New man in town
Running a Coastal Plain League baseball team is a tough, unique and often misunderstood job. From year to year the general manger is tasked with building a roster of staff members, interns, volunteers, coaches and players that - in the end - makes money for the organization while giving the fans something to enjoy and be proud of. And for the Forest City Owls, they feel they’ve found the right man for the job in Cory Dirksen.
Dirksen, who turned 39 less than two weeks ago, has seven years of experience as a GM in Minor League Baseball with the Windy City Thunderbolts and Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings. In that time, Dirksen is credited with the creation of one franchise (Rio Grande Valley) and the success of both. He hopes that his prior success is an indication of what he can do in Forest City.
“I’ve had really good success at filling ballparks and that’s one of the things we really want to do,” Dirksen said. “We want to fill the ballpark the way it was when it first opened.”
The Owls finished 17-32 in 2013 — the team’s worst mark in its six-year history — and missed the Pettit Cup Playoffs for the first time. As the number in the loss column grew, the attendance numbers at McNair Stadium diminished. Dirksen thinks he’s the man to reverse that trend.
“There’s nothing better than being able to come out and see the grass on the field and know that that’s where you work every day. But sometimes we have a tendency to get a little stale in what baseball has done,” Dirksen said. Dirksen also spent two years in the San Antonio Spurs organization and hopes to use a few of the tactics he learned while in Texas here in Forest City.
“In the two years I spent with the Spurs I got the opportunity to see what they do to drive attendance and be able to find unique ways to create experiences at their stadium, and it’s something we’re going to bring here,” Dirksen said. “We’re going to find ways where people can get access to the players and be able to feel like they can go home having a once in a lifetime experience every time they come here.”
Dirksen praised the level of community support for the Owls as indicated by the number of season-ticket holders, but he feels that one large resource has long gone untapped: Groups.
“Where they’ve lacked in the past, and what’s really my strength, is going in and creating things within the facility and operations and opportunities for people to have experiences and groups to have experiences that will make them want to come and do their summer picnics here at the ballpark instead of a park elsewhere,” Dirksen said. “Groups is going to be a huge thing that we do. We want to create reasons for them to have events out here.”
Dirksen hopes to implement tented area around the concourse of the stadium as well as numerous new food vendors. And for those companies that want to have gatherings at the ballpark, Dirksen has a plan just for you.
“If a company comes in thye may not want to have hot dogs and hamburgers so we’ll go in and give them options,” Dirksen said. “If they want Mexican we want to be able to set that up for them, if they want Italian we want to be able to set that up. We want the experience to be turn-key.”
And for the everyday fan and family, expect a new, more carnival-like feel on game days.
“It’s not going to be crazy or wild, but we want the feeling of coming to the county fair,” Dirksen said. “Some of that will be food-oriented. We want people here earlier where they feel they can come eat and stay for the game and make it almost like dinner theatre.”
Aside from the countless food options that Dirksen hopes to have in the stadium, he wants the in-game entertainment to be must-see.
“You’ll see a little more of a structured, interactive experience. We hope by the end of the year we’ll have people line dancing in the stands and doing other fun stuff like that. We want people to get involved,” Dirksen said. “We don’t want to take away from what’s happening on the field, but at the same time we want to make sure that someone that comes in that’s never seen a baseball game before and has no idea about baseball, comes in and may not enjoy the game but enjoys the experience because they see all this fun stuff going on on the field and people getting involved.”
Clearly, the atmosphere and entertainment-value of the ballpark experience is important to Dirksen, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want the show that happens between the foul lines to suffer, even if it doesn’t mean a Pettit Cup every season.
“We have to remember that we’re in a 14-team league where every year the rosters change over. We’re going to have some seasons where we’ll be great, and we’ll have seasons where we thought we put the right team together and it just didn’t happen,” Dirksen said. “Every year we’ll put in the hours and research we need to, to go out and get the best players we can.
“I can promise that we’ll have a crew of guys that work their tail off every day and do everything they can to win every game. Are they going to win every game? No. Are we going to win a championship every year? No. I’m not going to promise that to anybody.”
Unfortunately for Dirksen, die-hard Owls fans may not have the patience to sit through another disappointing season, especially after winning two league championships in the team’s first three seasons (2009 and 2010).
“One of the tough things about this community is that it had winners so quickly that there’s an expectation at that level. But if we go in and say that I’ll put a championship team out there and I don’t, I haven’t been honest with people. We’ll put the best team we can on the field,” Dirksen said. “There’s 13 teams that don’t win the championship every year. If we focus on that and that’s the only reason people come out, we’re going to have a mistake ... I want you to have a good time win or lose.”
Another priority high on the list for Dirksen, is creating a reputation and brand on the field for his team. And that brand may not be built with players from the big-name schools across the region.
“I’ve had people ask me if we’re going to go out and bring in the high-end Division I players. What we’re looking for in players is not where they’re from, it’s what their attitude is and their drive,” Dirksen said. “We want the guys that are going to be scraping and clawing, because my experience is that those are the guys that end up winning championships.”
Now with opening day just three months away, it’s time for Dirksen to get to work. He may have only been in Rutherford County for seven days, but he knows what will make 2013 a successful season for the Forest City Owls.
“If we don’t win a championship but we have 1,500 people here that are enjoying themselves and having a good night every time and really feel like we put a good family-oriented entertainment product out there, there isn’t much more I could ask for,” Dirksen said. “All I ask is that I have guys on the field that work hard and people in our stands that want to do everything they can to make sure the people that come through the gates can put all their troubles away for three hours and either focus on baseball, focus on other things going on in the ballpark and have a good time.”