An enjoyable night with the Chattanooga Lookouts is often determined by the occasion, such as Memorial Day or Independence Day, when games are followed by fireworks displays.
It also can be the result of a promotion -- Used Car Night and the Famous Chicken have been two of the most popular -- or simply a superb spring evening that lures more than 6,000 people to AT&T Field downtown.
Yet for Lookouts owner Frank Burke, a sweltering August afternoon accompanied by a slew of empty seats has been as satisfying as any sellout.
"Every time I've come to work at a baseball stadium has been a favorite for me," Burke said.
The Lookouts will play their final five-game homestand with Burke as their owner starting tonight against the Montgomery Biscuits. Burke, who is selling the Class AA franchise, has owned the team for more than 2,400 games in his 17 years, a span that covers two ballparks and two major league organizations.
"I know that we're all little grains of sand passing through the baseball world and that the Lookouts will continue after Frank is no longer owning the club, but this is one that definitely saddens me," said Phillip Wellman, who managed the Lookouts in 1999 and 2001-03. "Those were four of the greatest years of my life, working in Chattanooga. I loved the town and the fans, and Frank Burke made it enjoyable to come to work every day."
Burke took over in 1995 and called Engel Stadium home for five seasons before moving the team to AT&T Field in 2000. The privately funded AT&T Field was built for $10.2 million with a 10-year plan to pay it off, but the early success at the new location resulted in the debt being wiped out in six years.
The Lookouts were affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds from 1988 to 2008 before Burke decided to partner with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"Frank Burke deserves a lot of accolades," former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda said. "He's done a lot for baseball and the city of Chattanooga, and the Dodgers have been lucky to have him."
Chattanooga won the Southern League attendance title in 2002 over the much larger metropolitan areas of Birmingham, Ala., and Jacksonville, Fla., and the Lookouts received the 2009 Larry MacPhail Award, which recognizes Minor League Baseball's top promotional efforts. That honor came after Burke introduced "Blooie," a mascot half the size of "Looie" who sings half of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at the 3 1/2-inning stretch.
Burke also operated Finley Stadium amid four of the most dismal seasons in UTC football history and poured more than $300,000 into the 20,668-seat facility.
Not all of what he poured into baseball can be measured in financial terms.
"When Frank bought the Lookouts back in 1995, we were just getting back on our feet as far as a desirable destination," said Bob Doak, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Then in 2000, he built AT&T Field, which was instrumental in the growth of the downtown area.
"Frank took a risk by investing in the community, and we are better for it today because of his efforts. We will miss his strong partnership."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...