DAYTON, OHIO — The Wright brothers did all the planning for the first-ever flight here, long before they took off from Kitty Hawk, N.C. Mike Schmidt learned the game here, years before he became a Phillies Hall of Famer. Actress Allison Janney and sportscaster Dan Patrick called this home at one point.
No one’s quite sure why they call Dayton the “Gem City,” because it has nothing to do with precious stones. Located 50 miles from Cincinnati, 70 from the state capitol in Columbus and 213 from Cleveland, its metropolitan area counts about 800,000.
The former home of Delco Electronics and National Cash Register (NCR), the city has enjoyed a cultural and economic resurgence in recent years under Mayor Nan Whaley, who recently announced she’ll be running for governor.
It’s also the home of the Class A Dayton Dragons of the Midwest League, who came into existence in 2000, selling out every game that season.
And, incredibly, the team has sold out every game since — setting the record for the most consecutive sellouts in professional sports history.
Yes, you read that right.
The Dragons, with a Jewish ownership group that includes Greg Rosenbaum, Mike Savit and Nick Sakellariadis — all Harvard University grads — have never had an unsold seat in their 18 year existence.
The sellout number stands at 1,214, well beyond the previous mark of 814, set by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers from 1977 to 1995.
And it has little to do with the fact the Dragons are having a terrific season, at 41-29 at the season’s halfway point, since Dayton has had just six winning seasons and has never won the Midwest League championship. That said, the team has already qualified for the playoffs based on its first-half record.
“It’s like that George Clooney movie, The Perfect Storm,” said Savit, the only owner with a true sports background, having worked for renowned sports management group IMG for 16 years before going out on his own. “No. 1, Cincinnati is a great baseball market less than an hour away. People here love baseball, and they’re nuts about the Reds.
“The minor leagues are affordable. The average cost for a family of four is $64 for tickets, parking, hot dogs and drinks.
“And since this is a Reds affiliate, a lot of players you see here you’ll see in Cincinnati in two to three years. So the market’s just responded and keeps responding. People in the community just love it, so it works.”
That’s especially true in the Jewish community, which — like in many towns its size — has struggled to remain vibrant.
“If somebody on one side of town sneezes, somebody on the other side says ‘gesundheit,’” joked Marshall Weiss, the longtime editor and publisher of The Dayton Jewish Observer, who grew up in Philadelphia and attended Abraham Lincoln High School. “Dayton, in general, is a medium-sized city but feels like a town. You kind of know everybody through somebody. And the Jewish community is involved with everything.”
That includes the Dragons. The team appeals to fans of all ages through nonstop promotions between innings. Those range from children’s sack races to kids announcing the batters to trivia contests and performances by the Retirement Village People — seniors dressed like the old disco group who stand on the dugout and perform “YMCA” and “Macho Man.”
“My kids love going to the games,” said Heath Gilbert, a lifelong Daytonian who indicated that the Jewish community has shrunk from around 5,000 when he was growing up to closer to 3,000, with two Reform synagogues, one Conservative, one Orthodox and a Chabad. “With the entertainment value, the fun, it’s just a really nice experience.
“For young kids who don’t always know the names of the players, it can be kind of boring. At a Dragons game, every inning between innings they are doing such fun stuff.”
That’s been the case since the first opening day, when the Dragons were a novelty.
“Since they opened, this has been highly successful,” Dayton Children’s Hospital President and CEO Debbie Feldman said. “It’s really the first thing downtown that drew folks from the suburbs.
“What we didn’t know was if it would have staying power. I give tons of credit to [original team president] Bob Murphy and his team, who’ve kept it fresh and really kept it a community company.”
That’s how it had gone through its “Bar Mitzvah” 13th season when Rosenbaum, having narrowly lost out on his bid to buy the Washington Nationals despite initially coming in with the highest offer, began shopping for a minor league franchise.
For the man whose resume is three pages long and includes everything from being former chairman for the Jewish Democratic Council, to team leader for U.S Olympic modern pentathlon, to the first to both participate and coach his team to the NCAA debate championship, baseball has always been his first love since he grew up a frustrated Cleveland Indians fan in neighboring Toledo.
First, the 2009 co-recipient of the Philadelphia Jewish Labor Committee’s Man of the Year award, contacted former classmate Sakellariadis, an investment banker who specialized in mergers and acquisitions. That began an exhaustive, frustrating search that seemed to be headed nowhere after a deal to purchase six minor league franchises owned by Mandalay Corp. fell through.
But when Mandalay decided to sell its teams separately, Rosenbaum and Sakellariadis jumped at the opportunity to snatch the Dragons, eventually bringing Savit into the picture.
“We’d been close to buying this team for a year, and it finally freed up at the last minute,” Sakellariadis said. “The rest was history.”
On Aug. 14, 2014 the sale of the Dragons, two years removed from setting the consecutive game sellout record, was finalized. The trick for the new ownership group was to keep things running smoothly.
“We wondered, ‘What are we going to do?’” admitted the 64-year-old Rosenbaum, who, besides the Dragons, has a stake in another Savit-owned team, the Mahoning Valley Scrappers as well as investments in a Washington, D.C., deli and a seafood restaurant. “Because there was, as you’d suspect, some skepticism about new ownership given the history of minor league failures in Dayton.
“So it was the perfect case of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,’ with the sellout streak, incredible publicity and no real ability to impact play on the field.”
Rosenbaum said the ownership showed its commitment to the team by installing what he claimed was the highest definition scoreboard in sports for $1.1 million in the 2014 offseason.
“Now, when we show a close-up of a kid, you can see whether they have braces on their teeth,” he said.
