“It was really cool!” Former Canaries boss looks back at starting new team 30 years ago

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Published: May. 18, 2022 at 9:24 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - On Friday, the Sioux Falls Canaries will play their first home game on their 30th season of the current version of the team.

While Canaries baseball teams can be traced back to at least 1900, Sioux Falls was without professional baseball for over 20 years before a new independent league was formed in 1992.

The Birds’ first owner, Harry Stavernos, an Ohio native who owned the San Jose Giants minor league team but had no ties to Sioux Falls — hired the new Northern League’s first employee, former Sioux Falls TV personality Gary Weckwerth, who had moved into sports radio hosting and sales.

He had no staff, no stadium, and, really, no clue how to run a sports team.

”It was kind of a whirlwind trying to go out and sell this thing, and explain it to people,” Weckwerth said, “and luckily it didn’t take much, because I think the community was hungry for it.”

Sioux Falls Stadium, at its current location, was more of simply a ballpark, with folding chairs sitting on concrete in the lower level and wood bench seats in the upper level. Permanent seats were installed in the lower level, and new aluminum benches in the upper bowl, with some chair backs.

Bleachers were added down the baselines, eventually to be taken out for more permanent seats when The Birdcage was renovated in 2000.

A new but modest concession stand was made. Hot Stuff Pizza came in to make their own pizzas in a little shack.

There was no merchandise shop, only a “container” of shirts, hats, and other basic baseball souvenirs. For several months, Weckwerth worked out of his basement until an office area was built.

It took a full year to find people to sell tickets — including an unpolished street-pounder named Larry McKenney, who became the team’s legendary head groundskeeper for 20 years. Weckworth had to hire locals to run concessions. Stavernos, with his baseball background, found and hired the palyers.

The crew sprinted to have the refurbished Birdcage ready for June 16th, 1993.

“Everything was always last minute,” Weckwerth said, adding that’s the nature of the sports industry before any season starts.

The house was packed, the weather was cloudy but dry, and Weckwerth will never forget the moment that made him most proud.

“The biggest thing was, when you see the players run onto the field for the first time in their white uniforms,” Weckwerth said, “and it’s a professional baseball game in Sioux Falls, and the grass is mowed, and that stadium looked like it never looked before.

“It was really cool. It just... You just kind of (say) ‘wow,’ you know. We did it. And we won!”

Weckwerth felt the euphoria of watching Sioux Falls fans experience what they had been having to drive hours to do. ”Buying hats and buying mini-bats and kids bringing their gloves. To be able to see that in your hometown and backyard, drinking beer, and (eating) popcorn, and having hot dogs, and peanuts, and all the things that baseball is about. I mean, it’s just, that was cool. That was fun.”

Wayne Stoffers grew up in Sioux Falls going to Canaries games in the 1950′s and 60′s until they left town for over 20 years. He was there for Game 1 when they came back and still goes to almost every game.

“In ’93, when the Canaries came back was very, very, very exciting,” Stoffers said. “We had a bunch of Ex-Major Leaguers. We had Pedro Guerrero, who was MVP of the World Series for the Dodgers.”

And then, there were the promotions of the first season — as much a part of the fabric and charm of minor league baseball as anything.

Travis Lee was one Weckwerth’s first employees. A sponsor salesman and the lead promoter, Lee was also the first emcee at the games.

He met his wife when she was a contestant on top of the dugout on “Let’s Make a Steal,” a what’s-in-the-box type game like you’d see on the popular TV gameshow “Let’s Make a Steal.”

They both fondly remember “Smash for Cash,” when they rolled an old “junker” car onto the field.

“We’d turn on the headlights and a couple fans had three balls, three chances to take out the headlight,” Lee said.

Nobody could. Eventually they summoned players to do it, and they failed.

Weckwerth and Stavernos sat in the stands one day and dreamed up the “beer batter.”

“The player who had the worst batting average would be picked to be the beer batter for the other team,” Weckwerth said, “and if he strikes out, you’d get half-priced beers for the next inning.

“And people would scream and holler and get after this guy in the first way, and couldn’t wait for him to strike out, and then they’d run to the concession stand to get beers. It was just hilarious watching people just physically run over each other to get half off on a beer.”

Tuesdays would be “Grand Slam Tuesdays.” If a certain Canary hit a grand slam, a randomly-chosen fan who had paid $1.00 for a “lucky number” would win a free Buick in a deal lined up with a local car dealership.

It actually happened once when David Waco — “not a power hitter,” according to Lee — drove one over.

“The crowd goes crazy,” Lee said. “We had a press box made of old plywood, and the P.A. announcer announced the number, and nobody came up to report they had the lucky number.

“So, now what do we do?”

Eventually, Rick Weber, a South Dakota “amateur baseball stud” showed up to claim his prize.

The Canaries went 34-38 that year. It gave Stavernos — who made most of the player acquisitions — and Weckwerth the itch to start building a winner. The first Canaries league championship team wouldn’t come until 2008, a decade after Stavernos sold the team and 13 years after Weckwerth left to be an executive vice president at Land Title Guaranty, an insurance company.

In 1997, he was part of the first ownership group of the Sioux Falls Stampede hockey team, then co-owned the Sioux City Musketeers (in the same league) and enjoyed immense success at the box office and the ice. He also was a part of a group that bought the Canaries in 2010,then sold his shares five years later.

Six years after that, in 2021, the current owners from True North Sports LLC purchased the Canaries, and have since made major upgrades to the stadium, including a new videoboard and artificial turf playing surface.

On Saturday night, Weckwerth be throwing out the first pitch to celebrate the 30th season of the Canaries being back in town. And he’s looking forward to meeting up and reminiscing with Lee and some other old Canaries friends.

“It was an exciting time for me personally and in my career,” Weckwerth said. “It seemed like it was just a growth opportunity for the community, and adding to the quality of life.

“In the end, I’m pleased with how it turned out. It was well received, it was a lot of fun. I think we did good things with Sioux Falls, and to have it around, still, 30 years later, doing its thing, having new energy...

“I’m just so glad there is a new ownership group that is spending some money to do some fun things that will enhance the experience for the fan. I’m excited to see the next chapter and I hope it works out, and I hope people in the area appreciate it and support it. Because, it’s been a huge, huge part of the community, and I know there’s people all over the state that love coming to watch the Canaries. I hope it continues to build and grow like never before.”

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