Mitche Graf, the new president of business operations Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, plans to bring big change to the ballpark this summer (KEIZERTIMES/Matt Rawlings).
During their inaugural season in 1997, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes drew 136,836 fans to the ballpark as people flocked to see future big-league stars.
But as of late, the novelty of professional baseball in Keizer appears to have worn off.
In 2018, attendance dipped to 72,094 for the 38-game home season, and for the first time in franchise history, the average per game turnout went below 2,000.
However, in January, Volcanoes owners Jerry and Lisa Walker brought on Mitche Graf to be the new president of business operations, and Graf has very distinct plans to shake things up for the 2019 season.
“Many things are going to be different. We're putting a little shine on the brand and we're giving everything a little twist,” Graf said. “We have re-invented from the ground up and people across the country will take notice.”
Graf's main goal right now is to get butts back in the seats and to make people be excited about Volcanoes baseball once again.
It won't be an easy task as the Volcanoes have ranked last in the Northwest League in attendance for the past four seasons. When asked about the attendance issues, Graf didn't shy away in the slightest.
“It’s public information that the Volcanoes attendance has been decreasing for the past five season, and we have taken some pretty innovative and out-of-the-box steps in order to put the excitement back into the franchise. You will see a huge difference in just about every phase of your experience while you are here,” Graf said
So what's the plan for getting people back to Volcanoes Stadium?
For anyone attending a game this summer, Graf promises three things:
• A smile at every turn.
• Concession lines that move at lightning speed.
• When people leave the stadium, they will want to come back.
“People come to a game to be entertained. You have the baseball fans that are going to come no matter what,” Graf said. “But this year, we're trying to attract a family. A family of four that wants to be entertained for three or four hours that might not be the biggest fans of baseball.”
For Graf, everything starts with customer service, which is why he came in and wanted a total overhaul of last year's game day staff.
“We have been very intentional with our hiring this season. Each employee has been selected because of their strong history of having a serving heart and the intangible talent of making people smile,” Graf said “You just need to take care of your customers. How hard is that?”
Volcanoes Stadium will feature seven new food vendors throughout the concourse. Graf provides the space for free, but vendors will supply their own staff and pay a commission that goes to the Volcanoes.
What will be much different, however, is the strategy when it comes to concessions.
For example, the El Patron Mexican Grill food cart sold a litany of different items at their stand last year. But this season, there will be only three items available (tacos, burritos and taco salads) and they will be handed to you immediately after you order.
The motivation behind this strategy is to get the customer great food as quickly as possible so they can get back to watching the game.
“It excites me that the fan experience is going to be exponentially better than it has been in recent memory,” Graf said. “It's all about the fan. We got to take care of that fan.”
“Fans are going to be absolutely blown away by, not just the quality, but the speed, the professionalism and the smiles that they get no matter what line they are standing in.”
Graf will also have what he calls “hawkers” throughout the stadium that will provide things like beer, hot dogs and snack food.
While this strategy is still in its experimental stages, Graf has already seen early success.
At the OSAA State Baseball Championships — which were held at Volcanoes Stadium on May 31 and June 1 — Graf said that the Volcanoes were able to do their highest concession numbers ever in the 21 years of being the state championship host.
Even though the most noticeable changes will start with concessions, Graf has brought in several other additions that will enhance the fan experience.
Before this season, the Volcanoes hadn't made any changes to their sound system since '97. But Graf decided to have 24 Major League-quality speakers installed in the stadium to bring more energy to the crowd. He also had the old sound system rearranged to face the parking lot so that fans will start to feel the excitement as they arrive to the gate.
“There's not a hotspot or dead zone throughout the entire place.” Sound is part of that fan experience,” Graf said.
Even the Volcanoes mascot, Crater, will receive upgrades to his suit to make him more agile. Roofman, who is also a fixture at Volcanoes games, will be upgraded as well.
“My whole life, I've done things a little bit differently. People call me a status quo disrupter,” Graf said.
Graf becoming the president of business operations for a professional baseball team is definitely different, especially considering that he has never worked in baseball before. But with his successful career as an entrepreneur and business author, the Walker family had no reservations about bringing Graf on staff and giving him the reigns to execute his vision.
“I wasn’t looking for a job. I was perfectly happy with the lifestyle I had … But the opportunity to run a professional sports franchise was too big of a challenge for me to pass up,” Graf said. “I’ve always attacked challenges head on, and this is my chance to really make a difference in something much bigger than myself. I want to make the Volcanoes the absolute best they can be, and hopefully we have assembled the magic formula heading into this season.”
Fans will have a chance to see what's new this weekend as the Volcanoes host their first series of the season against the Boise Hawks. Opening night is Friday, June 14, at 6:35 p.m. and will have a fireworks show at the conclusion of the game. The Volcanoes will also play on Saturday at 6:35 p.m. and Sunday at 5:05 p.m.
“My job, above all other things that I am trying to accomplish is to change the mindset of the community. This is still professional baseball, we're lucky to have it right here in Keizer,” Graf said. “I really believe that if we bring the energy back and the fan experience back, the stands will fill up, the energy will be there, and before you know, we're going to start playing better and winning more games.”
“We're actually doing stuff, we're not just talking about it. If we can nail opening weekend, it'll catch fire and the stands will start filling up like crazy and we'll go back to the olden days.”