For more than 20 years, Salisbury has been in love with its Minor League Baseball team, the Delmarva Shorebirds.
The Baltimore Orioles affiliate that plays in Wicomico County’s Arthur W. Perdue Stadium opens its first homestand of the 2016 season tonight at 7:05 p.m. when the Hagerstown Suns come to town.
Positioned at various spots throughout the stadium tonight and through the entire summer will be the man who makes the whole experience happen, Shorebirds General Manager Chris Bitters. While it isn’t Bitters job to manage the players on the field — that responsibility belongs to manager Ryan Minor — Bitters is responsible for everything else: from ticket sales to food service, are the infield lines straight and do the lights work, is Sherman The Shorebird in costume and ready, are the players’ uniforms clean, are the umpires on duty, is the announcer prepared in the Franklin P. Perdue Press Box, will the post-game fireworks go off on time.
A member of the South Atlantic League, the Shorebirds play 140 games each season, 70 at home and 70 on the road. The organization is owned and operated by a California-based group, 7th Inning Stretch LP, which also owns the Stockton Ports of the California League and the Everett Aquasox of the Northwest League.
Delmarva’s team has been crowned SAL champions twice, the latest in 2000. Some memorable Shorebirds who have gone on to play in the Major League Baseball include Manny Machado, Erik Bedard, Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Orlando Cabrera and Javier Vasquez.
Bitters has been general manager of the Delmarva Shorebirds since 2006. Ten years is a long run in his business world, where baseball’s business folks tend to move around. But Bitters professes to have found a home on Delmarva — he, his wife and two daughters live in Delmar — and he seems more than contented with his professional opportunity.
Bitters has helped to make the team and its players more ingrained in the community. He has also undertaken a leadership role in assuring some terrific improvements in both the baseball stadium as well as the sports and entertainment show that goes off 70 days a year just off Hobbs Road.
Q. The new field looks great. Where did the sod come from?
A. The vast majority of the materials for the field came locally — the grass is from Oakwood Sod Farm in Delmar — right in my back yard, in fact, I live next to Oakwood. The sand and the gravel came locally as well.
Q. Any idea how good the team might be this year?
A. We should have a good club.
We have both of the first round picks from last year’s draft — D.J. Stewart out of Florida State and Ryan Mountcastle, a young shortstop up out of Florida as well. And we’ve got a few returning guys — Brian Gonzales, a pitcher who started with us last year.
He was their fourth-round pick from two years ago who played for Delmarva last year, a younger guy right out of high school, so he still has some developing to do — he should show signs this year of why he was a higher-round pick.
We have Lucas Long and a few other pitchers — so we should have a good club.
It should be exciting to watch. They should be able to hit the ball a little bit and throw some strikes and see if we can win a few ball games.
Q. And that’s something that’s been pretty obvious, that you and the Shorebirds and the players are more-involved in the community.
A. Myself as the general manager and the ownership group — we really pride ourselves on being engaged in the community.
We have the “Hit The Books” program that works with over a hundred schools in the communities. Through that program, we’re working with about 40,000 students to encourage them to read book. And by reading the books outside of the classroom they get rewarded by being able to come to Shorebirds games.
We have our mascot appearances , our Silver Sluggers Club on Wednesdays for seniors — for less than $20 you can come out for nine or 10 games as a senior on Wednesdays.
So we have a lot of really great programs where we really try to get involved, that supports the community who supports us. We’re always looking for ways to give back on a regular basis.
Q. I know when I’m there as a fan and I look around at the advertisers with the billboards placed in the outfield, that those businesses that are giving you money and showing support for you are many of the same business who give so much to causes in our community.
A. That’s a great thing about the market as a whole. We really do have a sense of family, whether it’s with our advertisers, whether it’s with our fans.
We were just talking with our trainer the other day and he was looking at the outfield wall and he was like “it’s mostly the same advertisers as last year.”
And we do have a continuity of support and we appreciate that from the local community, whether it’s the outfield wall or the people who sponsor the fireworks shows or the promotions we do.
