Thursday, June 17, 2004

Freedom comes home to $8 million ballfield

But you'll have to wait a month for beer garden

By William Croyle
Enquirer contributor

Using rake-like tools to pull strips of Bermuda grass turf into place at Champion Window Field in preparation for Friday's home opener are (left to right) Benjamin Dominguez Flores, Gabriel Maraques, Urial Martinez and Benito Avan of Georgia Golf Construction, Inc.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/PATRICK REDDY
FLORENCE - The stadium's not finished, but a near-sellout crowd is expected when Florence Freedom opens its $8 million ballpark Friday.

The turf was put down this week. The beer garden and picnic areas won't be ready until next month.

But things are far enough along to play ball at Champion Window Field on Freedom Way, off U.S. 42. Almost all 4,500 seats for opening day are gone, and $5 lawn seats go on sale this week.

"Right now we're working on what has to be done," said Freedom co-owner and general manager Connie Hildebrant, "and that's baseball, beer and bathrooms."

Freedom plays Friday's inaugural home game against the Washington Wild Things at 7:05 p.m.after a 27-game road trip. Last season's home games were played in Hamilton, Ohio.

Who: Florence Freedom
When: 7:05 p.m.
Where: Ballpark is at I-71/75 and U.S. 42. Take exit 180, Florence/Union, from I-71/75. East on U.S. 42 for 0.2 miles to Freedom Way on the right.
"It's going to be one big party," Hildebrant said. Clowns, fire-eaters, hot air balloon rides, dance contests and shopping cart races are planned.

The team belongs to the Frontier League, which has 12 teams in seven states. The team's debut in Florence was delayed by a change in ownership in November 2002, followed by poor construction weather last winter and this spring.

The 30-acre site was bought by the city for $5 million and is leased to the team for 30 years.The stadium was privately financed, but would belong to the city if the team moves or folds.

The natural-grass stadium has 4,500 seats with room for another 2,500 fans on the lawn. By the team's July 4 game against the Chillicothe Paints, the beer garden on the first-base side and the picnic and playground areas on the third-base side should be finished.

Hildebrant said the team needs to average about 2,500 fans per game to break even. That's a far cry from the 466 a game they averaged at 2,000-seat Foundation Field in Hamilton last year, but they're off to a good start.

They have about 1,600 season-ticket holders.

Bill Lee, Frontier League commissioner, said "I don't know if it's a league record, because we don't keep those numbers, but it's among the most we've ever had. No doubt. It might be the highest."

Four of the season tickets belong to Alexandria resident Joe Anderson, who visits major- and minor-league parks.

"I think the first couple of years will determine their success," said Anderson. "I think it will depend on their wins and losses, but also on how the Reds do."

Florence Mayor Diane Whalen, also a Freedom season-ticket holder, doesn't think the Reds will be a big factor. "We have Major League Baseball, but it's so expensive to take a family to a game," she said.

Whalen said entertainment will be a big attraction. "In the Frontier League, they call it dinner theater," said Whalen.

This season's events include karaoke contests; a date night auction where women can bid to date Freedom players; cicada-catching night and dress-like-Elvis night.

John Binder of Covington, owner of the Front Porch restaurant in Florence, has Freedom season tickets as well as Reds season tickets.

"I hear a lot of talk in the restaurant about it," said Binder. "I'm going for the up-close, professional baseball, but the entertainment is a nice addition."


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