MANCHESTER -- By 5:30 p.m. Thursday, fans were strolling through the main entrance to Northeast Delta Dental Stadium at a steady rate, and at least half of them, it seemed, had a hug or handshake for Erik Lesniak.
The New Hampshire Fisher Cats' executive director of sales, Lesniak is a fixture on the concourse outside the Samuel Adams Bar & Grill before games, and, this being Opening Night, fans returning to the ballpark after a long, brutal winter responded to Lesniak's greetings as if they were embracing spring itself.
When Caren and Mike Grady — owners of the longtime downtown fixture Collectors Heaven — entered the park and a different Fisher Cats employee attempted to hand them their complimentary schedule magnets, the Gradys politely waved her off.
"Erik gave them to us at the first 10 Opening Nights," Mike explained. "We can't get them from anyone else."
Grady was only slightly off. Lesniak missed the 2012 opener not long after the birth of his son, but other than that, he's been around for 10 of the 11 Opening Nights since the Fisher Cats played their first in New Hampshire, at Gill Stadium in 2004.
"It was after that first homestand at Gill — the emails we received, the phone calls from people telling us how happy they were to have us here — that I knew we had something special going," Lesniak said. "And now, 10 years later, he we are."
The Fisher Cats have ranked among the top third in attendance in the 12-team Eastern League since 2007, their third season in the 7,722-seat stadium on the Merrimack River, so it may be hard for newcomers to believe there was a time when folks around here thought professional sports couldn't succeed in Manchester.
Lesniak always believed. He worked for the New Haven Ravens when Drew Weber bought the team in 2003 and asked him to come along on the move from Connecticut to New Hampshire. A native of Holyoke, Mass., Lesniak did some research into Manchester, listened to Weber's plans for a riverfront ballpark and took the job.
Over the years — through a change in ownership and team presidents, from Weber and Shawn Smith to Art Solomon and Rick Brenner — he's risen in the ranks from director of group sales to executive director of ticket sales to executive director of sales. And he's become a true citizen of Manchester. The Kiwanis Club of Manchester, the Manchester Lions Club, the Queen City Rotary Club, The CareGivers, the Manchester St. Patrick's Day organizing committee — Lesniak's a member of them all.
That, he said, is the Fisher Cats way.
"Art Solomon and Rick Brenner have a true understanding of what minor-league baseball is really all about," Lesniak said. "It's about being involved in a community, helping to make it a better place. I knew when I moved here that there was a market for baseball. What I didn't know is everything that comes with it: supporting schools and youth leagues and awarding scholarships at the Granite State Baseball Dinner."
And forming friendships.
Two of the men who exchanged warm greetings with Lesniak and wound up in conversation were Manchester residents Don Torrey and Tim McGuire, longtime holders of multi-game ticket packages. In the Fisher Cats' first nine seasons at the NEDD, there was a third member of the group, Robert Dion. Every winter, the men would receive a phone call from the Fisher Cats informing them that their tickets were ready. They'd drive to the ballpark, have a seat in the lobby and then hang around talking with Lesniak, catching up on what they'd been up to since the previous season ended and looking forward to the season to come.
It's been more than three weeks now since Dion died along with his wife in the Manchester murder and arson for which their son is still being sought for questioning.
"Bob Dion was a good man," Lesniak said.
"I miss him," said Torrey.
Later, during the game's early innings, Brenner talked about Lesniak and how he's an example of the many community-minded people the Fisher Cats employ, talked about how while the baseball played at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium is of a very high caliber, it's only part of what the ballpark offers.
"There are people who've had a bad day at work or have an ill family member, and they could use a place to come and enjoy themselves, put their troubles aside for a while," Brenner said. "If we help them have a nice experience, we've done our jobs."
The Fisher Cats had returned to Manchester. New Hampshire was on its way to a 9-1 loss to the Binghamton Mets, but in the stands and on the concourse, those in the announced crowd of 5,946 seemed to be having a nice experience. For Lesniak and Brenner and the rest of organization, it was another job well done
Vin Sylvia is a New Hampshire Union Leader deputy managing editor. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @VinSylvia.