Chuck Greenberg once described longtime minor league executive Todd “Parney” Parnell as the best people-person in all of baseball, that he has a natural talent for building relationships with people from all walks of life. What becomes clear in talking with Parney, the vice president and chief operating officer of the Richmond Flying Squirrels, is that he cares for the people around the game at least as much as they care for him.
Parney has used that passion and love for baseball and people to become one of the most well-respected—and certainly the most energetic—operator in minor league baseball over the past three decades. From Reading to Altoona to State College to Richmond, Parney has matched a colorful personality with an even more colorful wardrobe to do anything and everything for the sake of the team. That attitude has made the Flying Squirrels one of the most popular teams in the minors since Parney helped launch the franchise with Chuck Domino in 2010.
What follows is my conversation with Parney in which he discusses his approach to people and running a team, and why he loves minor league baseball so much. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
I’m always interested in hearing about how team executives got their start in the game. So, how did you break into minor league baseball?
Going back to the very, very, very beginning. It all dates back to my time at Messiah College outside of Harrisburg, Pa., where I was a basketball player. I was doing an internship with the TV station, WHTM-TV 27. The sports director’s name was and still is Gregg Mace, who still remains a very, very close friend. Going into my senior year, Greg suggested to me . . . that I should reach out to the local minor league baseball team and see about an internship. And I did. And nothing happened. But I met Todd Vander Woude, who people who read your site will know that name from his days with the Harrisburg Senators as GM. Long story short, I ended up getting a job out of college with professional indoor soccer team in Hershey, Pennsylvania, named the Hershey Impact. I literally learned by being thrown right into the fire . . .
Todd Vander Woude connected me with Chuck Domino, who probably out of everybody is the most prevalent name in my career and always will be. Chuck Domino interviewed me for an opening in Reading. Now, if you ask Domino to tell you this story it is going to be different than how I am going to tell you this story. I interviewed with him in person. He interviewed another guy named Marty Owens over the phone. Marty Owens got the job offer, not the guy he interviewed in person—so that should tell you something. And then I came in second and last place.
Chuck called me and gave me the news that he is hiring somebody else but that he liked me and he thought I had a lot of energy and I could have a future in minor league baseball. He suggested that I call, I think it was the Scranton team because he knew they had an opening.
Well, for the first time in my life and probably the last time, I hung up the phone and was kind of like, ‘uhhh.’ And I didn’t call them. Well lo and behold, maybe three or four days later, Chuck called me and he said, ‘Hey, did you call Scranton?’
And I said ‘No, I didn’t. No, I’m sorry. I didn’t.’
And he said ‘Good. Do you still want the job?’
When Chuck tells the story, he’s going to say that I was panting like a dog on the phone when I said yes. I was not panting like a dog on the phone. But I said yes and I was excited about going there. And I am pretty sure I drove up there the very next day and we started our relationship that continues to this day. As we’re talking, Chuckie is literally 40 feet down the hallway from me.
What drew you to minor league baseball? When did your passion for it begin?
I’ve been in love with minor league baseball my whole life. I was born and raised in Locust, North Carolina, and my dad took me to Charlotte Orioles games. Whenever I give a speech, I always tell a story about how he took me to a game one time. I noticed this guy who was always running around with a polo shirt on. And I asked my dad who that was, and he said I think he’s the GM. I think he runs the team. And I asked a bunch of follow-up questions, like what does that mean? And my dad explained what the billboards in the outfield were advertising. And the things they did between were promotions.
And then I remember saying to him, ‘Wait a minute. You mean this guy gets to come to the ballpark every single day of his life and that’s his job?’ And he said yeah. And then I followed that up with ‘Wow, that’s got to be the greatest job in the history of the universe.’
And now, ironically, I’ve been able to have that greatest job in the history of the universe for the last 29-plus years. If there is a lifer, I’m definitely one. . . . It is not only in my blood. It is my blood. I’m a minor league baseball guy through and through, and I don’t apologize for it.
It’s lived up to everything you imagined as a kid. What about minor league baseball appeals to you so much?
