One of the things that separates the American Association from many of the other minor leagues one will visit is the commitment to fans. The primary role of affiliate leagues is to develop prospects for their Major League clubs, and while winning and drawing fans to the games are valuable, they are in no way a priority of any of these teams.
This is not true of independent leagues like the American Association. These independent leagues commit themselves to creating a family atmosphere that allows fans to see a local team playing quality baseball, while also being able to enjoy games at a cost that doesn’t break their budget. This is the kind of experience that no one understands better than Kansas City T-Bones president Adam Ehlert.
Adam is one of the owners of the T-Bones, along with his father, John, and brothers Zachary and Nate. The family purchased the club when they were the Duluth-Superior Dukes of the Northern League. This league was founded on providing independent baseball to small, industrial based towns, and the Ehlerts loved being a part of the Duluth, MN and Superior, WI communities. There was one problem with trying to run a professional baseball team in Duluth however.
“Duluth is a great city and has incredible fans,” Adam explains, “but it was just too cold to play baseball there. I think I wore wool socks to games virtually every night. The weather simply made it tough to run a baseball team. Just as an example, coffee outsold beer on a regular basis at games. Our last season there we had three games called on account of fog. It just made it hard to play baseball there.”
Adam and his family decided that if the club was going to be a success they needed to move to a warmer climate, and in 2003 they set up shop in Kansas City at Community America Ballpark. Adam personally loved the move to Kansas City, not only because of the warmer weather, but because of the great history of baseball in the community.
“Kansas City has a rich heritage for baseball, and that played a big role in us wanting to come here. One thing that we love in particular is that this city has an incredible history with the Negro Leagues. In fact, the Negro League Museum is in Kansas City, and that is another part of what makes this such a great baseball town. Fans love the game, and it is a part of what makes up the city.”
The move allowed the team to play in warmer weather, but that didn’t necessarily translate to wins on the field. The club’s first five seasons in its new home saw them make the playoffs once (2004), and they finished under .500 each of those seasons.
In 2008 the club, under manager Andy McCauley, finished four games under .500 in the Northern League, but it was enough to make the playoffs. Their first round opponent was the heavily favored Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, who finished 16 games ahead of the T-Bones. Kansas City shocked them in a three game sweep, then went on to beat the Gary Southshore RailCats in four games to become league champions. It was a moment that Adam remembers will great joy.
“No one expected us to win the championship that season. Fargo and Gary were so much better than everyone else, but our club played incredibly well. I think I spent every minute of those games on the edge of my seat. It was such a great moment for the organization and for the fans.”
His job rarely affords Adam the opportunity to watch more than a few minutes of games these days. He acknowledges that running the club has decreased his ability to sit and enjoy games, but he also says there is an upside to that. “I get very intense watching these games. Maybe it is better for my health that I don’t get to watch them play as much these days,” he explains with a laugh.
While Adam relishes being involved in the ownership and running of a baseball team, this is a guy who is a lifelong baseball fan, and his enjoyment of the game is one of the most satisfying parts of being an executive.
“I have always loved baseball. I loved playing it as a kid, but I realized early on that I was a much better fan than I was a player,” Adam tells. “The game left me behind, but I love the sport of baseball. It is such a great game to me, and has been something I have loved ever since I was little.”
It is that love for the game that drives him in his current role as president. Adam wants fans to develop the same passion for baseball that he has, and this is one of the main focuses of what he does in running the club. “I love seeing families creating their first memories with their children. I have such fond memories of my first games with my family, and I want families that come to our park to have those same kinds of memories. I use my own personal experiences as a fan to try to provide the best fan experience here.”
It is that kind of passion that has turned the Kansas City T-Bones into one of the most successful in all of independent baseball. Many players and executives around the American Association speak of how well the T-Bones are run, and how there are many aspects of their rival that they used in building their own programs.
Adam explains that it is the commitment to those who enter the ballpark that is the foundation upon which the club is laid. “We understand that we are not the Kansas City Royals. We offer a different baseball experience. This means we must embrace every single customer and, frankly, every single player. Our players are our greatest asset and we have had some amazing young men play for our team. We have been proud of every one of them.”
Many who make such a statement would come across as toeing the company line, but not Adam. This is a man who loves his team, his fans, and his community very much, and sees himself as quite blessed to be where he is today. “As a family we feel very lucky to be in this business. There are challenges to putting a quality team on the field each night, but we love this game and are privileged to be a part of it. We appreciate the hard work of our staff, and how they do a great job of making fans feel welcome. It is a true honor to be a part of this organization.”
Building a fan friendly park is just one aspect of creating lasting memories for fans. Adam also understands that the team that takes the field has to play good baseball and be one that fans can rally behind. “We have taken strides to build a team that can compete. We want fans to have great players and great teams to cheer for.”
He adds that the new location has played a big role in creating new friendly yet acrimonious relationships with some of their closer competitors. “We have built great rivalries here, especially with Lincoln and Wichita, and this has been part of the fun for our fans. It is one thing that has made the American Association such a better fit for us. In the Northern League we were at the southern most end geographically in comparison to other teams. Now we are right in the middle, which allows us to have great rivalries.”
He recognizes that his team is not full of potential Hall of Fame players, but Adam also sees that the team that manager John Massarelli puts on the field is going to be built with professional baseball players who have great talent. “John is a proven winner, and he understands how to put together a great team. He had to overhaul our roster two seasons ago, and we are starting to see the fruits of that now. We know we stack up well against anyone.”
The Ehlerts have committed their team to be, as Adam puts it, “Tremendous, affordable family entertainment.” This is symbolized in the team’s slogan: Fun Well Done. Fun is found in every aspect of a fan’s experience at the park, from finding a good parking spot, to paying reasonable prices for entrance and concessions, to courteous staff, down to the field and the team’s ability to win. Adam is a man who understands that the details are the things that make fans enjoy games more, and help the team to be a bigger winner.
“One of the proudest accomplishments for us is that we have been Organization of the Year in our league four times in 12 years. I think that shows our commitment to doing things the right way, and our focus on making each game special.”
It takes a lot of people to run an independent league team and do it well. Fortunately for the Kansas City T-Bones, the guy sitting in the president’s chair is a man who has committed himself and his skills to helping to build the team into one of the very best in all of minor league sports. He is one that wants his players and fans to know that each one is valued by him personally.
The 2015 American Association season will begin today, and the Kansas City T-Bones will be one of the teams vying for the title. They will have 100 grueling games to try to reach the playoffs. Fans will get to spend 50 beautiful Kansas City evenings watching their team at home battling opponents to prove their superiority. Those fans will enjoy a great game in a great ballpark, with quality food and a quality team. They will get to enjoy one of the best baseball experiences in America and, even though he won’t take credit for it, they will get to enjoy it because of the vision of Adam Ehlert and his family. They will get to fall in love with a game he so loves, and that may be the greatest victory of all to him.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA