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Thursday, June 7, 2012 04:44 pm

Springfield Sliders, a family operation

New team owner aims to bring community together


Fans await entrance into Robin Roberts Stadium for the Sliders home opener on May 29.

Some children draw pictures of dogs and cats, but when Shane Martin was a child growing up in the early 1980s, he drew baseball stadiums.

Shane, the new owner and CEO of the Springfield Sliders baseball team, grew up in Farmington, Minn. – a rural suburb of Minneapolis – in a gray tri-level house with black shutters located at the end of a cul-de-sac which only had two houses on it when the Martin family moved in.

The developing area allowed the Martins to have a large backyard, which Dennis Martin – Shane’s father – said was around 300 feet wide in the shape of a pie.

“The backyard was almost in the shape of a (baseball) diamond, which was nice, so we put home plate in a corner away from the house and hit out in to the open yard,” Shane Martin said. “Every day of the summer we played baseball games in the backyard. We probably played about 12 hours a day back there.”

From these humble beginnings spending summers playing baseball in the backyard, Shane Martin’s interest in the sport began to grow, but it was the help and support of his family that led Shane and other members of the Martin family to purchase the Springfield Sliders baseball team. The Sliders are a collegiate-level summer league baseball team that offers aspiring players a chance to hone their skills and possibly be scouted.

Shane declined to give an exact figure for the purchase of the Sliders, but Dave Chase, Prospect League commissioner, said at the press conference announcing the Martin family’s purchase of the Sliders “an expansion franchise in our league costs $175,000 and the sale price was in line with that.”

The Martins bought the team earlier this year and have big plans to bring stability and a fresh take on baseball in Springfield.

Dennis Martin (left), new vice president of operations, and Shane Martin (right) new owner and CEO of the Springfield Sliders

At the stadium

The Sliders have sometimes struggled with two things: winning games and bringing in fans. Their record dropped to 1-5 following Sunday’s 8-4 home loss against the Hannibal Cavemen from Hannibal, Mo. Despite there only being 532 fans in attendance, the fans seemed to be having a good time. The Sliders list again Tuesday.

If attendance isn’t ideal, it’s not for lack of trying. The Sliders go out of their way to entertain fans at Robin Roberts Stadium, especially the kids. At the Sliders’ June 3 game, children dressed up as ketchup, mustard and a hotdog entertained the crowd by racing around the bases, and the Sliders’ turtle mascot, Speedy, ran a separate race with other children. The seventh-inning stretch featured a crowd singalong of “YMCA,” while three children celebrating their birthdays at the ballpark enjoyed the entire crowd singing “Happy Birthday” to them. Speedy led the crowd in chants of “Go Sliders” throughout the game.

Sunday also featured an epic showdown between Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain in a wiffle ball batting contest. Lincoln came out the victor.

Vendors constantly roam the stadium, shouting “cold beer here” to attract thirsty customers, while also avoiding scrambling children who scatter about for each foul ball, and there are plenty of foul balls to go around. The concession stands below the off-white bleachers offer food like pizza, tacos, hotdogs and ice cream.

While the activities and concessions at Sliders games are abundant, the Sliders themselves have room to improve. The team of 25 players with ages ranging from 19 to 22 has struggled with inconsistent relief pitching and defense during the early part of the season. Sunday, the Sliders committed three errors.

But the Sliders do have potential. Following a first-inning throw from shortstop Michael Hurwitz that went wide of first base and grazed the helmet of the Cavemen runner, Hurwitz rebounded a few innings later by making a diving stop on a scorching groundball up the middle, while throwing from his knees to get the out at first base. Sean Gerber, Sliders third baseman, made consistent plays throughout Sunday’s game. It’s the type of raw talent that, if shown consistently, could potentially bring fans out by the hundreds.

Sliders players take the field for their home opener against the Dubois County Bombers.

Working his way up

Shane Martin, the Sliders’ new owner, began his adventure in the working world at the age of 14 by accepting a job at a local golf course near his hometown of Farmington. Shane worked at the golf course periodically until he graduated from college. Along the way, his grandmother, Lola Martin, loaned him $6,000 to buy a small concession stand, which sold mini-donuts at various festivals across Minnesota.     

“I kinda knew where I wanted to go with things after I bought the concession stand. I knew that I wanted to go into business for myself,” Shane said. “So, I pretty much saved every penny I made for six or seven years. I’ve pretty much saved every penny I’ve ever made. I’m not a spender; that’s not my personality.”

In 1998, following his graduation from Rasmussen College, a private business school in Eagen, Minn., where he received an associate’s degree in business management, Shane began to purchase a variety of businesses, while also incorporating the help of his father, Dennis.

Shane owns the Lake 5 Theatre in Forest Lake and later purchased Sunset Cinema in Pequot Lakes, both in Minnesota.

Shane’s affection for movies stems from his time working various jobs at a local movie theater near his hometown, where he started out with “cleaning duties” at the theater, but eventually moved up to ticket-taker, manager and finally senior manager.

“So, after college I purchased a couple movie theaters and I still love it,” Shane said.

The Martin family also owns other businesses based in Minnesota, including seasonal Dairy Queens and a concession stand managed by Dennis Martin at Elko Speedway, a stock-car racetrack near Elko, Minn.

Shane said there is a common theme associated with each of his family’s business ventures, which is “family entertainment.”

 “It comes down to customer service and community involvement. Those principles are the same across any industry. You want people to know that you appreciate them as a customer and you want to entertain them and give them value for their money,” Shane said.    

