John Martin Evansville Courier & Press
Published 5:13 PM EDT May 1, 2019
EVANSVILLE, Ind. — At the lower levels of professional sports, where franchises come and go and hopscotch around, sustained success in one location is a rare feat.
That’s why the Evansville Otters want to make their 25th anniversary season a special one
The independent professional baseball club’s achievements include Frontier League championships in 2006 and 2016, several other playoff appearances and having two former players reach the major leagues.
More than anything, the Otters are proudest of providing countless nights of summertime entertainment and memories at 104-year-old Bosse Field. Club officials said the fun will continue this summer, and, they hope, for many more to come.
They said the goal is creating an atmosphere that’s about more than baseball. That means having quality food and drink options, attractions for young kids, and having things going on whenever the gates open.
The Otters’ home is a unique attraction by itself. Bosse Field has many needs (more on that later), but few ballparks around the country can match its age and character.
“We sell the experience,” said Bill Bussing, whose family bought the club in 2001. “My goal is to win the championship every year. That being said, what we try to do every night is offer a compelling, entertaining experience that will appeal to a broad array of people well beyond sports fans.
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“It’s somewhat of backhanded compliment I get from people when they say they don’t like baseball but like coming to the games. They like the experience. They like to see who’s there. It’s almost a social event rather than a baseball game.”
‘How fast can players with webbed feet be?’
The Otters played their first game in 1995, two years after the Frontier League was born.
The franchise relocated from Lancaster, Ohio, and became Bosse Field’s first full-time professional baseball tenant since the Triple-A Evansville Triplets, top farm club of the Detroit Tigers, bolted for Nashville after the 1984 season.
Baseball was back. But not everyone in Evansville was enthralled with having a team in a developmental league with no Major League Baseball affiliation. After all, the city’s last team was only one step below the big leagues.
Don Wade, then an Evansville Courier sports columnist, sneered in early 1995: “Those Evansville Otters. Yeah, that’s the name of our new “pro” baseball team in the independent Frontier League …. I’ve been trying to warm up to these furry critters, but it’s a struggle.
“But Otters? …. How fast can baseball players with webbed feet be?”
The Otters’ first owner was Tom Sullivan, who brought the franchise to Evansville after struggling for two seasons in Lancaster.
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Bill Lee, commissioner of the Frontier League then and now, lived in Zanesville, Ohio, at the time. He was familiar with Bosse Field and Evansville, having sold field maintenance supplies here.
Lee thought the city and its historic ballpark were good matches for the Frontier League. At the time, all of its teams were further east. Placing a team in Evansville, Lee said, began the league’s westward expansion to areas near Chicago and St. Louis.
After the club’s first two seasons in Evansville, Sullivan sold the Otters under pressure from the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp., which owns Bosse Field. Sullivan was habitually late on payments to vendors, according to Evansville Courier reports at the time.
At roughly the same time, the City of Evansville pondered a new Downtown baseball park that would have had an MLB affiliated team in the Class A Midwest League. Those plans fell through, and the Otters continued to play.
“We weathered that,” Bussing said.
Today, the Otters are the Frontier League’s longest-running team and have lasted longer than any professional baseball club at Bosse Field before them, including the Triplets.
In 2014, the Otters became the first Frontier League team to reach 800 wins.
Former Otters pitcher George Sherrill was in the majors from 2004-12, and an All-Star in 2008 while with Seattle. Another ex-Otters pitcher, Andrew Werner, had a brief stint with San Diego in 2012. Many other Otters have played for affiliated minor league teams after leaving Evansville.
Lee credited the team’s longevity to Bussing’s stewardship, as well as support from the Evansville community.
“It’s absolutely wonderful,” Lee said of the club’s 25th anniversary. “Obviously Evansville is the senior team in the league, and it demonstrates the commitment the Bussing family has made. It’s second-to-none. I’m so happy they are a part of our league and so happy about being with them. I can’t say enough good things about the community and the continued participation of the fans and sponsors, the employees and everyone involved. The media. Everyone there has been tremendous over the years to the Otters and the Frontier League.”
The Otters average about 100,000 fans per season. Bussing estimates another 25,000 or so visit Bosse Field for non-baseball events. Most major companies in the area have a picnic each summer at an Otters game.
Bussing said the never-ending mission is to keep people coming back.
Weather has a major impact on game attendance, and it can’t be controlled. Bussing noted the Otters have more competition than ever for people’s time: Netflix, Hulu, horse tracks, casinos, shopping centers, movie theaters and restaurants.
In such an environment, Bussing said the Otters strive to focus on little things that matter to fans. A general admission ticket remains six bucks. The 25th anniversary season is loaded with fireworks nights and numerous other promotions. You can find a list of them at evansvilleotters.com.
“We try to create 48 special evenings,” he said. “It’s so easy during the summer, particularly during the week, to go home and watch baseball on TV. The question we ask ourselves is, what can we do to motivate people to come to a game even when it’s hot, when you have to go to work tomorrow, when the team’s not playing well. We know we have to create a compelling entertainment experience.
“The quality of food, cleanliness of stadium, the length of lines. There’s so many things beyond what’s happening on the field that motivate people to come or stay home.”
Otters plan to keep on swimming
The Otters want to keep on rolling at Bosse Field, and in the Frontier League, beyond this 25th anniversary season.
There’s been no public movement toward a new ballpark, or affiliated baseball, in Evansville since the ill-fated attempt in the early 2000s.
Bussing has no plans to sell the Otters. He said if he reaches that point, he would take steps to keep the club in Evansville.
“I go from season to season,” he said. “Once I get hold of something, it’s hard for me to give it up, I’ll say that. But it really has passed fast. The seasons just fly by when you play every day. And it’s pretty much a year-round endeavor as well.”
Lee and Bussing said the Frontier League is on solid footing, and its mission is to develop talent. There’s an age limit of 27. It’s not unusual for major league organizations to fill a minor league roster spot by signing a Frontier League player.
The league has 10 clubs for 2019, after Normal, Illinois, and Traverse City, Michigan, departed after last season. Lee mentioned the possibility of bringing the league’s All-Star Game back to Bosse Field. That could occur as early as 2020.
As for Bosse Field, its age is a big part of its charm, but Bussing noted the challenges of keeping up a facility in its second century of use.
“These are unappealing things, but there are infrastructure needs,” Bussing said. “The entire electrical system needs revamped. The lighting, the roof, probably the boilers. Field maintenance.”
The Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. built Bosse Field in 1915 and remains its owner. A state-approved local tax levied by the school corporation will provide a revenue source to take on some of Bosse Field’s many needs.
“It was passed on a one-year basis,” Bussing said. “There is discussion to make it perpetual. Once that is solidified, there should be a way to sustain and enhance a ballpark that is now 104 years old.”
In the near term, however, there’s a 25th anniversary to celebrate.
John Stanley, a former University of Evansville athletics director now working as president of the Otters, said the upcoming season will include return visits by former players and staff, many of whom keep in touch with host families and others they met while in Evansville.
The Otters, as always, promise a fun summer to come.
“I feel confident that anytime someone comes out to the ballpark this summer, there will be something going on,” Stanley said.
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