Orem • From second base, Sherman Johnson would look into the stands on Sunday afternoons last summer and wonder where everybody was.
"Sundays are just different up there," said the former Orem Owlz infielder, now playing for Class-A Burlington, Iowa. "We got used to that and respected that."
To drive the Sunday business of baseball, the Owlz stage Dollar Dayz. Tickets, soft drinks and ice cream are $1 each, and parking is free. Beer? Never available.
Welcome to Utah County, believed to be the only alcohol-free zone in professional baseball. That's mandated by the Owlz's lease agreement with Utah Valley University.
"It's not a traditional beer-and-hotdog market," said former Owlz general manager Brett Crane, now the Los Angeles Angels' minor-league equipment coordinator. "There's not a more family-friendly environment in the country. It's kids and baseball, which is great."
Playing on Sundays is pretty much unavoidable. The Pioneer League accommodated BYU's rules regarding Sunday activity in 2001-04 when the former Provo Angels franchise played on the campus, partly by booking Saturday doubleheaders.
The Owlz are conforming to pro baseball's standard schedule by playing nearly one-seventh of their home games (five of 38) on Sundays this season, and they're determined to make it work. They won't concede one day of the week even if they'll practically give it away.
"It's a big piece of our business," said Owlz co-owner Jeff Katofsky. "We have to do what we can to promote it."
During the Owlz's home-opening weekend in June, general manager Justo Vazquez prepared himself for only a few hundred fans and was thrilled with the Sunday attendance of 1,214. Last Sunday's crowd was 1,083 less than half the team's average, but enough to make opening the gates worthwhile.
It's still somewhat jarring to a Los Angeles native. "In L.A.," he said, "Sunday's just another day."
That's just part of the adjustment to Orem for the 24-year-old Vazquez. He's undoubtedly the youngest GM in pro sports, with older interns working for him. "I can benefit from looking older than I am," said Vazquez, who's another of Katofsky's talented discoveries.
Brandon Marcus once umpired Little League games involving Katofsky's sons in Southern California and became Orem's play-by-play broadcaster at 23; he's since moved up to Burlington. Vazquez, who has a master's degree from the University of San Francisco, proved himself after being hired to manage the memorabilia shop that Katofsky's sons opened in Los Angeles.
And there he was on Opening Night last month, scrambling to find a portable microphone, fix the ice machine and deliver more hot-dog buns. "The best advice I got is that five to 10 things will go wrong," Vazquez said. "If that's all you get, you're doing OK."
For the Owlz players, traveling the 38 miles to Salt Lake City's Spring Mobile Ballpark requires a long climb through the Los Angeles Angels' system, just to reach Triple-A. Yet the 13 seasons of the Provo/Orem franchise have produced more than 50 future Angels.
On the marketing side, Katofsky cites the advantages of working at this end of the chain. "It's a blank canvas, and I have a full Crayola box. I get to be creative here," he said. "As you go up the levels, it gets a little more stuffy."
So next week, following July 24 fireworks to launch a four-game series with Ogden, the Owlz will tie a "squeezable balls" giveaway into a prostate cancer awareness event and the next night offer a date with assistant GM Jillian Dingee via a charity auction. Then comes Los Owlz Hispanic Heritage Night on Saturday. That's evidence of Utah County's increasing diversity. Just the same, the staff will be happy that Sunday is a travel day for the team.
League • Pioneer
Level • Advanced Rookie
Home • Utah Valley University (5,000)
Average attendance • 2,243
Record • 12-13
Top hitters • 2B Raul Linares (.413), 3B Cal Towey (.304, 27 RBIs)
Top pitcher • Cole Swanson (2-0, 2.45)
Notable • Bill Richardson is the Owlz's new manager, after Tom Kotchman held the job for the first 12 seasons of the Provo/Orem franchise.
About the series
The Salt Lake Tribune's Kurt Kragthorpe spent early July on the road taking stock of the teams, players, fans and ballparks of the Los Angeles Angels and their minor league affiliates. His purpose: to ferret out great stories at each stop and, in the bigger scheme, connect the dots between what fans love about baseball especially the minor league version and the players toiling to make it to the bigs. Wednesday • Orem. Thursday • San Bernadino.