During the middle of the fourth inning, the Crushers’ folksy on-field host Tom Meyrose escorts two boys onto the infield. It’s time for Bust A Move, just one of the endearing and wacky contests as common as fly balls at minor league games.
As a dance beat fires from the sound system, the boys start dancing — sort of. One runs in place as the other swings his arms dablike toward his chin and back.
From the light applause, it’s hard to tell whom the fans favor, but Meyrose picks a winner anyway, awarding a $100 Dave & Buster’s Power Card to the smiling boy.
A decade ago, mom and pop operations still characterized much of the minor leagues. Not anymore. Even here, in the independent Frontier League, teams sell for between $1 million and $2 million and are often run by partnerships or jet-setting businessmen who drop in for the occasional game.
But that didn’t deter the Kramigs. More than a year after meeting with Lee, they had inked a purchase agreement for the Crushers, signed a $250,000 yearly lease for the stadium with the city and rented a house in Westlake. They immediately plunged into a split life.
“It’s not a job,” he says. “It’s a lifestyle.”
Tom, who still resembles the lightweight wrestler he was in high school, roams the grounds like a camp counselor, handling baseball operations, marketing and promotion. He greets the parents, high-fives Stomper and helps to heft a steam table up to the luxury suites, always keeping one eye on the game. His ownership status makes him a superfan.
Jacqueline serves as team mom dealing with human resources and logistics: reserving buses, booking hotels and finding host families for each player during the five-month season. A patient woman with a kind smile, she tends to fuss over people. She notices if players have eaten, or if a uniform doesn’t fit. The entire team signed her Mother’s Day card.
When spring training began in April, the Crushers invited 38 players to camp. But Jacqueline only lines up enough host families for the 24-man regular season roster. So some players end up at area hotels.
While the assignments have no bearing on who will make the team, one of the prospects feared his placement at the Westlake DoubleTree meant he was destined to be cut. He met with Jacqueline to voice his concerns.
Her motherly instincts kicked in to allay his fears — even offering to let him stay with one of the host families on an air mattress. But she had eased his worries, and he chose to stay at the hotel.
“They’re the best owners I’ve played for,” says Max Casper, a solidly built infielder from Circle Pines, Minnesota. At 26, he’s one of the most experienced players in the league. “If you need something, they’re around. You don’t have to email anyone. You just say, ‘Hey, by the way... .’ ”
In turn, the community has embraced the Kramigs.
Soon after arriving, they heard from the AbbeWood, a senior living center in Elyria. It offered to house and feed four Crushers who agree to mingle among the residents.
Favored for its meals, the AbbeWood is considered prime lodging by the players.
Many of the host families accept the duty year after year. They’ve become an informal advisory board for Jacqueline. It was a host mom who told her that planning for opening day was like planning a wedding. Not everything would go perfect, but only she would notice the blemishes.
“They’ve been a great help to me,” Jacqueline says.
But while the Kramigs sweat every detail of the operation, they steer clear of the roster.
“I tell our players, ‘We will help you with any issues you have in your life, except playing time,’ ” Tom says. “Talk to the manager.”
That’s Cameron Roth, a promising minor league pitcher in the Baltimore organization who became a coach after injuries ended his playing career in 2012. The Kramigs brought him aboard halfway through last season, and he led a breathtaking turnaround. The team went 15-5 down the stretch to finish the season at 48-48, one win shy of the playoffs.
Roth finds and trains the players, most of them former college players or ex minor leaguers, all hoping to be noticed by a major league club — and soon. League rules prohibit all but one player from being older than 27.
“This is like a second chance for everyone,” he says. “That’s really the only way to describe it.”
That rare opportunity isn’t lost on Tom and Jacqueline as they work behind the scenes with their staff on merchandising, in-game entertainment or on-field success.
This season, they pitched what they hope is a branding home run with a fresh-squeezed grape logo and color scheme that taps into the region’s history of wineries.
The wacky games are revenue opportunities. The Tooth Fairy Game, sponsored by a local dentist, features a child in a white lab coat dusting off home plate with a giant toothbrush. For the Lady of the Game, sponsored Kleinhenz Jewelers, a woman is invited to choose a gem from a board sparkling with 49 stones — two of them real diamonds. (Last year, two fans picked the real McCoy).
There is little talk of baseball at the game day meetings Tom runs in the offices behind the gift shop. While the Kramigs’ dog Coda hangs out, Tom and his young staff review ticket sales, which drive food sales. They discuss birthdays, special guests and where to put the Avon Middle School choir.
“They’ve got a lot on their plate,” Lee says. “It’s a tough business, because there are so many facets to it. It’s entertainment. I call it dinner theater. You have to entertain somebody for three hours, every night, and it just so happens your show is a baseball game.”
What the fans eat and drink, and what advertisers will pay for their attention, determines whether the show succeeds. Tom tries to remind himself that winning isn’t everything.
He knows that most of the fans — some of which come only to play in the giant bounce house in the Kids Zone — have no idea who the players are and may not even care who wins.
“We’re in the hospitality business,” he says. “We sell affordable family fun.”
But it’s not dinner theater.
“I will not say that,” Tom says. “I’m too competitive. We’re a ball team.”