Can homebuilder John Stabile save the Nashua Pride?

Butch Hobson, both a former player and manager with the Boston Red Sox, is adapting to some changes at Nashua’s Holman Stadium in his eighth year of managing professional baseball’s Nashua Pride.

For one thing, the team has switched leagues, having left the Atlantic for the Canadian-American circuit. And the team begins the current campaign under new ownership. But veteran manager Hobson and rookie owner John Stabile are not exactly strangers. Indeed, Stabile points out, Hobson lives just a few doors away from the new owner on Lutheran Drive.

“In a Stabile-built home,” Hobson chimes in, as though on cue.

It was an unsolicited testimonial, but some people familiar with both the team and the city of Nashua think Stabile’s reputation and success as one of the premier builders and real estate developers in southern New Hampshire will help him save the faltering baseball franchise.

“I’m very optimistic,” says veteran sportscaster Ken Cail, who, as public address announcer, has been the voice of the Nashua Pride at “historic Holman Stadium” since the team started in 1998. “I think Stabile will mean stability. There aren’t too many people more well known in southern New Hampshire than John Stabile.”

The builder’s nephew, Jim Stabile, director of sales and marketing at H.J. Stabile and Son, is the Pride’s interim general manager. “They just have so many local contacts and the company has a great reputation,” Cail says. “I just think it’s going to open up avenues of revenue to the team that were never tapped before. They know who the movers and shakers are who will support this kind of thing.”

Too many empty seats

The Pride’s disappointing performance at the gate remains a puzzle the Stabiles hope to solve. The team generated some excitement in its first season when former Pirates, Red Sox and Yankees hitting star Mike “Hit Man” Easler was the manager and one-time National League all-star Felix Jose was launching home runs for distances that qualified for Frequent Flyer miles. Two years later, in Hobson’s first year as Pride manager, the team won the league championship. Last year, the Pride again made it to the league finals, but still did not draw people into the stands.

While the players seemed well focused on the action on the field, playing before rows of empty seats can be demoralizing, Hobson says.

“They’re performers, and they like to show what they can do,” says Hobson, who can remember from his own days as a big league player performing before 35,000 people in a jam-packed Fenway Park or more than 50,000 at Yankee Stadium. It’s harder for players to maintain their enthusiasm “when there are 45 or 50 people in the stands,” he says.

Nashua has seen the fortunes of minor league teams wax and wane in the Gate City before, including those of the legendary Nashua Dodgers of the late 1940s, when future Brooklyn Dodgers great Don Newcombe pitched at Holman to Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella. Nashua had another team in the Eastern League in the mid-1980s before that franchise folded its tent and moved on. John Stabile is among the local baseball enthusiasts who didn’t want to see another professional franchise disappear.

“I’m a baseball fan and I’ve watched the Nashua Pride over the last number or years, and I was very disappointed in the way the team was being run,” he says. “I knew if the Pride didn’t turn around, Nashua would lose baseball, probably for the last time.”

So Stabile – who purchased the franchise for “about $650,000” — has said repeatedly he will spend “whatever it takes” to make it successful.

Originally, Stabile was going to acquire the club in partnership with another Nashua developer, Tom Monahan. They eventually agreed that would not be a good idea.

“Too many chiefs,” says Monahan. “John and I are friends, but we sat down and we found we had different ways of going about business. We had a heart-to-heart and decided just one of us should be chief, so I stepped away.”

And what persuaded Monahan, that he, rather than Stabile, should step away?

“I think he wanted it more than I did,” he says, adding that he had not envisioned new management as a two-man partnership to begin with. “I wanted a bunch of people, to be inclusionary, to get as many business folks involved and just run it as a corporation, if you will, with a board of directors.”

Stabile readily acknowledges that approach does not fit his own managerial style.

“It’s tough to run anything by a committee,” he says.

That’s not to say Stabile isn’t open to advice, from both within and outside Nashua. He has retained the services of Resnick, Amsterdam and Leshner, an accounting firm “with a niche in baseball” in Blue Bell, Pa.

Steve Resnick is not ready to say how or whether the real estate developer’s new enterprise will survive and eventually prosper in the Gate City.

“To say we have a solution at this early stage would be premature,” says Resnick. “I think they have a nice facility there in a beautiful setting, in a nice community.”

Resnick has been involved as part owner of two double-A teams, the Memphis Chicks in the Southern League in 1988 and 1989 and the Harrisburg Senators in the Eastern League from 1995 to 1999.

His travels and interest in the game have given him the opportunity to appreciate the passion for baseball in New England. And he believes the fact that the Nashua team is competing for fan attention with a Red Sox single-A farm team in Lowell, Mass., and the double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, an affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays in a brand new stadium just up the road in Manchester, could actually be a plus for the Pride.

“I believe in the shopping center theory,” says Resnick. “More stores bring more people. More stadiums increase the marketplace. People who enjoy the experience in Manchester may come to Nashua to enjoy a different kind of facility.”

Already, there have been some changes made in preparation for a brand new season at “historic Holman Stadium.” A local catering company, City Streets, run by veteran restaurateur and former Nashua alderman David Lozeau, will run the concessions for the games, and Stabile insists on “fan-friendly” prices. Beer will be $3 per draft and hot dogs a dollar for every game.

“There’s no reason why a kid should have to pay $2.50 for a hot dog,” the new owner says.

Former Red Sox pitching star Luis Tiant was scheduled to throw out the first pitch for season opener at the May 25 season opener against the North Shore Spirits. Rico Petrocelli, the slugging Sox shortstop of the ‘60s and ‘70s, was set to do the honors the following night, while Saturday evening will feature a post-game fireworks display.

The “world-famous Monkey Boy,” whose career began in the inaugural season with the Pride at Holman in 1998, will be in over the weekend to entertain the fans and pester the umpires and opposing players with his between-innings antics.

It’s all part of the effort to beef up the “affordable family entertainment” aspect of outings at Holman, where tickets range from $7 to $10 per game. That, says Stabile, makes it more affordable for a family to go to a Pride game than go to the movies.

Nashua Mayor Bernie Streeter agrees and is doing what he can as mayor to talk up support for the Pride among local business people.

“I think it’s marketing and (Stabile) knows how to do that,” Streeter says. “The Stabile name won’t put people in the stands, but the Stabile work ethic and marketing sense will.”

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