CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Appalachian Power Park begins its ninth season as home to the Power and, though the park has been a boon to attendance, the numbers have been falling for the last five years.In its inaugural season of 2005, APP drew 233,143 fans, which was then a record in the city's professional baseball history that dates to 1910.As the word spread of the new ballpark's attributes, attendance rose to 240,721 in 2006 and to an all-time high of 248,765 - an average of 3,713 per opening - in '07.But crowds dropped off noticeably in '08 to 213,030 and to 177,691 the following year.
In the past three years, attendance has fallen more slowly - to 172,344 in '10, 165,996 in '11 and 157,875 last year.Still, last year's average of 2,356 was a healthy figure and far exceeds most seasons at Watt Powell Park, especially the decade of the 1970s when Charleston played in the Class AAA International League and its roster overflowed with future Pittsburgh Pirates.In 1971, when pro baseball returned after a six-year absence, Watt Powell attracted 131,894 fans in the city's first season as a Pirates affiliate. From there, attendance dropped in each succeeding season, plummeting to 72,543 in 1976, the finale as a Pittsburgh farm club.The numbers were similar from 1977 through '83 when Charleston was the AAA home of the Astros, Rangers and Indians.Charleston entered the Class A South Atlantic League in 1987 and attendance increased slightly, helped by an upsurge in minor league baseball interest nationwide and Charleston Wheelers owner Dennis Bastien, who operated the club from '87 through '93.It was Bastien's policy to bring people to the ballpark in any way possible, whether it be free tickets or greatly reduced prices or free sweatshirts, caps and bats.The 1991 Wheelers set a Watt Powell record of 185,389. The 2001 Charleston Alley Cats drew only 83,074, the lowest in the city's years as an SAL member.Watt Powell's final year was 2004, a year of nostalgia, and attendance reached a respectable 125,979 for an average of 1,852.Best high school catcherAlthough he spent most of his youth as a catcher, Wyatt Mathisen was agile and athletic enough in high school to play an occasional shortstop.Last year, in his first professional season, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Corpus Christi, Texas, native demonstrated the speed and base-running skills to steal bases at an impressive rate for the Gulf Coast League Pirates.
"I think I got thrown out like four times last year,'' Mathisen said at Tuesday's Power media day. "I think it was like 12 for 16, something like that. I have a little bit of speed. I pick my spots to steal bases.''As a catcher at Calallen High School in Texas in 2012, he was ranked by Baseball America as the nation's best high school catcher, and the Pirates likewise recognized his talents by selecting him in the second round of last year's draft.More often than not, the 19-year-old Mathisen will be behind the plate for the Power this season and, among his other strengths, he's likely to excel at throwing out potential base stealers.In doing so, he should be a big help to his pitchers, said Power pitching coach Jeff Johnson."His transfer from the glove to his throwing hand is as good as I've seen in pro ball among the younger guys,'' said Johnson. "A lot of guys have trouble getting the ball out, then they misstep their move to throw, so it kills their timing. He's been really good this spring. I'm excited for him.''Base-runners should be less of a distraction for Power pitchers, Johnson added.
"It makes a big difference when you're standing on the mound,'' he said, "and you don't have to worry about holding every single runner as best you can. You know you've got a catcher who has a chance to throw them out. He's got the arm; he's accurate, which is another bonus that you don't expect from a 19-year-old. We have catchers in the organization who have great arms, but it's taken them awhile to be accurate, but he's been very accurate for us.''Last year in the GCL, working with pitchers in their developmental phase of holding base-runners, Mathisen threw out 14 of 39 runners for a respectable 36 percent.Mathisen looks forward to the season, speaking highly of his teammates and calling APP a "crackerjack'' where breezes help the hitter."As a team, we have high expectations,'' he said. "We have a lot of guys from the GCL team that won the championship last year down there. So we're looking to go back and win a championship up here. We've got a bunch of State College guys who are really, really good. So if we play like we should, we shouldn't lose a lot of games."Mathisen will call most of the pitches with the option of glancing at Johnson for help.Power pointsThe Power will host the Asheville Tourists at 7:05 tonight, Friday and Saturday and at 2:05 p.m. Sunday, and the Charleston RiverDogs at 7:05 p.m. Monday and Tuesday and at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday April 10.Before leaving spring training last week, Pirates coach Rick Sofield updated new Power manager Michael Ryan on his home away from home for the summer.
Sofield, who managed the Power last year before earning a promotion to Pittsburgh, apparently enjoyed his stay in Charleston. "I talked with Sofield during spring training,'' said Ryan, "and he had nothing but great things to say about the city. I'm just super excited."Ryan, incidentally, played for Angels manager Mike Scioscia in his final season as a player in 2010 and plans to adopt part of Scioscia's approach to managing.
"He would ask you how you were, how your family was,'' said Ryan. "He really cared about every individual on the team. For that, guys would go through a wall for that guy. That's one thing I want these guys to say about me, that they'd run through a wall for him because he cares. I have such deep feelings for these guys, and I've only been around them for six weeks.''Ryan said he learned from other managers how not to handle players.
"I was the type of player who didn't like to get screamed at in front of his teammates. I'll never do that to these guys,'' he said.Said right fielder Josh Bell of his new manager: "He knows what it's like to be a big league player. He knows what it's like to be in our shoes. So he treats us the way he knows he would want to be treated.'' Power pitchers Clay Holmes and Tyler Glasnow have thrown in the high 90s (mph) but probably will sacrifice a bit of velocity for location, said Ryan.
"Holmes can throw the fastball pretty well. He can get up in the high 90s,'' said the manager. "I think Glasnow hits about 98. But we're trying to get these guys to pitch at 93-94 with location instead of blowing it out at 98. The better they locate their fastballs, the better their offspeed pitches are.''Reach Mike Whiteford at email@example.com.