Padecky: New Sonoma Stompers owner has big plans for this season
SONOMA - The assumption has moved up the ladder from cliché to hard fact: People who buy professional sports teams purchase them to be around the athletes they never were. They live out their fantasies, their dreams, through others, the illusion of intimacy created because they pay the salaries.
So, Eric Gullotta, you just purchased the Sonoma Stompers, the independent pro baseball team playing in the city of the same name. Did you want to be a Buster Posey or a Mike Trout when you were growing up?
“No,” said the Sonoma attorney. “I wanted to be Eddie DeBartolo (Jr.).”
DeBartolo was the former 49ers owner who hired Bill Walsh and then was smart enough to let Walsh make the football decisions, content to be viewed as everyone’s favorite uncle, of good cheer and as well as pocketbook. While this might be slightly odd to read, Gullotta knows his place. And that would be alongside Theo Fightmaster, who has been retained as the club’s general manager and chief operating officer.
“There are two types of owners,” Fightmaster said. “Owners who don’t know anything about their sport and those who realize it.”
A first baseman for Cardinal Newman in the late ’90s, a bench rider for those SRJC championship teams that featured Rob Garibaldi and Tony Arnerich, a guy who helped run Dusty Baker camps for eight years, Fightmaster in 2014 had a very successful first year as a general manager. The expansion Stompers were 42-36, finished third in the Pacific Association of Baseball Clubs and fielded the league’s MVP, Jayce Ray. Ray and ex-Stompers pitcher Scott Garner will have a tryout with the Arizona Diamondbacks on Feb. 28.
Enter Gullotta, the 39-year-old tax attorney, with energy that gives off sparks and ideas that, if gain traction, will lift the Stompers to heights never before realized by pro baseball in Sonoma County. The past, and this is a charitable assessment, has been checkered in the area.
There have been teams whose players showed up in tank tops (Wine Country Baseball), teams that passed through here so quickly they took on the image of rumor (Sonoma County Grapes), teams that played in frigid conditions (the Redwood Pioneers and the Sonoma County Crushers in Rohnert Park). The most professional outfit was the Crushers, who had a strong fan base but were done in by a substandard league.
On the surface, Gullotta sounds like every other baseball owner who has come and gone. We’ll give the community affordable entertainment. We care. We’re involved. We’ll be creative. You’ll like us. Watch.
That’s all to the good but that’s just the surface. Do a little scratching, peel back a layer or two, and it’s like uncovering an underground city. Gullotta’s mind works like all points on a compass, going everywhere, imagining everything, always pointing to the next destination.
Like the vacant office next to his law practice in Sonoma. Gullotta has purchased the property and has workmen going floor to ceiling to turn it into the Stompers’ equivalent of a Giants Dugout Store. Buy tickets. Buy souvenirs. Meeting rooms for clients who want to hammer out a group activity. Discuss their packages with downtown businesses, only blocks away.
“Have an arrangement that fans can walk to a downtown restaurant after a game for a meal at a discounted price,” said Gullotta, whose baseball career ended after Little League.
One promotion, frankly, stands alone in its uniqueness.
“Before the game, have fans hitting off one of our pitchers,” Gullotta said.
With the proper liability waiver signed, of course.
“Of course,” he said.
As they might say in a Chamber of Commerce board meeting, Gullotta is uniquely positioned to connect his baseball team to the city. That’s because Gullotta is a board member of the Sonoma Chamber of Commerce. Gullotta knows how to work the room. He grew up in Sonoma, went to high school at Sonoma Valley, came back to practice here after going to UC Santa Barbara.
Gullotta is rooted, and that’s an uptick in itself. Last year, the Stompers were owned by a group based in Marin County. The group had another team in the league, located in San Rafael, and only came to the Stompers games when its San Rafael team played here.
A local owner gets local input. It’s one of the joys; it’s also one of the sorrows. Gullotta doesn’t fancy walking around his town and hearing grumbling. He wants to create a grumble-free environment. Which brings us to the restrooms. At any public facility, be it a sporting event, play or rock concert, it is the starting point for all things great and good or grating and grumpy. The restrooms at Arnold Field, while not representative of a backwoods depository, still would not see The Queen using them.
“We’ll have better bathrooms,” Gullotta said. Whether the rooms themselves will see refurbishment or high-end portables, that’s to be determined. Arnold Field offers unique challenges, maybe the least of which is that high school football and baseball games are played there. It is run by a nonprofit organization with city and county input. There’s a lot of chefs in this kitchen.
A full scoreboard will be in place, inning-by-inning, and it will be placed in center field where everyone can see it, unlike the current one. A discussion has ensued about making it resemble the one at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, where the numbers are posted by hand.
The chain-link protection behind home plate, an ugly barrier as well as creating eye strain to see pitched or batted baseballs, will be replaced by nylon netting.
Game time will be moved from 7:05 p.m. to 6 p.m., allowing kids to go to sleep before 10 p.m. on a school night.
And, to emphasize the point just one more time, the Stompers are a professional baseball team. Unlike previous tenants, they won’t look like a beer league gone to seed. The team will attract outside of Sonoma County, as evidenced not only by the MLB tryouts for Garner and Ray but for the career uplift for Ray Serrano. Last year’s Stompers’ manager has been hired by Atlanta as a roving catching instructor in the Braves’ minor leagues.
“We want to give people entertainment options to wine and cheese tastings,” Gullotta said.
Gullotta wants to give people something to talk about other than the delicate cherry notes in that cabernet. Or that Brie, a bit sharp, don’t you think? How about this: That Stompers’ first baseman has terrific soft hands? What da heck does that mean? This is the perfect place to learn the answer. A small town like Sonoma never lacks for conversation.
To contact Bob Padecky email him at email@example.com.