The independent Frontier League’s Joliet Slammers have two overarching goals: they want to win games and move players up to affiliated clubs, and to entertain fans and create an affordable family-friendly atmosphere to draw people who’d like to enjoy a night out that isn’t the standard dinner and a movie.
Both the baseball and business sides have to overcome challenges to reach their objectives during the season that runs from May to September. The baseball side has to compete for players and convince them - most who were undrafted college athletes or looking for a way back into a big-league team’s pipeline - that playing for the Slammers is the right path for their careers, and the business side is recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and working to draw people back to large public gatherings while fighting a sluggish economy and a crowded sports market.
However, both sides of the Slammers understand their missions and what they must do to succeed.
Managing for the first time
There’s a reason the name of Slammers manager Daniel Schlereth might sound familiar. The son of former NFL lineman Mark Schlereth, Daniel Schlereth appeared in 94 games as a left-handed reliever for the Diamondbacks and Tigers from 2009-12, plus three postseason outings for Detroit in 2011.
Daniel Schlereth, 36, was named the Slammers’ manager in February, coming to Joliet after working in player development and pro scouting with the Pirates. He decided to take the job with the Slammers because he wanted more interaction with the team and players and have a bigger impact on individuals.
That’s something he’s done, building close relationships with players to create a strong clubhouse culture and trying to hone their skills to move up in the game.
“That was a really big driving force, was to get involved in professional baseball still,” Schlereth said. “[And] have important decisions coming down to me. Really, for me, my driving force is to help the players and be a big-brother figure. I just want to give back to the game. I’ve been in it for a long time as a player, and I just wanted to get on the other side and take the good from what I had as a player and flush the bad stuff and be somewhere right in the middle and really help players out.
“I’m doing it for [the players]. That’s the biggest thing.”
And Schlereth couldn’t have learned from a better manager when he was playing.
Most of Schlereth’s big-league career was spent with the Tigers, who were then helmed by Jim Leyland, one of the best managers in baseball history. Schlereth said Leyland was probably his biggest influence, as his time in Detroit came when Leyland’s Tigers were one of the most powerful teams in the American League.
Though the atmosphere is much different and he’s not managing anybody with eight-figure salaries, Schlereth is still feeling Leyland’s impact. He’s taken points from Leyland’s managerial style and made them his own, albeit at a different level than competing with the Red Sox and Yankees for American League pennants.
“I think you hear a lot of guys that played for him say the same thing,” Schlereth said. “He was really the best role model you could ever have as a player, and I took so much from him and I’m really thankful and fortunate to have played for him on some great Tigers teams in the past.”
In fact, Leyland inspired Schlereth to take this leap into managing.
“He was kind of the main reason why I wanted to do this, because I love the way he went about it,” Schlereth said. “He would take a bullet for his players, and I took that and I wanted to adopt it myself, take the things I learned from him and make it similar but with my own little style attached to it.”
A different experience
The Slammers’ business side has to draw fans in a major sports market, and to do that CFO Heather Mills said the franchise tries to differentiate itself from the Cubs and White Sox by getting to know frequent customers and their children.
“We’re really family-oriented, community-oriented and you’re not just another face coming through the ballpark,” Mills said. “We want to know you. We want to know that you had a good time. We want to do things differently.
“While the baseball is important because we are a baseball team, it’s more the experience as a whole. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to have a good time here.”
It helps to get plenty of sponsorships, which allows the team to pour more resources into its promotions and marketing and hiring gameday staff, which has been challenging for them and other similar businesses. For those dollars, the Slammers find themselves competing not necessarily with the Cubs and Sox, but other peer minor-league franchises in the area. That cash, Mills said, is crucial because ticket sales cannot be the lone way to bring in revenue.
“Rain happens and COVID happens and all these unknowns that deal with that,” Mills said. “I think that’s something that would probably be on everybody’s list as a challenge, there’s never enough of those dollars to do everything you want.”
Speaking of COVID, the Slammers are like other teams still trying to recover from the pandemic. They hosted an abridged schedule in 2020, creating three additional teams to play a mini-season and allowing prospects to stay fresh in front of tiny crowds. Things were slightly more normal last year but fewer groups - a lifeblood of minor-league sports - turned out.
This season, however, is comparable in that department and could be better than 2018 and 2019. Mills noted that businesses are rewarding their employees with outings to the ballpark at the level the Slammers like it to be.
“People are ready to get back to normal,” Mills said. “They’re vaccinated if they choose to be. They’ve been stuck inside not doing anything for a couple of years.”