With the game on the line, Evan Warden pitched his own way out of a top-ninth, bases-loaded jam. But the fired-up crowd of about 1,500 cheering Warden on surely offered him a competitive advantage.
Considering their volume and vigor, you’d have thought they’d been rallying behind Warden and the Lafayette Aviators for years. But it had been just hours since they’d met Lafayette’s first baseball team in nearly two decades.
Excitement abounded early after first baseman Evan Kennedy’s towering two-run homer and outfielder Bryce Evans’ base-clearing, three-run double. But the response to Warden’s ninth-inning escape — which secured a 7-5 home-opener victory on June 1 over the DuPage Drones —sealed it for the front office: Aviators fandom is definitely at cruising altitude.
“People were on their feet and making noise for the last out on a special night,” said Dan Kuenzi, senior vice president of operations for Milwaukee-based Aviators owner MKE Sports and Entertainment. “Opening night was a huge success.”
If that game’s bang-bang baseball is any indication, the Aviators will have fans cheering well into August. Founded in 2007 to bring back America’s pastime to small cities bereft of baseball, the Prospect League boasts no major-league affiliations but allows collegiate talents in Division I, II and III to use wood bats … and perhaps help prove their mettle to professional scouts.
“Scouts have seen a lot of these kids during college, but wood bats are a little different,” Kuenzi said.
The Aviators’ arrival also allowed for significant upgrades to Loeb Stadium at Columbian Park in the center of Lafayette. Renovations include improved signage, concession stands with hot dogs ($3), burgers ($4), brats ($4) and more, and a beer garden ($4 to $7) that includes local craft brews. Arrive early, and you can chat up players in the food line while you chow down. Plus, bring a glove; catching a foul ball gets you a free hot dog.
Fans can also enjoy on-field and in-the-stands entertainment, and Ace the Aviator, the team’s mascot, is always eager to pose for pictures. Each remaining homestand also has a promotional theme, such as princesses and superheroes (which includes an evening movie and stadium camp-out on July 22).
Bob Emerson of Lafayette and his son, Dominick (a pitcher for Purdue University Northwest), were among many offering opening-night praise.
“It’s easier to find your seats,” Bob Emerson said. “They’ve really cleaned up the concourse, and having designated concession areas is nice, too.”
“For anything other than high school baseball, you’d have to drive to Chicago or Indianapolis before,” Dominick Emerson added. “I think this is going to be huge for Lafayette.”
The Emersons’ enthusiasm mirrors the support Kuenzi received shortly after the Aviators’ debut.
“Fans have given us great feedback on what works and what we could do moving forward,” Kuenzi said. “It reassures what we thought all along; Lafayette is a baseball city and excited to have a team here again.”
Nick Rogers lives in Lafayette with his wife, Abby. When he isn’t coordinating communications for Purdue Extension, he’s likely at the movies, competing at (or hosting) trivia, or otherwise out and about enjoying greater Lafayette.