important. They say it isn’t, but it is. Teaching kids how to win is an integral part of developing good big league players. You want them to play important games that mean something, even at the rookie level. So, really, it’s a combination of learning how to play and learning how to win.”
He thinks he’s got a team this season that is learning how to win.
“Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt /
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.”
When Dave Rosenfield came to town, in 1962, the Tidewater Tides were in a second season and playing in Portsmouth at Lawrence Stadium, a concrete slab built in the 1930s; in those days, it was a Double-A squad, operating in the South Atlantic League, and won its name because of a stubborn newspaper editor.
“The Virginian Pilot held a contest and invited readers to pick the name,” says Clay Shampoe, the co-author (with the late Thomas R. Garrett) of two illuminating books, Baseball in Norfolk and Baseball in Portsmouth. “The readers voted for the Tidewater Mariners, but Robert Mason, the editor at The Virginian-Pilot, liked the catchy alliteration of ‘Tidewater Tides’ and overruled them.”
Hampton Roads had already enjoyed a rich history of baseball before the Tides ever formed, Shampoe says. “As early as the late 1880s, there were minor league teams playing in Norfolk. In 1900, the legendary pitcher Christy Mathewson played here for a team called the Norfolk Mary Janes.” (Baseball nerd digression: His record was 20-2.) The Norfolk Tars—earlier the unfortunately named Norfolk Clams—began competing in the pre-historic Virginia League around 1906.
Eventually, the Tars became affiliated with the hallowed New York Yankees, and some legendary Hall-of-Fame players—the likes of Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford—briefly passed through the club’s Myers Field ballpark near Church Street. The Norfolk Tars lasted until 1955, a meaningful 50-year run. At the same time, Portsmouth also saw great minor league players, like the HOF centerfielder Hack Wilson, who played for the Portsmouth Truckers, a fierce Virginia League team with roots that go back to 1895.
When Rosenfield arrived in Portsmouth that second season—having been a general manager for clubs in Bakersfield, Calif. and Topeka, Kansas—the Tides were affiliated with the Cardinals. “It was a strange year,” he recalls. “I was brought in as assistant general manager, and the general manager who was here, Marshall Fox, had a heart attack. He was not in the office so I sort of ran the club.”
Soon he was doing more than that. “I organized a local group to buy the club and we went into the Carolina League,” Rosenfield says. The Tides soon joined with the Chicago White Sox and won a championship in 1965, but Rosenfield wasn’t satisfied. “I convinced our board of directors to get rid of the White Sox.” He wanted to work with the farm director of the [Philadelphia] Phillies, Paul Owens, who had been the skipper for him in Bakerfield. Thanks to Rosenfield’s connections, the Tides attached itself to the Phillies for the next three years.
In 1969, the New York Mets decided to move their Triple-A team from Jacksonville to Portsmouth. The new Tides operated in Lawrence Stadium for the first 1969 season while a new park in Norfolk was being constructed. Portsmouth leaders were understandably upset about all of this. “They had charged us $1 a year rent up to that point,” Rosenfield remembers. “When it was announced that we were moving to a new ballpark in Norfolk, they upped the rent to something like $100,000.”
To many, this is where the story of the Tides really begins—their storied partnership with the New York Mets. In 1970, Met Park opened. Built not far from the Norfolk International Airport, it was a sleek and intimate stadium that was state-of-the-art for its time. So what if the occasional roaring jet would often rattle the rafters and make the dugouts shake? “Actually, this helped the players train themselves for the Mets,” says author Shampoe. “Since LaGuardia Airport was so close to Shea Stadium in New York, they could get used to jet noise.”
During the team’s 38-year affiliation with the Mets, the Tides played for the International League championship nine times, winning five championships.
Rosie says that the relationship with the Mets started to change around 1992, the same year the city built Harbor Park (the club changed its name to “Norfolk” Tides the following year). “The Mets decided that they didn’t want to own a franchise anymore and asked our ownership group if they wanted to buy it. And our group had gotten a little old and they didn’t want to do it. Ken Young, who had handled the concessions in Baltimore, got a group together to buy the team.”
“The Mets had been marvelous to work with, like a family,” he says wistfully. “We were so used to everybody being friends. But then they started taking us for granted. Lines of communication were terrible. I would pick up a newspaper and find out that they had sent us a player I didn’t even know about.”
There was a meeting between executives and Tides management at Harbor Park to discuss renewing the Mets/Tides agreement. Rosenfield maintains that, at this 2006 meeting, which happened as a Tides game unfolded outside, he was accused of leaking information to the press about potential players. “It really pissed me off,” he recalls. “I pointed my finger at [executive Jeff Wilpon] and said, ‘You know that there are leaks and they are in your [expletive] office.”
As the discussion grew more and more heated, and (hopefully) the crowd roared, Rosenfield and owner Ken Young asked the executives for money to defray the high costs of shipping Tides equipment ahead to away games. They were denied. The Tides decided to weigh their options—Baltimore and the new Washington Nationals had been sniffing around.
And so in 2007, after nearly four decades together, Norfolk severed its ties with “the family” and signed on with the Baltimore Orioles. And it was all over a $10,000 bill to FedEx.
“Put me in, Coach / I’m Ready to Play”
Everyone loves Ron Johnson, the Tides’ current manager, now entering his fourth year with the team. He has an oft-quoted philosophy about Triple-A ball: “If you don’t like it, play better and get out of the minor leagues.”
Rosenfield calls Johnson a big teddy bear. “Ron has a deal that he does; he calls it the ‘Circle of Trust.’ He gathers almost the whole club around him in the outfield, and they talk about anything they want to talk about … because of the way he treats them, he gets good effort out of the players.”
To oversee a Triple-A baseball team, a manager has to be several different people at once: father figure, psychiatrist, doctor, intimidator, mediator. “People are motivated in different ways,” Joe Gregory says. “Here, you have some young guys that are not long out of college that are just working their way up, or some veterans looking for one last shot or you have guys coming off of injury that are rehabbing and trying to get healthy. You have a lot of guys in different situations.” It’s worth noting that the minimum annual salary of the average Triple-A baseball player is $10,750.
“Triple-A is a very difficult level to manage,” echoes Rosenfield, “because you’ve got players who think they ought to be in the big leagues and young guys striving to get to the big leagues and then another group of guys who are hanging on to a career. So you’ve got three different kinds of guys you are dealing with. Ron somehow keeps them together.”
Minor league baseball is also changing. Rosie isn’t crazy about the noisy sideshows—“the baseball is enough for me. I don’t need a mascot and all this other stuff”—but it’s also the game. “Double-A ball has more prospects than Triple-A now,” he says. “It’s just evolved that way. There are a lot of six-year free agents, older guys with experience at this level. These guys are the insurance policy if someone is needed at the big league level immediately. A hot young prospect, he might not be ready for the big leagues yet.”
Every now and then, there are talks about the growing Coastal Virginia region snagging a major league team. Clay Shampoe doesn’t know about that. “I know that Norfolk really tried hard when the Montreal Expos folded up [eventually becoming today’s Washington Nationals]. It’s probably a pipe dream.”
But the baseball historian maintains that Norfolk is a time-tested “minor league city.” And there’s nothing wrong with that.
“It’s not a putdown. It’s been well over 100 years that Norfolk has had a team and supported minor league baseball. The Tides have been a great minor league team, and there’s nothing wrong with having a great minor league team in your city.”