It looked like rain, and that was not good.
The Prince William Pirates were scheduled to play a Wednesday night game against the Winston-Salem Spirits, but several hours before game time, a large black cloud was sitting over center field and threatening to intervene.
In his office in Davis Ford Park in Woodbridge, Pirates General Manager Steve Lewis looked out the window at the approaching storm and grimaced. The night before, a steady drizzle had held attendance down to 605 Pirate loyalists. Getting this game in was particularly critical -- not in the standings, but because if it were rained out, there would be no place on the schedule to make it up and recapture the lost revenue.
"Rainouts hurt," Lewis said. "You never make them up, I don't care what you say."
The Pirates play minor league baseball at one of the lowest rungs on the ladder to the major leagues -- the Class A Carolina League, eight teams in towns like Lynchburg, Va., Durham, N.C., and Hagerstown, Md. They are teams full of kids just out of high school or college looking for their chance to pitch or hit or field their way into the big leagues -- or at least into the next step up, Class AA ball.
The Prince William Pirates are a farm team of the Pittsburgh Pirates, offering the rough drafts of careers that may eventually be polished through progression to the Pirates' Class AA team in Nashua, N.H., and the Class AAA team in Hawaii on their way to Pittsburgh.
The major league team provides players, uniforms, a manager, pitching coach and trainer, and pays salaries (the players average about $950 a month) and a portion of travel, equipment and other expenses. The locally owned Prince William club pays for the rest, including the 250 dozen baseballs used by the team each season, at $30 a dozen. In all, the team's costs are well over $150,000 a year, Lewis said, after the Pittsburgh subsidy.
This year's version of the Pirates is not very good; the team has lost more than it has won all season long and will likely end the first half of the Carolina League season in last place in the circuit's north division (the Pirates were second overall a year ago). But there is hope for improvement in the 140-game season's second half, when Carolina League teams start off with a fresh slate and a small infusion of talent from the recently held major league draft.
Lewis is hoping the parent team will assign first-round draft choice Barry Bonds, son of former major league star Bobby Bonds, to Prince William to provide the team some needed batting punch.
The odds of a player making it from Class A to the major leagues are long -- only about one player in 24 in the Carolina League ever makes it to the majors. But some of those who have survived the tortuous trip to the big leagues are among the game's best.
Over the past few years, the Carolina League has sent Mike Boddicker and Larry Sheets to the Baltimore Orioles, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry to the New York Mets and Juan Samuel to the Philadelphia Phillies.
"I can sit here and say I saw all those kids when they were breaking in," said the 38-year-old Lewis, who briefly played minor league ball himself and was assistant general manager of the Hagerstown Suns before joining the Pirates.
The Prince William Pirates can't boast about any alumni in the major leagues yet -- this is only the team's second season. But the Pirates' predecessor, the late, lamented Alexandria Dukes, sent Joe Orsulak, Rafael Belliard and Ron Wotus to the current Pittsburgh Pirates major league roster.
The Alexandria Dukes became the Prince William Pirates last year after seven seasons of poor attendance and squabbles with Alexandria city officials, both problems largely attributed to the same thing -- a city ordinance that prevented the team from selling beer at home games in Four Mile Run Park. The team is turning a profit in Prince William, but its 325-plus local stockholders -- none of whom owns more than 3 percent of the team -- have seen no benefit yet.
The team is still paying off the deficit it ran up in its early years in Alexandria, particularly the first season, when it had no major league patron. Lewis believes the team's profit statement will move into the black by next year.
In moving from Alexandria, the team's board of directors considered several sites in the Washington area before settling on Woodbridge.
Fairfax or Prince George's counties might have provided a more populous fan base with a higher level of income -- but in Woodbridge, the Pirates could be just about the only game in town.
"The entertainment dollars in the other possible locations we could not compete with," Lewis said. "Those people are going to go to Kennedy Center, they're going to go to Wolf Trap, they're going to go to Redskins games -- because they can afford them."
In Prince William County, the team found a fairly young population with few other diversions, in towns like Woodbridge, Manassas and Occoquan, and at the neighboring military bases of Fort Belvoir and Quantico. It also found a county government willing to build a 6,300-seat stadium, one of the nicest minor league facilities in the country, which the Pirates rent for $5,000 a year plus a percentage of the gate -- a few cents per fan.
The little ballpark is the closest outpost of professional baseball to Washington (35 miles away, while Baltimore is a 37-mile trek), but the baseball-starved city seems hardly to know the Pirates are there. Not many Washingtonians make the nearly hour-long trek down I-95 and onto the backroads to find Davis Ford Park.
