Nashua Pride on deck for eighth season in Gate City

You may not have noticed, but the ballpark they play in isn’t the only thing that’s “historic” about the Nashua Pride.

Time flies when you’re playing ball, and the Pride, Nashua’s entry in the Atlantic Professional Baseball League, is about to begin its eighth season at Holman Stadium with an opening night game against the Bridgeport Bluefish on Monday, May 2.

“That’s longer than any minor league team has ever lasted in Nashua — including the Nashua Dodgers,” said Pride general manager Todd Marlin, harkening back to the glory days of the post-war era when the Brooklyn Dodgers had promising young stars like catcher Roy Campanella, pitcher Don Newcombe and future manager Walter Alston playing for their Eastern League team at “historic” Holman. In the 1980s, the Nashua Angels and the Nashua Pirates spent a combined three years in Nashua. In the ‘90s the Nashua Hawks spent a single troubled season in Holman before the Pride came on the scene as Nashua’s team in the then-brand new independent Atlantic League.

That was in 1998, when former Red Sox player Mike “Hit Man” Easler was the manager and one-time National League all-star Felix Jose was hitting baseballs into the trees behind the outfield fences.

Two years later, with former Red Sox player and manager Butch Hobson at the helm, the Pride won the league championship. Hobson, now a year-round Nashua resident, is back for his sixth season with the local nine and will have still more players with major league experience to field against the seven competitors for the Atlantic League crown.

Former Red Sox outfielder Darren Bragg will likely be in the Pride lineup for the season opener. Bragg, who played for Boston and five other teams in his 11-year major league career, was acquired by the Pride during the off-season. He will be joined in the outfield by Peter Bergeron, who played for the Montreal Expos from 1999 to 2003. Bergeron, who is trying to play his way back to the major leagues, had his 2004 season cut short by a knee injury.

The Pride also acquired the versatile Tomas DeLaRosa, a shortstop who also played second and third base last year with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ AAA affiliate in Nashville of the Pacific Coast League. His career stats include an impressive .284 in 67 at bats during a brief stay with the Montreal Expos. He will be competing for the shortstop job with switch-hitter Ricardo Cordova, who returns to the Pride after batting .287 for the Nashua club last year.

The team also brought back outfielder Kevan Burns, a veteran of the St. Louis Cardinals system who batted .304 over six minor league seasons and hit .276 in 72 games with the Pride last year. And the Pride has acquired catcher Jonathan Nathans, a former Red Sox prospect who comes to Nashua from the Boston affiliate the Portland Sea Dogs of the Eastern League. Known for his defensive skill, Nathans is seen as “the perfect complement” to catcher Jamie Pogue, Marlin said.

Nate Teut, who has pitched in the major leagues for the Florida Marlins, has returned for another season with the Pride and outfielder/designated hitter Glenn Murray, a longtime favorite with the Nashua fans, will be back for his seventh season with the team. Like Hobson, Murray has become a full-time resident of the Gate City. He played in the major leagues with both the Red Sox and the Phillies and has frequently brought the Holman Stadium crowd to its feet with his towering home runs.

Pride fans will likely see familiar faces with major league names from the past on visiting teams as well. Future Hall-of-Famer Ricky Henderson, slugger Jose Canseco (lately of steroids fame) and Ruben Sierra, now back with the New York Yankees, are among the former major league stars who have played in recent years for the visitors at Holman.

Marketing efforts

But the business of minor league baseball is about more than the hits, runs and celebrity attractions. The team has added a rock-climbing wall, to be located by the concession stands down the first-base line, to its attractions for young fans who may have too much restless energy to sit through nine innings. And for older fans with visions of baseball glory still dancing in their heads, the Pride is offering corporate sponsors the opportunity to bring a client to the park to be a “Pride Player for A Day.”

“They can come to the ballpark, take batting practice, hang out with Butch and spend the afternoon with the team,” said Marlin. And for those who would rather just eat and drink to the team’s good fortune, the Pride plans an early “Octoberfest” in the form of a beer garden, with knockwurst and sauerkraut at the far end of the bleachers. The club also has contracted for its overall concession operation with Centerplate, the same company that runs the concessions at Yankee Stadium and is doing the same at the new Fisher Cats ballpark in Manchester.

The Pride has made renewed efforts at marketing its product in southern New Hampshire under owners Frank Boulton and Peter Kirk, who purchased the team from principal owner Chris English last fall. The new owners already are involved in Atlantic League baseball — Boulton also owns the Long Island Ducks and the Atlantic City Surf and is part-owner with Kirk of the Camden Riversharks in Camden, N.J. Kirk also owns the Lancaster Barnstormers in Pennsylvania. Manchester native John Danos, president of the Barnstormers, also is involved in day-to-day operation with the Pride, Marlin said.

Season ticket sales are running well ahead of last year’s pace, but with 70 home games to sell, from early May through late September, there is still a lot of selling to do. Tickets are priced for affordable family entertainment, especially when compared to those at Fenway Park and other major league venues.

Lower reserved seats are $8, while seats in the higher rows are just $7. The more cushy club seats behind home plate are $10. Club seat patrons and season ticket holders in the first few rows behind the plate also get waiter and waitress service for their food and beverages.

With one Drew Weber-owned team, the Eastern League New Hampshire Fisher Cats, already drawing a good deal of attention to the north of Nashua and another, the Lowell Spinners of the New York-Penn League, soon to resume play to the south, the Pride knows that the competition for consumers of baseball fun in a family-friendly environment is strong. But having seen the Fisher Cats’ opener in Manchester and, having watched, along with much of the rest of New England, the Red Sox open their home season with a celebration of last year’s World Series victory, Marlin is confident the sports enthusiasts of southern New Hampshire are ready for a whole lot of baseball.

“You know what else? It also means that spring is here,” Marlin said. “It’s been a long winter.”

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