Baseball season start still on deck for NKY's pro team

The Florence Freedom have added a new promotional night to their schedule for 2019.

That they thought to create it shows just how in touch the minor-league baseball team really is with the community it calls home.

July 20th will be “Where’d You Go to School?” Night at UC Health Ballpark, when the Freedom take on their Frontier League rivals, the Schaumberg Boomers.

Now if you’re from Cincinnati or have lived here an extended length of time, you know that when somebody asks the school question, the assumption is your high school. Not necessarily so in Northern Kentucky, says Kim Brown, team owner and assistant general manager of operations.

“You ask that same question in different regions and you get different answers,” says Brown, herself one of 14 kids from a family from Covington. “In Northern Kentucky when you ask that question, they tell you their elementary school, and usually your best friend is still your friend from kindergarten. We have really close-knit communities in Northern Kentucky. It’s like people who move here, they’ve never experienced anything like it, because it’s so family-oriented.”

Channeling that family-oriented vibe has made the Freedom a long-term success, with the team averaging 2,351 fans in its 45 home dates in 2018.

While the Reds had their Opening Day last week, the Frontier League is more of a summer affair.

Each of the 12 teams are independent, meaning no major-league farm club affiliation, so tryouts that will finalize the 2019 roster won’t even taking place until April 17. The official Freedom season opener is at home on May 9 against the Lake Erie Crushers.

That doesn’t mean anyone is relaxing right now at the stadium located just southeast of the U.S. Route 42 interchange with I-75.

“People think once our season is over with in September, we go home and hibernate,” says Brown. “Actually, once that last game of 2018 was played, we started working on 2019 the next day. Right now, we are ‘waking up’ our stadium. We’ve turned the water on, we’re power-washing everything and getting the stadium ready for the season. We’ve also been hosting high school baseball doubleheaders and youth baseball tournaments.”

Developing young baseball fans is a big part of what Brown views as her team’s mission, as well as part of its formula for success. A night of baseball for a family at the Major League level can easily run $200 or more. Tickets for Freedom games start at $10, and the team has a long list of arrangements with sponsors for deals on food and beverages.

Minor league baseball 25 or 30 years ago was a tough ticket to sell. That turned around on the strength of creative promotions, to the extent that the Major League Baseball teams have all taken to loading their schedules with special themed promotions. All 45 Freedom home games this year have some sort of promotional tie-in.

Besides the “School” night already mentioned, interesting dates include a concert night with former Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo and his band, a Dudes and Daughters Dance night, a Bark in the Park game and a “That’s SO Florence” Night. Every Friday is a Fireworks Friday and every Saturday is a Rockin’ Saturday with a local band playing after the game. At the same time the music is going on, kids can participate in an on-field kickball game supervised by Freedom interns.

Opening Day will have a strong Cincinnati Reds flavor, as former players Danny Graves, Wily Mo Pena and Felipe Lopez will take part in the festivities. Pena and Lopez will be part of a pre-game Home Run Derby contest, while Graves will take the mound as the Freedom’s starting pitcher and could pitch up to a full inning of baseball.

Kim Brown and her late husband, Clint, have always had baseball in their lives, even as they developed a successful market informatics company, Alliance Research, in Crestview Hills. She liked baseball. He loved baseball.

“He told me when we met, ‘I only watch the Reds on TV,’ which was a lie,” she laughs. “He watched every baseball game that appeared on TV. We’ve had season tickets for the Reds. He could never get enough baseball.”

So when the Freedom franchise became available a couple of years after selling their first business, the Browns became owners of a baseball team.

“We’ve been a family-friendly franchise since we bought the team in 2005,” Brown says. “My two youngest children were 10 and 12 at the time. They grew up here. Now I’ve got grandkids who love this place. I’ve got a little granddaughter that is two, and she’s already a baseball fanatic.”

In any given season, tens of thousands of fans attend, and hundreds of people are directly impacted by the Freedom’s operations. It takes somewhere between 80-90 personnel just to run the stadium on a game night. There’s a permanent front office staff of 12, and a coaching and training staff of four. A number of college students find sports internship experience with the team, including a number from the local schools, with NKU generating a substantial number of those interns.

Then there are the local families who have decided to open their homes and be host families for Freedom players. Frontier League players all have to be under the age of 27 and make no more than $1,600 per month in salary as they strive to keep their baseball dreams alive. It’s worked more often than you might expect – four former Freedom players have made it to the Major League level, joining 33 other players from the league who have achieved their dream since the Frontier League was formed in 1993.

Baseball may have been Clint’s major passion, but it is has become Kim’s, as well. Clint passed away suddenly in Arizona just over a year ago, the day before the couple were to return to Northern Kentucky to ramp up for last season. Kim, who had always been in charge of stadium maintenance, food and beverage services and baseball operations, had to move more into the financial areas that Clint had specialized in.

For being in an unexpectedly tough spot, particularly emotionally, it went well. The Freedom just missed out on a playoff spot, finishing just three games back of the West Division champion River City Rascals. After the season, Kim Brown won the Bob Wolfe Executive of the Year award from the Frontier League.

Now she and the team are readying for another season as Northern Kentucky’s pro sports representative, in a comfortable style that’s a pretty big departure from the highest level of professional sports.

“All of the players call me Mom,” she says. “Because if they do something bad on the field and I see it, I’ll come down and tell them about it. We really have an open-door policy here. If they need something, they’ll come to my office, and they have no problem coming into my office just to talk with me.”

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Read more articles by Carey Hoffman.

As a Cincinnatian for almost all his life, Carey Hoffman has written about numerous subjects involving almost every Greater Cincinnati neighborhood. He enjoys history — both local and beyond — reading, anything to do with golf, most things related to basketball, and all things that make Cincinnati a more interesting and better place.