In Major League Baseball, players are currently locked out of their clubhouses and Opening Day has already been canceled. With each passing day, the prospect of no Big League games being played in 2022 becomes more of a possibility.
Minor league teams, including the Richmond Flying Squirrels, won’t be affected by the lockout and are expected to play on as usual.
But there’s another local team that’s looking forward to its first pitch of the year, and first normal year in its existence: the Tri-City Chili Peppers of Colonial Heights.
Chris Martin and Byron Wurdeman founded the team in 2019, anticipating that they’d play in the Coastal Plain League. The plan was to field amateur, collegiate players to play in the amateur summer league starting in the 2020 season.
Not long after the team name Chili Peppers was chosen via fan vote, the pandemic hit, and Martin said the CPL’s season went from postponed to canceled in short order. Through 2020, they were able to play some baseball at the recently-renovated, 1,000-seat Shepherd Stadium in Colonial Heights by hosting tournaments.
“We were able to still utilize the field and see what business could be like in a sense,” Martin said. “We were able to generate a little bit of revenue and have some fun with it.”
When it came time to prepare for the 2021 season, Martin, who also owns RISE Baseball academy in Chesterfield, said things were still precarious.
“A lot of the conversations, and this sounds really bad, were, ‘Hey we’re looking forward to the season. Hopefully, we can have one.’ That was such a hard thing to prep for,” Martin said.
“Even from a business perspective, how much do you put into it not knowing if you’ll have the season?”
The CPL’s 2021 season was eventually given the green light, but the Chili Peppers hit one final speed bump before they were able to throw out their inaugural pitch: a rain delay on opening night.
“Of course, opening night got moved back because of rain,” Martin said, laughing.
The Chili Peppers played their first-ever game on a Monday night, not an enviable night of the week for sports events.
“I won’t ever forget opening night. I turned to our Director of Operations Austin Sizemore. I said, ‘Dude, people are showing up. People are here!’ It’s one of those surreal moments,” Martin said.
“It took forever but it happened. I was blown away. You’d never expect a Monday to sell out, but that stadium was absolutely slammed. I couldn’t believe it.”
The Chili Peppers won their first game in front of a sell-out crowd, and the rest of the 2021 season came and went with only a few COVID-19 related road game cancellations. The Chili Peppers ended the year 7-34, and Martin said they averaged around 900 fans per game at home.
Now, three years since the Chili Peppers’ inception, the 2022 CPL season is around the corner and the Chili Peppers’ opening day is set for May 26.
“It feels like this is the first normal year,” Martin said.
With higher confidence levels that they won’t face delays or cancellations, Martin said they’ve spent the off-season devising ways to go all-in on fan experience and entertainment.
“(The question) was, ‘How do we entertain fans from the moment they sit down in the stadium?’” Martin said.
The $10 ticket prices (or $16 for an “all-you-can-eat” option) were a starting point. Martin said they also wanted to have a variety of ballpark food ranging from the basic burger and hot dog to more decadent options like bacon cheeseburgers and barbecue nachos.
The Chili Peppers operate on a roughly $500,000 annual budget, and Martin said they’re spending $140,000 this year on fan entertainment alone. Last year, they spent $200,000 on stadium renovations and improvements.
“We added corporate suites down the right field line. We added 10 last year and we’re adding 14 more this year,” Martin said. “It’s got a really cool beer garden vibe with hanging lights.”
Fan entertainment beyond the game has long been part of minor league ball’s business model, and Martin pointed to one of their league rivals in Georgia as an example of the approach the Chili Peppers want to take.
The Savannah Bananas, in addition to being the league’s reigning champions, have garnered national acclaim for their non-traditional approach to the game. With the blessing of the CPL, the Bananas have modified the rules of baseball at their stadium.
At Bananas games, batters aren’t allowed to leave the box or they’re called for a strike. Fans can catch foul balls for outs, and if games aren’t over after two hours of real time, batters and pitchers go one-on-one to decide the game.
Martin said they’re not planning to create any house rules like the Bananas have, but that they want to get non-traditional with other aspects of fan entertainment, employing things like Price Is Right-style cash giveaways to fans and world record attempts involving the crowd. Most of the Chili Peppers’ plans are still under wraps.
“We don’t want to be the Savannah Bananas, but we want to carry the same level of success as the Savannah Bananas,” Martin said.
“Our goal this year is to really push the envelope on fan entertainment. Minor League Baseball has done a great job of it and some teams really push it to the next level. The Savannah Bananas are the ones that honestly pushed it even further. That’s the direction we want to go this year.”
The CPL’s 13 other teams are spread throughout Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. The teams are unaffiliated with MLB clubs and players apply to the league and indicate which teams they’re interested in playing for, after which teams and players decide where they’ll play. The players are unpaid and are mostly local and from Virginia schools.
With the MLB locked out, Martin said he hopes they can pick up some new fans, ones that might otherwise spend their summer watching the Big League on television.
“I think people will look for more baseball. I think if (the lockout) impacts us, it’ll definitely be more people wanting to go out and see good baseball,” Martin said. “It might allow us to grab some more fans that say, ‘I want to support local kids who are playing because they love it and their dream is to be a big leaguer someday, so let’s go and support them.’”
RISE Baseball, Martin’s other business, had been planning to build a 30,000-square-foot training facility at 3120 E. Boundary Court and 3401 Old Hundred Road in Chesterfield.
After years of rezoning and planning, Martin said they’ve scrapped those plans and are under contract to sell the 9 acres that would’ve housed the facility.