Huskies need wins, warm weather

The Duluth Huskies have bitten off quite a challenge in their quest to drive fans to Wade Stadium, and to restore interest in advanced baseball in their community.

The Duluth Huskies have bitten off quite a challenge in their quest to drive fans to Wade Stadium, and to restore interest in advanced baseball in their community.

The Duluth-Superior Dukes' sudden bolt to Kansas City, Kan., after last season disappointed many of the community's staunchest supporters of baseball. It will take some time for the Huskies to win back the respect and trust, and to build a new fan base.

The Dukes were once the summer sports attraction in the Twin Ports. The return of professional baseball to Duluth-Superior in 1993 drove thousands of people to Wade Stadium, to see what all the excitement was about and how historic Wade Stadium had been restored. People of all ages supported the Dukes in the beginning of their 10-year run in Duluth. There was life at the stadium, and everyone had fun supporting the home team.

The city of Duluth did its part to help the Dukes succeed, and sank about $500,000 to refurbish Wade Stadium before the inaugural '93 season. Major improvements included a new grandstand roof and refurbishing of the locker rooms and concession stands. In years to follow, the city paved the parking lot and added new dugouts.

The atmosphere throughout the Dukes inaugural game was electric, as fans screamed at the top of their lungs throughout a thrilling game won by St. Paul on former Chicago Cubs slugger Leon Durham's 10th-inning game-winning home run. It was a standing-room-only crowd, over 4,000, I believe, and the Dukes averaged over 3,000 for the season.


But it didn't matter that the Dukes lost the opener: professional baseball was back at Wade Stadium.

Original Dukes owner Bruce Engel sold the team after one season, in what would become the first of many front office changes that hindered the team during its run in Duluth.

Engel sold the team to Ted Cushmore, a General Mills executive from Edina. But Cushmore, the Dukes' best owner, had a horrible experience. He fired his general manager early in his first season, and the Dukes finished with one of the worst records in the history of minor league baseball.

Cushmore sold an 80-percent stake in the Dukes to California clothier Jim Wadley after his first season. Wadley and Cushmore ran the team for the next five years, reportedly losing money every year, but attendance and community support remained strong. The 1997 Dukes even won the league championship.

Wadley and Cushmore eventually sold their stake in the club to the Northern League after the 1999 season. Harry Stavrenos, a career minor league baseball entrepreneur, operated the club for the 2000 season, but gave the team back to the league after only one season.

Marketing whiz Mike Veeck, an original partner and part-owner of the St. Paul Saints, nearly purchased the Dukes in Fall 2000, but John Ehlert of Minneapolis persuaded the league to sell him the team. Ehlert owned the team for two years and moved it to Kansas City last fall.

Enter the college Northwoods League. For several years league president Dick Radatz had his eye on Duluth for expansion, but not before the Dukes left town.

The Dukes leaving Duluth opened Wade Stadium for the Northwoods League, for play starting this summer, and Radatz and Duluth Mayor Gary Doty penned a five-year lease last fall.


Doty, who led the city's charge to invest over $1 million to refurbish Wade Stadium for minor league and community baseball, was eager to deflect attention of the Dukes' moving by bringing in the Huskies.

But would Duluth support a college team when it didn't back an independent league club? And what would be the fallout in the community following the Dukes' sudden departure?

The Huskies worked hard during the off-season. Attendance has hovered around 950 for most of the team's inaugural season, which are acceptable numbers given poor weather to begin the season and the team's 5-15 start.

Dukes owner Bobby McCarthy and general manager Craig Smith are great guys who, along with their front office staff, are working hard to build their project. And McCarthy has invested heavily into the product and seems committed to Duluth.

Huskies' baseball is 80-percent entertainment and 20-percent baseball. Duluthians do love a winner, and the Huskies likely could double their home attendance during the second half of the season by stringing together a nice winning streak and competing for a second-half title to qualify for the playoffs.

Will Duluth support college baseball in the summertime? It's still too early to tell. We'll know when the weather warms up and the team starts winning.

Howie Hanson writes a regular sports column for Duluth Budgeteer News. He can be reached at 624-7495 or by e-mail at .

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