By Marc Rapport
Jason Freier, with a passion for detail and for baseball, has committed considerable intellectual and financial capital to making the capital city once more home to that great American pastime, professional baseball.
Freier is chairman and CEO of Hardball Capital, the Atlanta-based owner of three minor league teams. Those now include the Columbia Fireflies, a Class A affiliate of the New York Mets whose new stadium will serve as the linchpin for BullStreet Commons, the 170-acre development on the site of the old state asylum.
Spirit Communications Park will host 70 regular season games each year as well as other events year round. About 30 people will work there full time, with about 500 on the payroll during the season, including 250 to 300 at each game. How many people can fit in the stadium is a moving target, as there are so many seating and standing options.
“We’ll consider 7,700 a sellout,” Freier says. But there could be more in the stadium designed to accommodate corporate outings — complete with 16 luxury suites, a large reception area overlooking the entry plaza, and a conference room — and families who just want room for the kids to roam in activity areas well beyond the outfield wall and the wide concourse behind the diamond.
Indeed, Spirit Communications Park is designed as an entertainment venue that extends well beyond observing the game unfolding below, although it’s good for that, too. All the public areas are easily accessible and the sight lines from the seats won’t be obstructed by constant foot traffic, since the aisles don’t cross in front of seats.
Freier’s teams and facilities have regularly won national awards in the industry. They will complement, not compete, with another highly regarded team and ballpark: the USC Gamecocks and Founders Field. That acclaimed park is designed around watching baseball and that’s about it. Its patrons demand a quality product (nationally competitive teams) and the team regularly delivers.
The new Fireflies park, meanwhile, is about the experience. For one thing, Fireflies and Gamecocks seasons don’t overlap much. “I’d rather have a bad team and good weather than a good team and bad weather,” Freier observed, while quickly adding that his teams have indeed won their own share of championships.
Weather was a detail Freier considered, of course, building in lots of shade and protection from pop-up summer thunderstorms. There are multiple seating and eating options, from the cheap seats to luxury suites. There’s a large bar behind center field, as well as playground areas, all with game views. There also are picnic areas and tables attended by wait staff and a concourse with large concession stands and individual food carts serving a variety of cuisine.
“People can come here 10 times and have 10 different experiences,” Freier said. That includes the barbecue stand. The executive chef and his staff have narrowed the barbecue style to three choices: mustard based, of course, along with a sweet red sauce and a vinegar-based option created in-house. Details, details.
Ticket prices, meanwhile, begin at $5, making it “more affordable than the whole family going to a movie,” Freier notes.
Freier himself grew up in New York City in a family of Mets fans. He went off to Harvard and Yale, then became a corporate lawyer working with major league teams, the NFL and NHL, and a hedge fund adviser and investor. And then he got into baseball.
He and a group of partners bought their first team in 2005 and now own the Fort Wayne (Ind.) TinCaps, the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Lookouts and the Fireflies, a Class A team Freier has moved from Savannah to Columbia.
That’s a big move and big investment. Freier’s company is putting $7 million into the new ballpark. Lead developer Bob Hughes is putting up $1 million. The other $29 million is from the city of Columbia, and Freier is confident the critics will be happy with the finished product. He said the Fort Wayne project encountered similar skepticism and quickly proved its civic worth.
“This is the golden age of minor league baseball, and we want to do well while doing good,” he said, noting that attendance nationwide has been growing steadily for more than 30 years, topping 40 million last year. “And BullStreet Commons is going to be a great addition to this city and this market. We’re going to be a huge part of it.”
Freier has put a lot of thought into this. He saw how Fluor Field helped transform downtown Greenville, for instance, and proudly notes how the first stadium he built from scratch, in Fort Wayne, has done the same there.
He’s building on that experience by ensuring the Columbia ballpark fits seamlessly into the retail, office and residential community about to blossom around it. One small detail, for instance: The batting cages are along the exterior of the stadium, so passersby can watch players practice anytime they’re out there.
Freier said he toured more than 70 stadiums before he built that Indiana field and has continued his research ever since. “We may make mistakes, but they’ll be new mistakes,” he says. And they’ll be corrected. “We’re always improving and adding new features at each of our venues when we can.”
And not much will escape the discerning eye of the Fireflies’ head man. On a tour just days before opening day, he motioned to a seat in left field at Spirit Communications Park and noted that it was at the equivalent spot in his Fort Wayne stadium where former Gamecocks star James Darnell hit that new park’s first home run several years ago.
He also points out that 17 members of the Mets last year had played at his Savannah farm team.
“You can come watch serious baseball here and have a great time doing that, or you can just come hang around, move around and have fun with your family and friends,” Freier said. “It’s all about the experience.”
And the details.
Published in the April 11, 2016, print issue.