But no matter. Lewis estimates that the Pirates draw two-thirds of their fans from the Prince William County area, and draw they do.
The team is averaging 2,000 attendance per game this year, and Lewis believes the Pirates could play before 150,000 fans this season -- providing rainouts don't punch too many holes in the 70-game home schedule.
That's a lot of fans for a Class A team -- only about a dozen of the 50 Class A clubs around the country drew more than Prince William's 108,818 attendance last year, and Lewis says, "For us to draw 100,000 on this level . . . is like the Baltimore Orioles drawing 2 million."
With the season less than half over, the Pirates already have drawn more fans than the Dukes did in the entirety of their best year in Alexandria -- 1982, when the team was the Carolina League champion. Lewis calls the team's shift to Woodbridge "the best move we've ever made."
The Pirates' attendance is currently running nearly double that of a year ago, and though it may not continue at that pace, it's getting a shot in the arm this month with the end of school.
"Our season runs in two parts," Lewis said, "before school and after school." Last year, average attendance almost doubled once schools let out and kids could start coming to weeknight games.
The Pirates promote themselves as cheap family entertainment, a chance to see future major league stars at ticket prices ranging from $1.50 to $3.50. "On a normal night, a family of five can come to this ballpark for $12.50," Lewis said, pointing out that that's a fraction of what it would cost to go up to Baltimore for an Orioles game. "For the price of getting to and from the Baltimore ballpark, you can have a night of fun at this ballpark," he said.
But tickets aren't the team's only source of income. The Pirates earn virtually all of their operating budget before the first pitch of the year is thrown. Sales of season tickets and advertising space in the ad-thick team program and on billboards on the outfield wall bring in $200,000 in income before the season starts.
Hustling in the off-season, Lewis and his sales staff of five full-time and two part-time employes offer local car dealers, restaurateurs and other potential advertisers packages ranging from $1,000 up. For $1,750, you can get an outfield billboard, a full-page ad in the program and a pair of season tickets. For $1,000 more, the team will throw in a promotion night in your honor, one of the 42 on the team's schedule this year. "We basically survive on the winter months of selling the advertising," Lewis said. "The more you get, the better off you are."
During the season, the team also makes money on concession-stand and vendor sales of food, beer and soda, and by hawking souvenirs ranging from Pirate jackets to used bats.
The team also works to boost attendance through special promotion nights ranging from giveaways of Prince William Pirates team pennants to a special appearance at an August game by the San Diego Chicken.
The Chicken's appearance, which is expected to sell out Davis Ford Park, shows why promotions, once belittled in baseball, are now an important part of doing business at the minor-league level. They put fans in the ballpark. "We're constantly having to do something entertaining to draw people into the ballpark," Lewis said.
The team packed its stadium to overflowing earlier this year with another promotion, an exhibition against the parent Pittsburgh Pirates, one of the very few known appearances by a major league team at a Class A minor league park and the closest visit of a major league team to Washington since the Senators left town 14 years ago.
The evening was an overwhelming financial success -- the 38 kegs of beer were tapped out midway through the game, and the concession and souvenir stands did record business. "We sold out of so many things that night," Lewis said. "I did not have a Pirate batting helmet left in this park. . . . That was a phenomenal night for everyone."
The Pirates would like to have more attendance blockbusters like that. If they can double their average attendance to 4,000 a game, they can get the county to expand the stadium parking area, if not the stadium itself, and can allow themselves to dream about a more lofty position in baseball's hierarchy -- a jump perhaps to the AA or AAA level.
That might come as the indirect result of expansion of the number of teams in the major leagues -- an expansion that could put a major league team just up the road in Washington. Lewis says he is not worried about the the possibility of a major league franchise in Washington hurting his team. If anything, he said, he believes it would help the Prince William team by increasing the visibility of baseball in the area.
Even without a local major league team, Lewis believes awareness of the existence of a team in Prince William County is growing, as reflected in the rising attendance figures. "People are starting to notice we're here. It's close, and dollarwise it's a cheap form of entertainment," Lewis said. "The word is getting out that we're here, and we're going to be here, and you can come out and have fun."
A midday rain soaked Davis Ford Park, but by game time the sky was less threatening and the field was dry, and the game with Winston-Salem went on as scheduled. The Pirates added a victory and another 300 fans to their season totals. Not far from Washington, baseball is thriving. And, for the Prince William Pirates, that is good.