Sliders players look on during their home opener.

Turning attention to Springfield baseball    

In 2009, Shane began to look to purchase a baseball team with his eyes set on the Northwoods League, a collegiate league that uses wooden bats, which is similar to the Prospect League in which the Sliders compete.

When he didn’t find the right opportunity in Minnesota, Shane began to expand his search for a baseball team, and in 2010 he began to have conversations with former Sliders owner Jesse Bolder about purchasing the team.

“There wasn’t the right opportunity there (in Minnesota), so we began to look around elsewhere,” Shane Martin says. “Springfield then kind of just popped up two years ago and we began talking with Jesse. It took awhile, but we got it done and we landed here.”

Shane, who grew up a fan of the Minnesota Twins and baseball icon Kirby Puckett, said the Martin family looked at a variety of teams to purchase before settling on the Sliders.

 “None of the other opportunities felt right, for a variety of reasons,” Shane said. “Then we found Springfield. Number one, we liked what we saw in the Prospect League because it’s a new league. It’s a young league with a bright future that has already grown in leaps and bounds in its first three years. Springfield in particular is a good market that is big and deeply rooted in baseball. It’s a knowledgeable town about baseball with it being between St. Louis and Chicago. The facilities here are good, especially the field, which was a draw for us.”

Shane added that he didn’t want to expand his search to purchase a baseball team to “far” outside of the Midwest because of what the Midwest means to him.

“We like the Midwest because of the work ethic, the morals and the values,” Shane said. “The Sliders initially got off the ground well, so we really just saw an opportunity with the Sliders and we are excited to try and take things to the next level.”

Bolder, the founder and owner of the Sliders since their inception in 2008, said his decision to sell the team was a difficult one, but he had to do what was best for his family.

“It got to a point where the travel became too difficult for me,” Bolder said.

Bolder’s family remained in Wisconsin while he owned and operated the team, despite his hopes that he would be able to move the family to Springfield.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t work out,” Bolder said. “Family is the most important thing to me and we just felt that it was in our best interest to sell the team to the Martin family.”

Following the purchase of the team, Shane began to put together his front office staff for the Sliders.

His first hire was John Dittrich, who serves as the executive vice president and general manager. Dittrich has been involved in various levels of baseball management for 38 years.

Shane then tapped his father, Dennis, to serve as vice president of operations. Dennis, a retired high school and elementary school teacher in Minnesota, said he immediately called Darin Martin – Dennis’ brother – because he knew they would need somebody to help the technological side of the team.

“We knew we would need someone to help hook up computers and set up our social media opportunities, which he is well-versed in,” Dennis said. “He ended up being really good at marketing and sales, so it really evolved.”

Left to right are Andrew Kachel, pitching coach, Vic Aure, assistant coach, and Pete Romero, manager.

At the time, Darin was “in between jobs” after running a small IT shop for a few years in Phoenix, Ariz., but due to a struggling economy in Arizona, Dennis said Darin was willing to take a position with the Sliders as the new director of community relations.

 Dennis and Darin, who both recently moved to Springfield and are currently living together, are able to take a hands-on-approach with the team, which is something Shane said was very important to him.

“I think that previous owners were running into the problem of being absentee owners, that’s why we brought my dad and Darin here,” Shane said. “We knew we couldn’t run it from afar and we didn’t want to. You get out of it what you put into it, so we want people to know that we are going to be here year-round and we are going to be involved in the community. I’m not sure if we could put all this together if this wasn’t a family operation.”

A new approach?

Shane, who still lives in Minneapolis, said that he plans to spend a lot of time over the summer in Springfield despite currently living in another state. He says he’s still deciding whether he’ll move to Springfield himself.

“I have experience working from a distance because the two movie theaters are about three hours apart,” Shane said. “So, whether it is being three hours or eight hours, it essentially is the same thing. I had an idea of what to expect going into this.”
Shane said that he isn’t planning to shake things up too much through his promotions and marketing, but he does plan to be more involved with the team itself.

“I don’t know that there are any revolutionary ideas that we have stumbled across that the rest of the baseball world hasn’t figured out, but what it really comes down to is being involved in things like customer service and the day-to-day operations of the team,” Shane said. “Running an efficient operation will translate to the fans that we are invested in the community. We are here and we are going to make it work … so I think the overall attitude is different now.”

While the Martin family has an ambitious plan for the Sliders, it remains to be seen how successful it will be.
Tickets for home games for the Sliders are $7 for adults, $5 for children (12 and under), $5 for seniors and citizens in the military, while children under three years old get in for free.

Attendance for the Sliders’ home opener last week was 1,254, slightly less than last year’s average of 1,268, which was enough for third-best in the league. The Martins are shooting for 1,500 people average attendance this year.

The Sliders have been through two owners in the less than five years since their inception. For all the promotional giveaways and traditional fireworks that take place following Sliders games at Robin Roberts Stadium in Springfield, it will be the play of the team which dictates whether or not fans keep coming back to the ballpark.

Legacy teams like the Chicago Cubs, whose devoted fan base attend games regardless of the teams’ talent level or outcome of the game, can afford to lose games without worry that attendance will suddenly plummet. The Sliders, however, will need strong play on the field to translate into strong community support if the franchise is going to become a staple of the Springfield sports scene. Only time will tell.

Contact Neil Schneider at nschneider@illinoistimes.com

Speedy, the Sliders mascot, interacts with fans during the game.

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