Kicking off their 2009 season this week, the Savannah Sand Gnats are an affiliate of the New York Mets. And few people in baseball are closer to the New York Mets than current Sand Gnats President R.C. Reuteman -- who's worked in several capacities for the franchise since 1984.
After running Mets farm teams in Binghamton and Brooklyn, N.Y., Reuteman recently rejoined the Mets organization after a stint with the Worcester Tornadoes, a non-major league affiliated team in the Can-Am League.
"This is a great opportunity to get back with the Mets. I've worked for the Wilpon family a long time and they've always been good to me. I grew up with the Mets, that's what I know, I know how they feel, I know what they want."
Reuteman's timing continues to be excellent. He comes to Savannah at a great time for baseball -- specifically, minor league ball.
"Minor league baseball has historically done very well in a bear market," says Reuteman. "We're affordable entertainment. That's what minor league baseball is built around."
In comparison with other sporting events, and even with live performance events, minor league baseball continues to be one of the best entertainment bargains around.
"You can park here for free and get into the ballpark for 5 or 7 bucks," says Reuteman. "You'll be sitting in a seat that would cost $700 a night in the new Yankee stadium. It's crazy, but that's kind of where we're at."
While you're not likely to see the same caliber of play on the diamond that you'll see in Yankee Stadium, Reuteman says that's not the point anyway.
"The game is the game. Nowadays it's about what goes on around the game," he says. "Our main goal is to entertain people, give them a comfortable environment, let 'em have some fun, let 'em have good food, good baseball at an affordable rate. That's the key, especially in today's economy."
As a baseball aficionado, Reuteman is thrilled to be able to work at one of America's most historic remaining stadiums. Grayson Stadium, built in 1927 and upgraded in 1941 after storm damage, has hosted such legends as Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Jackie Robinson in its storied career.
"It's a great park, the oldest operating minor league park in the country," says Reuteman. "There's not anywhere else like it -- and I've been in a few parks (laughs)."
Reuteman says that the downside of Grayson's distinguished pedigree is that the facilities are not always what fans demand in the modern age.
"Certainly we're challenged a little bit with the facilities -- we need to be able to serve food quickly, and the restrooms get taxed when we get a big crowd," he says. "But we're working hard and upgrading a lot of stuff. The city's been great."
City-funded renovations to Grayson in the past couple of years include condemning and removing the old bleachers in left field, which hadn't been used by paying customers in years -- only by daring young fans chasing home run balls.
A positive side effect of the bleacher's demolition -- for some anyway -- is that the once incredibly short porch in left field, which was actually in defiance of national minor league regulations, has now been extended to a much more normal 320-foot-plus distance from home plate.
"The pitchers are happy about that. The hitters aren't too happy," laughs Reuteman.
Technically, the Gnats' first home game of the season is this Thursday, April 9, against the Augusta Greenjackets. But the Wednesday night prior, the Gnats take on the Savannah College of Art and Design Bees in an exhibition game.
"It'll be an abbreviated game," explains Reuteman. "They have conference games that weekend, so we're all going to be short on pitching. Our fourth and fifth starters need to get a little bit of work in, and we might throw our reliever in an inning or two."
The SCAD club has played in Grayson Stadium before, and Reuteman says the school has "a great relationship" with the Gnats. The Bees will play upwards of 20 college games in the stadium, sharing the space with the pro team.
Quin Monahan, SCAD athletic director, says “This game is simply a public example of the great relationship we've both experienced. This should be a fun event for both teams, our fans as well as the entire community.”
Reuteman says the SCAD exhibition is not only fun and good for outreach, but a great way to prep for the Gnats opener.
"I've done this in other markets, where we're looking for a dry run for whole ballpark. We're going to get slammed opening day, and this gives our concession people, parking people, ushers, everybody a chance to experience what's in front of us."
Reuteman, who insists he just "runs the business," says his job has little to nothing to do with Mets personnel decisions.
"Quite honestly I don't stick my nose in that at all. If they ask, I'll give an opinion. I may be a little more involved than the average Joe because I've been with em so long. I've scouted and signed players. But I don't get paid by them for that. Brad (Dodson) and I run the business."
Managing the Sand Gnats this season is veteran Edgar "Fonzie" Alfonso, who like Reuteman has long ties with the Mets organization (his son, Edgar, is a Mets minor league pitcher and his brother has played for the major league Mets).
"Fonzie managed for me in Brooklyn back in 2001," says Reuteman. "He's a good guy, he gets it, he gets the whole picture."
The Gnats also boast a new PA announcer for all home games this season: local radio personality Ray Steele, who also begins his own show on Star 1400 AM next week.
While the Sand Gnats Media Director Mike Passanisi will be doing play-by-play for the Gnats home games -- all of which will be broadcast on Star 1400 -- Steele will be "Mr. Who's-Coming-Up-To-Bat, pitching changes, little announcements in between innings. I'm looking forward to it. I'm a baseball nut and always have been. I'm passionate about the game. This doesn't pay much, but it doesn't have to."
Savannah Sand Gnats
Exhibition game against SCAD is Wed. April 8 at 7 p.m.; free and open to the public.
The Gnats season opens Thursday April 9 with a with a Thirsty Thursday contest against the Augusta Greenjackets. The home stand continues April 10-12. All games start at 6:30 p.m. Single game tickets are $7-10, $5 children.