“Super excited” was the term bandied about numerous times by many Wednesday morning at The Depot in relation both to the upcoming season and the addition of three new members to the Cleburne Railroaders’ ownership group.
About 50 local baseball fans attended the announcement with more than one expressing their excitement over baseball’s much anticipated return to Cleburne after COVID-19 put the kibosh on what otherwise looked to be a promising 2020 campaign last year.
“2020 was tough on everyone, baseball fans and everyone else,” Railroaders President John Junker said. “So we’re more than ready for its return and super excited to get things rolling again. The fact that Texas is opening back up and we’re getting that opportunity to bring baseball back to Cleburne is great. We can’t wait for May 18.”
Several star players are scheduled to return for the Railroaders’ fifth season overall since returning to action but fourth season of actual play, Junker said.
The Railroaders, who began in 1906, won championships both that year and in 1911. The Railroaders subsequently relocated to Houston, underwent several name changes and eventually became the Houston Astros. Cleburne fielded two unrelated minor league teams —The Cleburne Generals and The Cleburne Scouts in 1921 and 1922 respectively — but otherwise went without a team until the Railroaders’ 2017 return. Cleburne voters that year approved a bond proposal to fund construction of The Depot and the land around it.
Save the pandemic necessitated cancellation of last year’s season, the Railroaders’ return proved a hit throughout Cleburne and North Texas with the 2019 team having just missed the playoffs and 2020’s teamed primed for another serious run.
“It’s always been important that the Railroaders be a big part of the community,” Junker said. “That certainly remains the case and this year, like every year, we’re going at planning from the fan experience standpoint. The difference is I think 2021 is going to be bigger and better than ever.
“We’re going to take the great things from the past and we’re going to embrace the exciting things from the new.”
Much of that, Junker and Railroaders Co-owner Daryn Eudaly said, comes courtesy of three new additions to the team’s ownership group.
Those owners include Neil Leibman, part of the original group that purchased the Texas Rangers in 2010. Also coming onboard are former NFL football player Jon Ryan and his business partner Alan Miller, owner of COLLiDE Agency, a marketing agency, which represents Doc Martin and Hard Rock Hotels among other national brands. Ryan and Miller also own the Portland Pickles, a minor league baseball team in Oregon. Together and separately the three also hold ownership stakes in other baseball, rugby and hockey teams bringing years of sports, promotion and business experience to the table.
“Everyday we strive for excellence on the field and off the field,” Eudaly said. “The situation with COVID-19 has obviously not been the best for any of us. But this year we’re going to play baseball, have a full season and we’re ramping up for that.
“We’re excited as we look at where the American Association is going, the growth that’s going to happen. We’re going to launch new marketing strategies this year, introduce many new things and achieve new milestones.”
Eudaly stressed that, Leibman’s new ownership share in the Railroaders aside, the team is not associated or affiliated with the Texas Rangers.
“But with Neil’s influence and resources the Railroaders are going to have access to many new things, additional sponsor opportunities and a lot of new interest.”
Leibman, unable to attend Wednesday’s announcement, expressed his excitement via a Railroaders press release.
“The growth of Cleburne and the kindness of the people who live here are impressive, but I’m most excited about our partners’ commitment to developing baseball at all levels,” Leibman said. “Daryn and John have done a great job building a strong community asset and I hope that Jon, Alan and I can contribute positively to their growth.”
“We couldn’t be more passionate and excited about the creativity they’re going to bring to the organization,” Eudaly said.
Ryan joined the chorus of those super excited to be joining the Railroaders.
“To be part of this baseball team but probably even more excited to be part of the Cleburne and Johnson County community,” Ryan said. “I had the opportunity over the last several months to be here a few times and get to know the city and get to know Cleburne a little bit and I fell in love with it right away. Over the last few nights I’ve also realized that you guys to Tex-Mex really well.”
Ryan, who announced that he’s obviously Irish, wished everyone a happy St. Patrick’s Day before introducing a special guest appearance by a “lucky charm big and green” Dillon the Portland Pickle’s mascot, a walking pickle in a baseball jersey. Dillon and Railroaders’ mascot Spike appeared unsure what to make of each other at first but quickly became friends.
Railroaders officials also introduced Gandy, a new mascot who will join Spike in the upcoming season. Gandy was part of the Santa Fe railroad track maintenance gang from the old days, according to Wednesday’s Railroaders’ release.
“These track gangs were known as Gandy Dancers who sang songs while they were working,” according to the release. “Gandy was sad when he lost his job to machines but he is now a happy guy thanks to his newfound friend Spike.”
Officials also introduced new logos and uniforms for the upcoming season.
Two things, Miller answered when asked what attracted him to Cleburne and the Railroaders.
“Cleburne has done such a great job,” Miller said. “[Cleburne Mayor Scott Cain] and the community have really brought this to life here. We came here, saw the stadium and all behind this incredible facility and all the people responsible for that and instantly fell in love and jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it.”
History supplied the other attraction.
“As a marketing nerd I couldn’t resist the 115 years of baseball history here that has been so well documented,” Miller said. “That’s incredibly exciting and something I really, really want to dive into to bring those stories out of the past and let people know what happened here and the incredible history of Cleburne and the entire region.”
Baseball and Cleburne’s railroad and other history offers much to explore, bring to light and promote, Miller added.
Among several changes on tap, The Depot’s former Conductors Club will soon become the Classic Club, a sports bar sponsored by Classic Chevrolet Buick GMC of Cleburne.
Eudaly added that new developments are on the horizon for youth sports activities as well as retail and restaurant opportunities at Cleburne Station, which surrounds The Depot.
“We’re super excited about where we’re heading and feel we’re going to get a lot of things moving within the community and definitely within the stadium this year,” Eudaly said. “Every project that comes in next to the stadium expands the foot print of what we do with the stadium itself.”
Cain boldly predicted a championship year for the Railroaders, an event he said will make for “a great day in Cleburne” and encouraged residents to call their friends and pack The Depot’s stands on opening day.
Railroaders Head Coach Mike Jeffcoat reminded that the team’s first six games will be home games and that the team will host 56 home games this season.
“We’re going to be in great shape,” Jeffcoat said of the team’s prospects. “We’ve got some really good players signed.”
Longtime Railroaders’ fan and season ticket holder Garey Wylie also described himself as super excited.
“Excited about the new owners coming on board,” Wylie said. “Excited about the new season starting in two months. We all missed our Railroaders last year and I’m just so glad to see things getting back to normal and getting back to baseball.
“Today I feel like a little kid coming down the stairs on Christmas morning to see what presents Santa brought me.”