By Jeff Louderback
Why waste your time, many people said. A minor league baseball team will never survive in Dayton, they exclaimed. Why would people watch a minor league game in Dayton when they can drive an hour and see Major League Baseball in Cincinnati? Those comments represented the general consensus among naysayers when Dayton was awarded the Dragons in the late 90s.
Dragons broadcaster and media relations director Tom Nichols reminded the audience of 2019 Dragons players, coaches and staffers; and media members, about the rest of the story at the team’s annual media luncheon last Wednesday.
Though the Single-A Rockford (Ill.) Reds averaged 1,000 fans per game in its last season, when it moved to Dayton, the Dragons sold out every game of the inaugural campaign in 2000 before the first pitch. The sellout streak ascended to 815 games in 2011, shattering the professional sports record held by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers.
On Friday night, the Dragons kicked off their 20th season, and the streak continues to grow. Including Thursday and Friday’s games against the Bowling Green Hot Rods at Fifth Third Field, the sellout streak has climbed to 1,318.
This is a special season for the club as it celebrates 20 years. The team announced its list of the 20 Greatest Dragons, and among them are Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto, Jay Bruce, Adam Dunn, Indians DH Edwin Encarnacion, Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorious, Dodgers slugger Justin Turner, Reds outfielder Jesse Winker and Dragons manager Luis Bolivar.
As Nichols pointed out to the eager Dragons players, Votto once sat in the same media luncheon in the spring of 2004 one season after batting .231 with a .636 OPS and just one home run in 233 plate appearances. .302 with 14 home runs, 72 RBI and a .905 OPS over 473 plate appearances, spurring his rise up the Reds farm system and a Major League career that will likely result in enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Nichols also remarked about Ryan Hanigan, who was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Rollins (Fla.) College in 2002, appeared in six games for the Dragons that season and then returned in 2003 and and batted .277 in his first full season of professional baseball. Especially known for his defensive abilities, Hanigan gradually ascended the Reds farm system and made his major league debut in 2007.
Why the stories about Votto and Hanigan? Nichols was illustrating a point to Dragons players that, regardless of whether they are a premium draft pick, a late-round selection, an international free agent or an undrafted free agent, you never know who will emerge from the Midwest League and forge a path to the majors.
This season, Dayton Sports Huddle will write profiles on Dragons players, coaches and personnel. Bolivar is a longtime Dragons player who now manages the team. Hitting coach Mike Devereaux played 12 years in the majors and was named 1995 MLCS MVP for a Braves team that defeated the Indians to win the World Series. Nichols himself is a legend as he begins his 12th year with the Dragons and his 32nd campaign as a broadcaster in Minor League Baseball.
Over the course of my 29 years as a professional writer and author, I have written an array of features on minor league and major league players and personalities, including stories on top prospects for Baseball America. I find the human interest element even more appealing than the ranking of the minor leaguer.
The Dragons’ top-rated prospect is center fielder Mike Siani, who is ranked #8 in the Reds organization by Baseball America and is the second highest-rated outfielder on the list behind former Dragon Taylor Trammell. Other Dragons players on Baseball America’s Top 30 Prospects Lists for the Reds entering this season include:
#16 Mariel Bautista
#17 Lyon Richardson
#19 James Marinan
#22 Juan Martinez
#23 Jacob Heatherly
#30 Bren Spillane
All seven Dragons will be interesting interviews for stories, as will the unerhalded guys that you can’t help but root for, like undrafted free agent Dylan Harris and veteran minor leaguers Andy Cox and Jesse Stallings.
Baseball is a passion for many of us, and Dayton has a national treasure in the Dragons. We look forward to telling the stories of Dragons players, coaches and personalities; and covering selected games, to illustrate why minor league baseball is such an asset to the Miami Valley.