LAKEWOOD – It was a newsy Thursday at FirstEnergy Park, the home of the Lakewood BlueClaws.
The team announced at 3:08 p.m. that it was under new ownership. And the club attracted its seven millionth fan, Clark’s Rob Merten, to a regular-season home game at night.
The group includes local investors Bob Tamashunas and Bill Luby.
Lakewood is the Philadelphia Phillies’ low Class A affiliate which competes in the South Atlantic League.
The BlueClaws, who began play in 2001 and came to Lakewood from Cape Fear, N.C., in January of 2000, had one previous ownership group, American Baseball Ventures. The public face of the ABV was Joseph Finley, whose organization owns the Trenton Thunder, the New York Yankees’ Double A farm team which plays in the Eastern League.
“This opportunity with the BlueClaws is certainly very exciting for all of us,” Matin, 60, a Brooklyn, N.Y., resident said prior to the group’s first game as the team’s owners. “Our ownership group is made up of people who love the game of baseball, have extensive experience in owning minor league baseball franchises and bring local knowledge and commitment to the table. We look forward to continuing the tradition of providing fun, family entertainment and exciting professional baseball for decades to come here on the Jersey Shore. I have always admired the previous BlueClaws ownership group. I thank them for working with us on this opportunity and congratulate them on 17 terrific seasons with the team.
“The BlueClaws are an established and successful franchise with a talented and committed staff. We look forward to working together to identify ways we can make an already excellent fan base even better. We also look forward to continuing the BlueClaws’ tradition of being a strong partner in the community. We’re excited to hear from our fans and learn what they like most about coming to BlueClaws games.”
Tamashunas, a Rumson resident, said he has attended approximately 15-20 Lakewood games.
“We are local,” he said. “We have a good understanding of the importance of this franchise to the community,” he said. “My family and I have always wanted to come back. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Art is one of the more respected executives in all of minor league baseball and it has all come together. This is an opportunity we really could not pass up.”
Asked how much Shore Town Baseball paid for the BlueClaws, Matin said, “We can’t disclose that.”
Matin said there are several reasons for the purchase of Lakewood, a 6-2 loser to the Hickory (N.C) Crawdads, a Texas Rangers affiliate, in front of an announced crowd of 6,645 fans.
“We know a lot about the BlueClaws,” he said “They are very appealing to us. The fan support is tremendous. And there is the opportunity to partner with the Phillies. There is a good strategic location from the marketing and player development standpoints.”
“I am especially excited as a Jersey Shore resident and lifelong Phillies fan to be a part of this ownership group with the BlueClaws,” Tamashunas said. “I know full well that the BlueClaws are a great asset for the Jersey Shore community and look forward to our fans and partners enjoying the BlueClaws experience in the coming years.”
“Our nearly two decades with the BlueClaws were gratifying and enjoyable in every way,” said Finley, a New Hope, Pa. resident and an attorney. “I’ve known Art Matin for a decade and with the new ownership group and the talented team of people on the staff the BlueClaws are in very capable hands. We wish the team, fans and sponsors nothing but the best.”
The BlueClaws will remain in the Phillies’ system. The two signed a new Player Development Contract last year. It will run through at least the 2020 season.
“We are thrilled to welcome Art, Bob, Bill and Shore Town Baseball to the Phillies’ family,” Philadelphia president Andy MacPhail said. “Their passion for the game is outstanding and we know they will do a great job leading the BlueClaws and supporting the Phillies, our young players and coaches. I’d also like to thank Joe Finley and the rest of the outgoing ownership group for 17 great years together in Lakewood. We would also like to express our appreciation to all the fans who have supported the team over the years.”
Chris Tafrow, a Toms River High School East graduate who began this season as Lakewood’s general manager, is employed in the marketing department at Rutgers University. Lakewood is in search of a general manager.
“We hope to have an announcement before the end of this season,” Matin said. “We’re looking for someone who has meaningful experience in minor league baseball. We want someone who is very good with fans and sponsors and is dedicated to driving a great experience for fans and sponsors.”
There is a chance that Lakewood’s home games will be televised live.
“I don’t know,” Matin said. “It’s something we are going to look into. We will learn what it takes to make that happen.”
Matin said the ownership group will be based in Lakewood.
“We won’t have a special office,” he said. “We will use the park.”
Matin said he met with the team’s ushers Thursday night.
“I received a great vibe,” he said. “I met with as many ushers as I could and thanked them for what they do and for being a part of the team.”
Matin was previously the Chief Executive Officer of Mandaly Baseball Properties, which owned and operated nine separate franchises over its existence, including the Dayton, Oh., Dragons (Cincinnati Reds Class A), the Oklahoma City RedHawks (Houston Astros Triple A), Frisco Rough Riders (Frisco, Tx., Texas Rangers Double A), the Scranton (Pa.) Wilkes-Barre Rail Riders (Triple A), the Hagerstown, Md., Suns (Washington Nationals, South Atlantic League), the Las Vegas 51s (Los Angeles Dodgers Triple A) and the Staten Island, N.Y., Yankees (short-season Class A).
