Lake Erie Crushers Tom and Jacqueline Kramig
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Tom Kramig walks the concrete concourse behind home plate at Avon’s Sprenger Health Care Stadium with a two-way radio to his ear. It’s 15 minutes before game time on this chilly May Mother’s Day afternoon.

Between staticky conversations with his marketing manager, who’s searching for the Lake Erie Crushers’ cuddly gray bear mascot, Stomper, and his office manager, who reports a light walk-up crowd, Tom catches glimpses of his wife, Jacqueline. She’s shepherding a half-dozen nervous moms into a line near the pitcher’s mound.

Just as the sun breaks through the high gray clouds, the group prepares to throw out the ceremonial first pitch to their sons. Like a proud aunt, Jacqueline holds a bunch of white roses, one for each mother, in front of the crowd of 786.

As the husband-and-wife duo behind the Lake Erie Crushers, Tom and Jacqueline are an uncommon pair in baseball. What started as Tom’s childhood dream of playing in the major leagues has slid into full-time jobs as minor league owners. Since taking over the flagging Frontier League team from an out-of-town owner in October 2015, the couple has spent the last year rebuilding the franchise with a new look, promotions and amenities to attract fans to the 3,500-seat stadium along Interstate 90. 

During the offseason, Tom, 55, and Jacqueline, 52, run a 9-to-5 business with a dozen employees and a $2 million budget. Now as the Crushers nine run out onto the field, it’s a whole new ballgame. There are players to accommodate, corporate clients to serve and a seasonal staff of more than 200 to manage. 

Tom beams as right-hander Adam Quintana throws a strike to catcher Tanner Lubach to begin the first inning. The 25-year-old from San Bernardino, California, starts his way through the Joliet Slammers lineup giving up a single to left fielder Marc Flores. Quintana recovers, if briefly, with help from Lubach, who throws out Flores, attempting to steal second. 

It’s the start of an eventful first frame for the Crushers. After a single and a strikeout, a throwing error by second baseman Jordan Dean puts runners at first and third. With two outs, the Slammers are threatening. But Quintana coaxes the Slammers’ Melvin Rodriguez to ground the first pitch to third baseman Cody Lenahan, who throws across the diamond for the third out. Quintana works around two hits and an error to finish the top of the first unscathed.

This is why Tom is here — for the love of the game.

“It’s a million headaches. A million challenges,” Tom says. “But I can’t imagine doing anything else now that I do this.”

The game remains scoreless as 23-year-old Connor Oliver steps up to the plate for the Crushers half of the second inning. The outfielder from Lemoore, California, swings through the first pitch by Slammers right-handed pitcher Shane Bryant. 

Oliver settles in, taking the next two offerings from the 6-foot-3 hurler before driving a pitch off the right-field wall festooned with ads for a double. 

It gets the Crushers offense flowing. After left fielder Sean Hurley falls behind in the count 0-2, the 25-year-old slugger from Sarasota, Florida, blasts a two-run homer into the Kids Zone area behind the right-field fence. First baseman Josh McAdams gets in on the fun with a double, and two batters later, shortstop Parker Norris caps the second inning with a RBI-single. 

The inning ends with the Crushers up 3-0.

Tom grew up in Cincinnati with dreams of playing for the Big Red Machine, the 1970s-era Cincinnati Reds that won four National League pennants and two World Series titles. He could see himself running across the green grass in the sunshine, making an over-the-shoulder catch, tipping his hat to the cheering crowd.

The dream dimmed in high school, when he was cut from the baseball team by a coach who told him he was too light, too small and that, frankly, “The game has outgrown you, son.”

When colleges weren’t interested, Tom focused on a career and, later, building a life with Jacqueline. A Lakewood native, she moved to Cincinnati as a child and met Tom in high school. After years as friends, they married in 1995.

Baseball kept running through the sunny recesses of Tom’s mind even while working as a TV news producer in Cincinnati and then running the satellite TV training network for real estate giant Re/Max in Denver. But when Re/Max became a publicly traded company and profits had to be maximized, Tom was told to layoff two-dozen workers right before Thanksgiving.

“I thought, I really don’t want to do this anymore,” he says. “I had been growing more and more dissatisfied with the organization. It was just time.”

While on a family vacation soon after the layoffs, Tom picked up Al Michaels’ autobiography, You Can’t Make This Up, and read how the famed sports broadcaster began his career doing play-by-play in the minor leagues.

“I have it!” Tom shouted.

It was an idea he had batted around for 20 years: buying a baseball team. The majors were out of the question, certainly, but how about a minor league team?

“Why die wondering?” Tom asked.

With around 300 teams in professional baseball, Jacqueline and Tom began researching their new adventure, first online, then by connecting with brokers and traveling to ballparks.

