Speakers: America's pastime not just homers and hot dogs

A talk Wednesday explored the common ground shared by America's pastime and rural businesses.

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WALLA WALLA -- There's more in common between baseball and business than one might think, operators of the Walla Walla Sweets and Seattle Mariners said to a full house at the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center on Wednesday.

Whether in a big city or a rural pocket of America, through a small business or a major sports team, success often comes to those who shoot for the big leagues, a panel of three baseball professionals said.

"The reason the 'big leagues' means so much in baseball is that it represents the best," Zachary Fraser, general manager of the Walla Walla Sweets baseball team, said.

From athletes to hot dogs, the big leagues are about providing the best experience possible, he said. Businesses can take the same mentality and apply it to their services.

"Look at it in terms of, 'what are doing to perform at a big league level?'" he said.

The message -- not to mention a few inside stories about the game and operations itself -- was the subject of the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce's quarterly luncheon that packed the hotel's ballroom Wednesday.

Wireless communication pioneer and part-owner of the Mariners and Sweets John Stanton, a Whitman College grad, joined Fraser and Kevin Mather, executive vice president of finance and ballpark operations for the Mariners, for the roughly hour-and-a-half presentation and baseball-themed lunch: "Business & Baseball, Executing Big Ideas in Rural Markets."

The event, presented in partnership with Inland Cellular, was an opportunity to explore how major league ideas can find success in small towns.

Brought together by their love of and ties to the game and their common respective links to small-town USA, the three emphasized that rural communities such as Walla Walla often are full of people willing to get behind a movement toward something big. That passion can help lead to greatness.

Though Seattle is huge compared to Walla Walla, in Major League Baseball it's still considered small, Mather said.

The Mariners haven't had a winning season in years and might just now be at the start of a break-even year for revenue, but attendance at Safeco Field continues to shine, Mather said.

"What we have is community and people who think it's an asset," he said.

About 52 percent of the team's 2 million fans who make games during the season drive over an hour to get to the stadium, Mather marveled.

It's not because of a winning streak -- it's because of the family-friendly environment created in a community that wants to get behind the home team.

"There's more passion in a small town," Mather said. "It's not the Yankees. It's our team. Our town."

The same support is out there for business owners with big ideas, a Sweets-hat-sporting Stanton added.

"Every sport's a business at some level," he said. "It's an opportunity to treat your customer well and give people a chance to come buy your product."

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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