This followed a successful career in the technology industry that included senior positions at IBM, McAfee Security, and Veritas. He also served as chairman of MiLB’s Baseball Internet Rights Company from 2010-14.
“I have been in baseball for 20 years,” Matin said. “When I got into professional baseball, my wife said, ‘Finally a product you can understand.’ ”
Luby, a Fair Haven resident, and Tamashunas are partners at Seaport Capital, a private equity firm that has a history of investing in minor league baseball through its majority ownership of Mandalay Baseball Properties.
“Not lost on us is minor league baseball’s perfect combination of affordable family entertainment and terrific professional baseball,” Matin said. “It’s a ton of fun. We want to make sure people have a lot of fun and a terrific experience.”
Matin is a graduate of Albany, N.Y., High School where he played baseball.
“My baseball career was appropriately short,” said Matin, who graduated from the University of Rochester and the University of Chicago. “I was not very good. I played third base. I had no range and an erratic arm. I had a decent bat. I love the game. I am a lifelong fan. I have seen games in all 30 major league stadiums and my wife went with me to many of them. I have been to countless minor league stadiums.”
Matin said he has attended 5-10 Lakewood games at FirstEnergy Park.
“It is in great shape,” he said. “It has all of the amenities that parks built in the last couple of years don’t have. We want to make investments and make it better. We are looking at certain aspects of the stadium and the fan experience. We have a long laundry list of ideas to enhance the fan experience.
“We have a lot of connecting projects. We have the opportunity to learn more from the fan base and stakeholders of the team. Some fans may say we need new picnic tables. Other fans might say we need a new Kids Zone.”
“Holmdel is where my baseball career ended,” he said with a smile.
The SAL, which utilizes a split-season format, marks the first full professional season for the majority of its players. The Phillies supply Lakewood with its players, manager, coaches, strength and conditioning staff and the medical staff. Philadelphia pays their salaries. Lakewood won the league title in 2006, 2009 and 2010.
Numerous major league players have come through Lakewood. They include former Philadelphia stars Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard, former Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, New York Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud and Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ.
The BlueClaws entered the game with a 14-18 record during the second half the season. They were 54-48 overall. They narrowly missed out on a playoff berth during the first half of the season.
Matin said the ownership group’s top priority is providing top entertainment in a family oriented atmosphere.
“Winning is an added bonus,” he said. “We don’t have one iota of control in terms of whether the team wins. Dayton holds the record for consecutive sellouts in all of professional sports. It set the record of 815 in 2011 and the streak is still alive. It set the record despite not being very good on the field. It’s much more about the family atmosphere, the food, the fan experience, the parents, the grandparents and the kids. There is something for everyone in minor league baseball.”
7 Million Tickets Sold
Rob Merten, 17, saw Lakewood play at the stadium for the first time.
“It’s pretty cool, pretty exciting,” said Merten, the 222nd fan to enter the stadium. “I was walking in and I had no idea it was happening. All of a sudden, everyone is yelling and cheering and taking my picture. Plus, it’s a milestone for the team and it’s pretty cool to be a part of that.”
Merten’s father, Robert, said the family attended the game for a corporate event with Service Corporation International. The family viewed the game from a private box behind home plate and from a picnic area. Other family members on hand were Rob Merten’s sister, Amanda, and Robert Merten’s wife, Donna.
“We see them (team workers) with a megaphone and we have no clue what’s going on,” Robert Merten said. “I see them counting down the fans and I said, ‘This could be us.’ I was only here one other time when a nephew, Tom LaTorre, played in a game involving his traveling team.”
“I did not really know what was happening until I walked through,” Rob Merten said. “My father was sure it was going to be him, but it ended up being me.”
Rob Merten, a rising senior at Arthur L. Johnson High School in Clark, received Lakewood tickets and a personal parking spot for the 2018 home season, a team item signed by Lakewood players, a seven-millionth fan Lakewood jersey and waiter-waitress service Thursday night. He threw out the ceremonial first pitch Thursday night. He wore the jersey and a smile Thursday night.
“I kept hearing someone shouting, ’30 (seconds left), 25 (seconds) left,’ ” he said. “I walked through the gate and everyone was asking me my name and taking my picture. I have never won anything big in my life.”
Rob Merten, a New York Yankees fan, said he enjoyed the game and the experience.
“It looks like they are doing pretty well in terms of them playing,” said Rob Merten, who competes in boys lacrosse, boys swimming, cross country and track in high school. “Nothing really needs to change. I had the classic feeling of sitting down, watching the game and eating hot dogs. There is nothing that I would want the ownership to change.”
Lakewood is the fastest team in New Jersey and SAL history to attract seven millions fans to regular-season home games. The team has attracted 228,392 fans to FirstEnergy Park this year. The team has attracted 7,006,423 fans since coming to Lakewood, which has led New Jersey and the SAL in attendance each year since its 2001 inception.
“Seven million is very exciting,” Matin said. “I feel it’s very cool. It’s a big number. The team is extremely well run. It was real exciting to watch that young man come through the gate.”
FirstEnergy Park has played host to numerous community, entertainment and youth baseball events.
“We will continue to use the stadium as fully as we can for community organizations,” Matin said. “We want to provide entertainment and youth baseball events.”