The ownership group has made similar improvements every season, most recently extending the protective netting for foul balls to well beyond the first- and third-base lines.
They’ve expanded the merchandise shop, which used to sell mostly T-shirts and caps, into a full-scale operation, with all sorts of color combinations for uniforms, jackets, hats, balls and other items. Each has that familiar Dragons logo with the tail coming out of the big “D.”
While all the owners have so many business and personal interests that they can only attend 15 to 20 games a year, they’ve made their presence felt.
“I see these guys more than I ever saw the other guys,” Mayor Whaley said. “These guys are really passionate about baseball and the city and have been since they came in.
“The Dragons are something that’s brought the community together, and the Jewish community is a very important part of it. They’ve been great partners for me as mayor. We always say if you love what you believe, you’re welcome in Dayton.”
That’s especially true for the players, who are almost treated like royalty, even though they’re still seemingly lightyears from “the show.”
In the main corridor of the Dragons office — across from the alumni wall of those who made the majors, such as Adam Dunn, Edwin Encarnación, Zack Cozart and Billy Hamilton — is a quote from Reds first baseman Joey Votto, saying how much his time in Dayton meant to him.
Years removed from being a Dragon, Votto’s opinion hasn’t changed.
“I had a really great experience, which was overwhelming for me at such a young age,” Votto said during the Reds’ recent series in Philadelphia.
“Playing in front of that many fans, with that much attention, was definitely overwhelming to me. Certainly I feel like I couldn’t have asked for a better place to prepare for major league baseball. It still astounds me how good a job they do.”
Luis Bolivar, then Votto’s teammate and now the Dragons manager, met his wife here, admitting he never could’ve imagined he’d set up roots and raise his four children in Dayton. Even players on other teams are envious.
“This place gets loud, and they’re right on top of you,” Cedar Rapids Kernels infielder Brandon Lopez said. “I heard from buddies it gets pretty crazy in games, but it’s more than I expected.
“Yeah, I’m a little jealous. We only get around 3,000.”
And yet game after game, year after year, the Dragons sell out. Official capacity is now 6,830, down from 7,230 after the installation of the Dragons Lair, an expanded deck in left field for corporate outings.
Take a look in the Fifth Third Field (the name coming from the mergers of the Fifth and Third National Banks) stands, though, and you’ll see empty seats. That’s not to say those tickets haven’t been sold.
But once you’re in the park, there are any number of distractions, ranging from concession stands — where hot dogs, soda, beer and ice cream go for close to major league prices — to large picnic areas in the outfield, to a bouncy castle or other fun games and diversions for the little ones.
By the end of the night, they might not know — or care — if the Dragons won or lost. But they’ll have had such a good time they can’t wait to come back.
“The joke all across minor league baseball is it’s one promotion after another — and, ‘Oh yeah, we have to play a game,’” Savit laughed. “Most kids will remember the promotion whether we won or lost.
“Minor league baseball’s about development. Having said that, it’s still nice to win.”
It’s even better enjoyed among friends and family.
“It’s the camaraderie,” agreed Gilbert, an executive board member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton. “You bump into friends and neighbors, and it’s such a family friendly wonderful event.
“The icing on the cake is on Sundays when the kids get to run the bases. Once a year in the Jewish community, whether it’s a JCC event, Chabad or both, we have a kosher barbecue across the street. Then we usually bring 30 to 40 people to the game.”
For the Dayton Jewish community, maintaining such ties is as crucial as any place.
“First of all, Dayton is the kind of town where people love to rally around each other and around major events,” said Naomi Adler, who’s now CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, but in 1997 was director of Dayton’s JCRC women’s division. “The Jewish community was no different, and we all kind of knew one another and worked together.
“Today, everyone has the same issues in Jewish communities in their own way understanding how assimilation has impacted the community. There are less Jews affiliated with synagogues or other formal institutions, and the Jewish Federation has to sort of reinvent itself to address the needs of everyone.”
In Dayton, that’s an ongoing struggle.
“The Jewish community in Dayton has a history of family business, and families here have deep roots,” Feldman said. “To see our downtown being revitalized we take pretty personally because the future of Dayton’s Jewish community is pretty much tied to the future of Dayton.
“The Jewish community here in Dayton is definitely older, so it’s challenging to get younger families to move back. Some of that is they’re attracted to the big cities on the coast. … Some of the amenities they’re used to having are not here.”
Weiss is a bit more optimistic.
“We are definitely seeing young professionals coming into town again, a number of them Jewish,” said Weiss, who once when contacted by the Israeli consulate before a proposed postage stamp was issued, verified the Wright Brothers were not anti-Semitic. “We’re seeing a critical mass come in, but are losing a net of about 100 per year between those dying off and those moving away. The question is are there enough moving in to stem that tide to have it plateau?”
What they do know, however, is that no matter what, they’ll have the Dragons to enjoy on and off the field.
For Rosenbaum, who at one time was CEO and the driving force behind the success of Empire Kosher Poultry, nothing beats it.
“Look, it’s a business and it’s serious and I love baseball. But this is fun,” said the man who has season tickets for several teams and often hosts politicians or other dignitaries in his Nats suite. “A lot of the other stuff I have going on in my life, while enjoyable, wasn’t pure, unadulterated fun.”
“My life has taken some interesting twists and turns. But I’m still a work in progress.”
And his Dayton Dragons, 18 years old and going strong, are still the hottest thing around–anywhere!
This article was made possible by a grant from the Irving Felgoise Memorial Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The fund was established by the family of the late Irving Felgoise, a printer, in honor of his longtime association with the newspaper field and the Jewish Federation. The Memorial Fund is administered by the Jewish Federation Endowments Corporation.
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