The majority of those teams, like the Lake County Captains, are affiliated with one of the 30 major league teams. The Cleveland Indians and the other 29 clubs provide players and coaches and pay their salaries, minimizing the financial burden on the owner. But the big league club controls the roster. 

Tom was through working for somebody else. “We wanted to run the whole product,” he says.

That led the Kramigs to the Frontier League — the unaffiliated end of baseball. Known as a prospect league, it’s often the last stop for players overlooked or cut by major league organizations.

They initially considered the Beach Bums near their second home in Traverse City, Michigan. But the purchase included a stadium so the price was steep.

During that time, they met league commissioner Bill Lee, who was trying to find someone to revive the Crushers.

As a relative newcomer to the 25-year-old Frontier League, the Crushers started as an expansion franchise in 2009 by then-owner Steve Edelstein, a Chicago real estate developer. The city of Avon spent $11 million on a brand-new ballpark and initially the club flourished, winning the league championship its maiden season.

But attendance has slipped every year since 2010, falling below 100,000 in 2014. The Crushers finished last in the standings in 2015 and near the bottom for ticket sales.

So when the Beach Bums deal didn’t work out, Lee pitched the Kramigs a question: “What would you think of a team in Cleveland, Ohio?”

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.”

As the eighth begins, the Crushers have what looks like a commanding 6-1 lead. After giving up only six hits and a single run, starting pitcher Quintana takes a seat on the bench as Roth turns the game over to the bullpen. 

Right-hander Andrew Utterback gets the first out with a pop fly to left field, but then things start to go sideways for the 24-year-old from Sigourney, Iowa. Utterback gives up back-to-back walks, before third baseman Edwin Gomez drives an RBI single into left center field. The Slammers cleanup hitter steps into the batter’s box. With a 0-1 count, the second baseman drills a line drive into left field, allowing the runner to score easily from second. 

It’s now 6-3 with runners on first and second, and only one out. With the potential tying run at the plate, Utterback swats away the tension like midges in May. Shaking off signs from catcher Lubach, the first-year pitcher settles down and strikes out the next two batters to end the threat. 

Outside of Sprenger Stadium, the electronic billboard on Interstate 90 urges drivers to “Embrace the Grape.” Tom and Jacqueline researched the 8-year-old history of the team and discovered that, unbeknownst to many fans, its name honors the area’s winemaking tradition.

“People like the name Crushers,” Tom says. “They’ve connected with that. We thought, Let’s tell the whole story.”

That inspired a rebranding unveiled this spring. It includes new purple and white uniforms, an angry grape logo, a purple paint job on the stadium and even grape-themed promotions such as the Grapevine Parade, where children grab onto a green rope and make like a vine as they walk through the stadium.

They also hired a restaurateur, Greg Kobunski, to manage food and beverages. He’s added gourmet touches to the ballpark menu such as apple braised pork nachos, along with dozens of craft beers and local wines from such places as Paper Moon Vineyards in Vermilion and Klingshirn Winery of Avon.

The league sees the area as a prime minor league market: an affluent suburb growing with young families. What was needed, maybe, was dedicated ownership.

“Their hearts are in it,” says Avon mayor Bryan Jensen. “They’re here year-round. You go to the game, and you see them — the whole game.”

Like so much of minor league baseball, their turn as owners is potential waiting to be realized. They hope to be profitable next year. 

Having done the math, Tom and Jacqueline figure they need to average 1,875 fans a game — across 48 home games — to break even. 

So far advance ticket sales are up over last year. For the first time in memory, every billboard spot has been leased on the concourse wall. Parents seem to like the new Saturday night concerts on the picnic pavilion. But senior day disappointed — several groups canceled when the weather turned hot.

The 786 fans don’t mind the crisp 60-degree weather as the Crushers head into the top of the ninth. While kids bounce in the Kids Zone and parents sip on a White Rajah IPA from the Brew Kettle Bar along the third base line, Manny Arciniega takes the mound for Utterback. The right-hander from Hemet, California, just needs three outs to secure a win for the Crushers. 

He makes quick work of pinch hitter Ridge Hoopii-Haslam, who flies out to left field for out No. 1. The Slammers send up another pinch hitter, who falls behind 1-2, fouls a pitch into the stands and eventually goes down swinging. With two outs, Arciniega quickly gets ahead 0-2 before inducing a pop-up to shortstop Norris, who cradles the ball in his glove for the clincher. 

As the Crushers leave the field victorious, the crowd cheers and claps. Tom has finished his extensive to-do list of assisting with on-field activities and meeting with clients and corporate partners. Right now he’s not a minor league owner. He’s just another person in the stands. He stops to savor the early-season win, watching his team celebrate.

“I love a million things about baseball,” he says, “but just being a baseball fan is a great feeling.”