Prospect League

Hoots see first season as success with plenty of room to improve

Hannibal Hoots manager Clayton Hicks, center, talks with catcher Brady West between innings during a July game against the Terre Haute Rex at Clemsns Field in Hannibal, Mo. } H-W Photo/Phil Carlson
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Aug. 1, 2018 10:10 am Updated: Aug. 1, 2018 10:12 am

HANNIBAL, Mo.

The Hannibal Hoots didn't make the Prospect League playoffs, nor did they have a winning record in their inaugural campaign this summer.

The Hoots officials, however, believe that meant the season was successful.

As general manager Matt Stembridge was building the Hoots team by naming Clayton Hicks as its manager and creating a staff and roster, he did so with three things in mind. He wanted to build a competitive team, he wanted the food and beverage to be up to standards, and he wanted the fan experience to be top notch.

Stembridge kept modest expectations on some of those areas, but also wants to see the Hoots improve on the field for the 2019 season.

More important, baseball was brought back to Hannibal.

"The goal was to restore the name, and provide a good opportunity for the guys to play summer ball and enjoy," Hicks said.

 

The roster

The Hoots were a little behind the other teams in the league in terms of gathering talent for this summer. The club announced in October they'd be fielding a team for the upcoming season, and most teams in the league typically have a general idea what their roster will be for the next season by that time.

The Hoots, however, had to start from scratch.

A complete roster was in place by January, but Stembridge said for multiple different reasons, only about a dozen of those players actually played for the Hoots this summer. Some players suffered serious injuries, while others played too much in the spring and were shut down for the summer by their college coaches.

He would have liked to see the team finish with a winning record, but he doesn't see that as the sole factor of making the season successful or unsuccessful.

"We're below .500, but the wins and losses for this year is about what I expected," Stembridge said. "We had a lot of people try to say we were going to play for a championship, and I thought that was premature. The chances of us finding 32 guys that late into the game and guaranteeing victory was premature."

That didn't stop Hannibal from having the Prospect League's longest winning streak of the season. The Hoots rattled off 10 consecutive victories from June 26-July 4, allowed them to climb out of the West Division cellar and back into the playoff picture at the time.

The Hoots had lost nine straight games and were 4-17 before their big streak.

"The way we started, there were some people who started to tune out," Stembridge said. "Some people were about done with us, and we heard it. People were critical, and I understand that. Then we had that winning streak, and we needed that right at the right time.

"That was almost a Godsend."

Hicks said that nine-game losing streak was the season's hardest part.

"You look at that stretch. Could I have done more? Should I have played that guy or this guy?" Hicks said. "You just learn from that and hope you don't make the same mistake again."

The culture

The Hoots' overall goal was to rebuild a reputation that was in tatters from the days of the Hannibal Cavemen.

They wanted to build a franchise that the Hannibal and surrounding communities could take pride in and believe they were a part of it. Owner Rick DeStefane made that known before the first game of the season, noting in a speech that he wanted the fans to take ownership in the team.

The club believes it has made strides toward that by changing the culture and atmosphere around the ballpark. That started in the dugout.

"You want to treat it like a college program as close as you can, but you also realize it's summer ball," Hicks said. "You don't hold them quite to the same standard as a college team."

The Hoots' players seemed to respond to that. They were energetic and seemed to enjoy playing for Hicks, who was in his first managerial position at any level.

That's something Stembridge appreciated seeing throughout the season.

"Hicks from the start of this was someone I really wanted to have this job," he said. "He's had a really good career and good mentors in his life, and we thought this would be a good segue for him to get some experience.

"His primary job this year was to grow and develop. He forced himself to be uncomfortable and learned. I think the players really cared about him as a person and a coach, too."

Stembridge believes the Hoots accomplished their goal of improving the food and beverage at Clemens Field with the help of JJ's Catering of Quincy. He said they'll go with a different food service next season, but he now has a grasp of how to run successful concessions for the future.

Looking forward

Stembridge wants to see some areas developed more next season.

He felt the Hoots were active in creating a better experience for the fans at Clemens Field with giveaway prizes in the programs every game. The five "Blackout Nights" the team hosted during the season helped local charities.

But Stembridge wants to do more.

"We underachieved a little bit, and maybe that's me being super critical of myself," he said. "We tried to keep it really simple in Year 1. We saw sales in the programs go up throughout the year. We had a PA guy who was engaging, and our live stream went really well. I was really proud of the blackout events we had."

Some of the ideas he has for next year have come from seeing what goes on at other stadiums in the Prospect League.

"I think Quincy does a really good job with music, and I think we could do a lot better," Stembridge said. "Whether that's sound effects going off or information about the players or more fan interactive stuff. We'll continue the blackout nights, and I really liked the engagement stuff the hour before, so I'd like to do like wine tasting or arts and crafts."

An improved fan experience and a more competitive roster could attract more fans. The Hoots averaged 559 fans per home game this summer, which was only better than the Butler BlueSox (485) and the Champion City Kings (344). The Hoots drew a little more than 15,000 fans to home games this season for the fourth-lowest total in the league.

The Hoots hope the experience the players had this season on the team will help them build pipelines with more schools and bring in more talent for future seasons. That could mean a more competitive roster and possibly a playoff berth.

"That's what you always hope for, because you don't want to burn bridges," Hicks said. "You do your best to provide a good atmosphere and go from there."

That definitely has the Hoots eager for what the future holds.

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