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Photos by Shane Wynn
Baseball is a sure sign of spring, and as each new season begins, its fans are reawakened at the first crack of the bat.
So it was with new Akron Aeros’ owner and CEO Ken Babby when, at four years old, he accompanied his father, Lon Babby, to his first big league baseball game.
“I had a chance to go to Orioles’ games at a very early age. For me, it was a way of life,” he says. “My dad was the general counsel to the Baltimore Orioles, and today he’s president of the Phoenix Suns. I was only four when he took me to Memorial Stadium and later to Camden Yards. I was fortunate to see how a championship team was built in Baltimore.”
Before accepting the position in October 2012 as the Aeros’ new owner, Babby attended several Aeros games last year. Coming into this role with a business background, his focus during those initial visits was to observe the team but also to watch the stadium’s staff members and their interactions with the fans.
For Babby, the fan experience is his priority, and this season, he wants to not only meet guests’ expectations of a visit to Canal Park but to exceed them.
Akron Life spoke with Babby a week before Opening Day about baseball, his heroes and his plans to bring Canal Park back to life.
How did you get involved with the Akron Aeros?
KB: Two years ago, they were looking for new ownership, and (former owner) Mike Agganis did a great job working for the Aeros and building the ballpark. I had spent the last 13 years working at the Washington Post [most recently as the organization’s chief revenue officer and general manager of digital content], and I moved here last year. I always wanted to be a part of the baseball process, and I believe my work in the media business prepared me for this position.
What do you love most about Akron?
KB: The people. They’re warm and receptive and made me feel welcome when I arrived here last year. They’re family-driven and sports-driven.
What kind of fans do you want to attract to Canal Park — families or baseball ‘seamheads’?
KB: Families, absolutely. For five dollars, there aren’t many places you can get in the gate with your family and have a good time. This is baseball at an affordable price, and you can come to Canal Park and enjoy yourself. There’s a lot to see and do. Now, if we also attract the more serious baseball fan, that’s great too. But we want to be sure we attract families to the ballpark.
What do you think is the best part of attending a game at Canal Park?
KB: It’s fun. The food items offer you more than what you’ll see at Major League ballparks, and you can choose where you sit. Our marketing message is ‘It’s a Whole New Ballgame.’ The fan experience is going to be totally awesome and a great way to spend your time.
Is your job anything like the book and movie “Moneyball”?
KB: Actually, it’s not. I wish it was! We’re one of the few businesses that doesn’t control itself. We’re controlled by the Major League club, the Cleveland Indians. They make all player personnel decisions; my role is to oversee the fans’ experience.
We care a lot about the team. We won our 12th Eastern League championship last year, and we feel strongly that we can benefit from what the Indians do.
How much can the Minor League system contribute to the Indians’ success?
KB: A lot. The majority of our farm system is close to Cleveland with our AAA team in Columbus and us being right down the road off of I-77. The Indians’ success depends on the baseball product. For us, it’s the total fan experience. I always remembered what I once learned: If the fans leave not knowing what the score is, you’re doing your job!
That’s not the case with Canal Park’s new video scoreboard though, is it?
KB: No, it’s not. But speaking of scoreboards, we’ll have the largest one in Class AA. It’s 68 feet by 61 feet. On select nights, we’ll show movies on it, and after games, fans can sit on the field and watch a movie. It’s all part of the fan experience.
Do you think the Indians’ off season spending ($117 million) will help spark interest in the Aeros?
KB: Yes. The better the Indians do, the better it is for us. We offer more affordable baseball here, and fans will get to see players as they make their way up to Cleveland. What they did was a good sign for the product they’ll put on the field, and in turn, it can only help us.
How do you feel about the New York Yankees’ ability to spend more freely than other teams?
KB: I remember in Baltimore how it was hard to deal with that. The Yankees play within the rules; they just have a different economic model than the one most other Major League teams follow. But you could make a case that spending on free agents doesn’t always bring you a championship caliber team. The strategy that a team like the Indians follows — to build through the farm system — is a great experience for us and the fans.
Speaking of fans, did you collect baseball cards growing up?
KB: I did. To me it was part of being a fan. It’s not as popular now as it was when I was growing up but it made me feel connected to the game.
Who is your favorite ballplayer of all time, and why?
KB: Chris Hoiles. He was an Orioles catcher for 17 years. He wasn’t always the most talented player but he represented integrity, stability and leadership on the field. He worked twice as hard as anyone else. He was the first guy to arrive at the ballpark every day and the last guy to leave.
Who is your role model?
KB: My father, no doubt about it. I was raised by two working parents who looked after me and my sister. I will always try to live up to that legacy.
In my spare time, you’ll find me ...
KB: At the ballpark. I spend a lot of time at the ballpark. I love Akron, and I want to get out and meet as many people as I can. I’m in the office at 7:30 in the morning, and I leave at 11:30 at night. I’m fortunate to be doing what I’m doing, and I love my job./ Writer Ben DiCola is a lifelong baseball fan, historian and trading card collector, and he keeps a scorecard of every game he attends.
E-mail them to editor Abby Cymerman at email@example.com.