For the third year in a row, the franchise broke its single-season attendance record, as 68,881 fans spilled into TVA Credit Union Ballpark. They broke the previous record of 65,202, set last season.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” Johnson City General Manager Zac Clark said. “I knew we were going to have to work hard to get it. No matter what, when you break a record like that, it’s surprising. But we’re proud of it and we’re hungry for more.”
The Cardinals, whose season ended Wednesday night, finished with a losing record. They still had a chance to make the playoffs in the final series of the regular season. Needing a three-game sweep over Kingsport, they dropped the first game to make the final two more or less meaningless.
“That’s kind of the Cardinal way — they always hang around,” said Clark, who was in his first season as the GM after previously serving as Tyler Parsons’ assistant and spending a year with the Asheville Tourists. “We came up a little bit short this year, but we felt like we really had the roster to do something special. They just never got it going.
“In talking with the guys in the clubhouse, they never thought they were out of it. It just never really clicked. Sometimes that happens, especially at this level.”
The team had many of its better players called up to a higher level during the year, which hurt on the field. Nolan Gorman, the first-round pick, had 11 home runs before being moved. The Cardinals also lost two center fielders, Jonatan Machado and Brandon Riley, and first baseman Kevin Woodall.
Along the way, Johnson City had the three largest crowds in team history, capped by the 4,167 who showed up for Star Wars Night.
Clark credited his staff with setting the team up for a successful season.
“They work their tails off from beginning to end,” he said. “This is a testament to what they do. We try to build an atmosphere here where they like to come to work every day and they enjoy being here as much as the fans enjoy being here. When that happens, that’s when you have a successful environment. If the employees enjoy it as much as the customers do, then that’s a great thing.”
Everything wasn’t perfect. The big fans installed in the grandstands malfunctioned during the first series. When the fans were turned on, the sound system didn’t work. They eventually got the wiring fixed and the fans ran smoothly all season.
A wind storm caused some damage in the concourse right before the season started and there were other issues to overcome.
“There were a number of things,” Clark said. “Every time something would happen, we’d look at each other and say ‘How much worse can it get?’ Just the fortitude of this group was something. It was the right group to have here. Every time we’d get knocked down, they’d get right back up with me and say ‘Let’s go.’ I think that drive kept pushing us through. These kids had guts and they’re going to look back on this season and remember it for a long time.
“It was a very rewarding year.”