“You got to be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too,” Roy Campanella once said. No doubt Campanella, a baseball Hall of Famer who was a star in the Negro Leagues and later with the Brooklyn Dodgers, could also have been talking about Chattanooga Lookouts owners John Woods and Jason Freier.
Story by Sam Woolwine
Photography by David Andrews
Woods is like a kid who just figured out how to successfully solve Mike Tyson’s Punch Out video game. He is a successful businessman, who has become wealthy as a financial advisor in Atlanta. But as much as Woods enjoys the rewards of his business, that just may take second place to his passion for sports, especially baseball and football. Now, that passion for the game of baseball has certainly benefitted the city in which he grew up.
While Woods grew up playing football and basketball for East Ridge High School in the early 1980s, was a walk-on for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in football and later at Tennessee Tech, his love for watching baseball never waned. He still remembers being taken to Lookouts games by his father, James, who played football for two coaching legends, Red Etter at Chattanooga Central and Bobby Dodd at Georgia Tech.
“I remember going to my first game when the Lookouts were affiliated with the A’s. I don’t remember so much the great players they had, which were many, but my greatest memory was just enjoying the game,” Woods says.
Woods’ heart in some ways remains in his hometown of Chattanooga. And because of his connections in the city and his love of baseball, he and business partner Jason Freier purchased the Chattanooga Lookouts back in March. At one time, it was Woods alone who was bidding to buy the franchise from longtime owner Frank Burke. He offered $13.5 million. But a friend of his, Stan Logan, who owns the Birmingham Barons, persuaded him to meet and hire Freier.
Freier, the owner of a baseball LLC (Hardball Capital), grew up a baseball fan in New York. But not of the Yankees. He became a Mets fan and Shea Stadium, which housed the Mets then, was only a 15-minute bike ride from his home in Queens. “They were the lovable losers,” he says. “And I felt sorry for them.”
Freier, whose parents were both teachers, got into and graduated from Harvard. He eventually became an attorney who worked in Washington for the legal firm of Williams and Connelly. It was a firm founded by Edward Bennett Williams, one of the most prominent and eloquent attorneys in the country in the 1970s and ‘80s and the man who owned the Baltimore Orioles.
The baseball connection was not lost on Freier, who moved to Atlanta and shortly after heading South turned his passion into a business, Hardball Capital LLC. Freier also owns a very successful team in Ft. Wayne and one in Savannah, which he is prepping for a move to Columbia, South Carolina.
But what began as a hire turned quickly into a partnership, Freier becoming the managing partner and CEO and Woods the co-managing partner. When the contract was consummated for the purchase, only 42 days remained until the team opened its season. And, the new owners were welcoming a new affiliation, the Minnesota Twins.
Although Dodger Blue still permeates the stadium, Freier hit the ground like he was trying to beat out a slow roller down the third-base line. Within two months, all of the suites had been renovated and updated, a corporate entertainment venue had been constructed in left field and sophisticated kitchen equipment had been purchased.The menu at Lookouts games now includes Philly cheese steak, chicken Philly, fried and grilled chicken sandwiches, bratwurst, barbecue, and chicken wraps. It resembles a menu at an upscale sandwich restaurant. Of course, one can also buy foodstuff typically associated with baseball such as hot dogs, hamburgers, peanuts, popcorn and Cracker Jacks. Coca-Cola products dot the landscape as well as a host of popular beers. Prices are moderate.
“A lot of what we are doing this year is learning,” Freier remarks. “We want to continue to invest in the concession area. We want to provide fresh food, not fast food. In some ways, we are continuing to figure it out. Our focus now is what to do in Year Two.”
Freier’s success in Minor League baseball is well documented. His Fort Wayne team has been named the No. 1 ballpark experience in Minor League baseball three of the last four years by Stadium Journey Magazine. Ballpark Digest named the TinCaps the 2014 Team of the Year. The franchise has won a plethora of other awards for promotions and marketing.
The New York native has also partnered with the city of Columbia, South Carolina. to build a park downtown and he will move his other team from Savannah, Georgia to the South Carolina capitol next year. So that begs the question of a new stadium in Chattanooga.
“Who wouldn’t want a new stadium,” Woods says rhetorically. “A new stadium can rejuvenate and redevelop a section of the city and it creates a lot of jobs and growth. Just look at what Jason did in Fort Wayne, what’s happening in Columbia, the effect new stadiums are having on other Southern League cities like Birmingham, Biloxi and Pensacola.” If or when that will happen in Chattanooga is subject to speculation, but for now the co-owners of the team are not looking that far ahead.
“Jason knows what he is doing,” Woods proclaims. “He’s handling the operational end with Rich (Mozingo, the team’s general manager). He and I agreed, for me it’s about getting sponsorships, finding businesses and local people we can bring on board.” Mozingo agrees with what the new owners are doing.
“Nobody could have done more than they did because of when the deal closed,” says Mozingo. “We had major changes – the ownership and the affiliation – they were hardly in place when the season opened. But they have a vision and it’s my job to help make that happen. I like how they think.”
Freier talked Woods into adding local business people as minor investors. Richard Mashburn, who is founder and CEO of Mashburn Outdoor, had been mentioned prominently with other groups interested in bidding for the Lookouts. Mashburn is now a part of the Freier-Woods team. Others include Marshall Brock, Joseph Wingfield, Casey Hammontree, Forrest Simmons, G. McKittrick Simmons and Lamp Post co-founder Barry Large.
All either live in Chattanooga, once lived in Chattanooga, or have strong connections in the city. The one thing most of the local investors have in common is a love for the Lookouts as they were growing up and most remain fans who attend games. Woods understands that affinity and admits that he still would rather go to a Minor League game than a Major League one.
“The Minor League game has a more intimate setting,” he says. “It’s more affordable. It’s old America. You get a kick out of watching the kids have a great time. I still love taking my sons to a game. I had Braves season tickets for 10 years, but I just get a kick out of coming to Chattanooga and watching the Lookouts play.”
This first year has not been without its trials, but also good fortune. At the beginning of the season, Chattanooga’s team featured the No. 1 rated player in professional baseball: Byron Buxton, as well as one of the top pitchers, Jose Berrios. They also had Miguel Sano, one of the best hitters in the Southern League.
The Lookouts performed admirably the first half, winning the league with a 43-25 record. It was the best mark for a Lookouts team since 2006 when Chattanooga won the first half with a 44-24 record. But Buxton, Berrios and Sano have all been promoted. Attendance was also markedly improved from last season.
“I like the direction we are going,” Mozingo affirms. And he could have added the passion, much like the kind created when kids have the opportunity to run the base-paths after a game.