We have very good local support. And we appreciate it.
Q. You’re a California guy.
A. I am.
Q. You had two general manager stops in California. Tell me about the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes.
A. (Laughs.) For people who are older, they may remember the old “Jack Benny Radio Show” and Jack Benny would say there’s a “stop in Cooo-ka-monga.” Well, that is the stop.
Q. It’s on the way to Palm Springs.
A. It is on the way to Palm Springs or Las Vegas. It was a rural area — it was the bathroom break if you’re driving to Las Vegas or Palm Springs from Los Angeles. And that’s what Jack Benny would joke about — the Cucamonga stop.
In California, whenever you want to make something fancier, you put the word “Rancho” in front of it.
It’s got a great stadium that they built there back in 1993. It’s a great team there; they do a great job, and that’s where I got my start in baseball. I was there for five or six years, working back then for our current company president Pat Filippone. He had left the team and I had stayed. I eventually left to go to Bakersfield, Calif.
Q. Are you a baseball fan?
A. I am, but I always tell people — it’s weird — I’m more of a baseball fan of the art of game, than I am players and stats and individual stuff.
When I watch a game, particularly not on the Shorebirds side of my role, I’m more watching 0-2 count, what pitch did he throw, why did he throw it, where did he throw it, if there’s a man on first, are they stepping off, are they throwing pickoff, what are they looking for.
There are a lot of little nuances that happen in a baseball game.
When you watch the Shorebirds and the pitchers get in a tough situation, you’ll see them muscle up and throw harder. It must drive the coaches crazy when they get out of routine.
People have to realize and I think sometimes fans forget that that’s the whole goal of the Shorebirds — to learn.
We want to win games, every athlete wherever you play — whether you’re playing chess at home or you’re playing professional baseball with the Shorebirds, you want to win. But it’s also our job at the minor league level to develop guys.
Sometimes you’re going to leave a pitcher in in a scenario when you might yank the guy out, but maybe he needs to learn to fight through those battles.
Guys need to get into jams and they need to learn to work their way out of them, and that may costs us some runs and some games. You can’t just bail them out by bringing in a relief pitcher every time.
We’re trying to develop players. No one likes to lose.
Q. Last year your ownership group and Wicomico County extended their lease agreement for Perdue Stadium. During the discussions, lots of citizens came forward to show their support for the Shorebirds, but there were a few people who thought the county should have gotten a better deal.
A. Our new agreement with the county is good for both the team and the county.
In many ways, it is very similar to the original relationship the team had with the county. With us signing a new agreement, the team will remain in Wicomico County and at Arthur W. Perdue Stadium for another 20 years.
As discussed, we are working through a multi-year restoration and improvement plan to make sure the stadium meets the needs of the players on the field, the fans and the entire community that uses Arthur W. Perdue Stadium on an annual basis.
Q. You’ve been the general manager here for the past 10 years. That seems like a healthy run.
A. It’s not uncommon for minor league baseball general managers to really move around. I love it here.
A lot of people, when I first got her, after the season ended, they would ask me “Are you coming back next year?” And I would always say “Yes! — unless I get a pink slip, I sure hope so!”
But I’m not looking to move on. I love it here.
I try to get very involved in the community. My wife and two girls love it here as well, the schools, the overall sense of pride in the community and the relationships that you’re able to build — not only with the (team’s) fans but just as a regular person in the community.
We love it here and I have zero intention of leaving, unless there’s a time that it makes more sense, or if obviously, I’m not getting the job done — and then someone else will be telling me to get out.
Q. The fan base seems unique here. You’ve got a very diverse regional crowd.
A. We’re in a unique situation here. It’s a very small market, compared with others. Most teams rely on fans from a 30-mile radius.
But it’s a big market in terms of mileage and land mass that we’re drawing from. I think a lot of the support comes from our community programs, school programs, Little League programs, senior programs — the way we engage people and build loyalty so they’ll come out.
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at email@example.com