The grind. I love the grind. I love being here until 1 or 2 in the morning and then being back here at 6:30 or 7 again. I love that. I love watching young people grow. Now that I am old, now that I’ve blinked and I woke up and I’m one of the old guys, I love that part of it. Seeing guys like Ben Rothrock, here in Richmond, go from being an intern in Altoona, Pennsylvania, to being the GM of the Richmond Flying Squirrels. I take a lot of pleasure in that, a lot of pride in that. And the list goes on and on.
At the Winter Meetings, [Frisco RoughRiders Vice President] Jason Dambach, who I worked with in Altoona, he puts together a cocktail party that he calls the Parney coaching tree, like the Bill Walsh coaching tree, and anybody that I have ever worked with we have a cocktail party. And last year there were like 30 people there that we all just connect through the different cities that I’ve worked in. And it’s become like, for a lack of a better word, a support group. We get together and we tell old stories. Derek Martin, the GM in Altoona, tells the story about how I jacked him up against a wall because he wore flip flops and shorts and a backward hat to work on a Sunday morning one time. Everybody has funny stories about the past, but more than anything it’s the love we all have for each other.
It’s an overused word a lot of times in sports, but I think this industry gives you a second family. A lot of times your own personal family is the one that suffers from the time that we use for this position, for this industry. And mine certainly did. I’m divorced, but fortunately my kids grew up around a ballpark and they both love the life and love the lifestyle. My youngest daughter actually works for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans now on a part-time basis and I’m pretty sure and confident that she is going to want to work in the industry full-time when she is done at Coastal Carolina.
So, people ask me all the time, where I get the passion and where I get the energy. I’m a little bit of a freak of nature when it comes to the energy. All you gotta do is look at me and know that I am not in great shape. But I am always up and I am always excited. And it’s because we play so many games that everyday is an opportunity to do something different, everyday is an opportunity to make an impact on people, everyday is an opportunity to make a special memory with somebody.
I think in minor league baseball, a lot of us who have been in it a long time or maybe even some people that haven’t been in it that long, forget the impact that we make on people. I’ve been to the funerals of fans of the various teams I’ve worked for and they’ve been buried with autographed baseballs in their hands. We’ve had a gentleman, a World War II veteran in Richmond, he had a Squirrels jersey next to his coffin at the request of his family. I feel like that more than any other sport we connect with our fans—that they are not fans, they are our personal friends.
I know that you have said before that you are in the memory making business. Is that connection with fans what you are talking about? It seems like that is what you enjoy most about your job: the connection you make with people.
It’s not just words. I tell not only our staff but people in this industry that run other teams, I’ll tell [Frisco RoughRiders President] Andy Milovich that I love him. Or [Round Rock Express Executive Vice President] J.J. Gottsch that I love him. Or Jason Dambach that I love him. Or whoever it might be. I LOVE the people that are in this industry and I think that is a big part of my fuel . . .
Without other people, without relationships, we’re nothing. Even when it comes to the relationship with the big league affiliate we have. Some people are like, you don’t get close to your players, you don’t get close to your manager. I respectfully disagree with that. I think that is all part of it. If you have a great relationship with the manager and staff and the players, your life is going to be that much richer because you have more and better relationships.
And furthermore, those people are going to feel the passion you have for the community, and you are going to be able to go out in the community, to different people that need help, with the players and with the staff and with the mascot and make a bigger impact on them. We would all rather win games than lose games, but at the end of the day it is the lives you touch and the memories you make with people. And that’s what drives us, not only during the season, but 12 months of the year.
In some ways, there might be no bigger success story in minor league baseball than the Richmond Flying Squirrels, a franchise that has developed quite a following and regularly finishes near the top of the Eastern League in attendance despite playing in a ballpark that is quite outdated. How have you guys managed to make that happen?
The people that work here work feverishly, everybody, with great passion over the course of the nine years. [Flying Squirrels Owner] Lou DiBella and the ownership group have given us what we need. Having Domino around, for me personally, is wonderful because we have been so close over the past 30 years. But it comes down to people. It’s people wanting to get better everyday. People wanting to push, push and push to affect the community. Our community relations department, Megan Angstadt and Matt Wease, doing literally over 500 appearances in the community a year with our mascots, maybe even more than that.
Chuck Greenberg taught me the saying ‘start at yes and go backwards from there.’ We’ve taken that philosophy here. When people ask us to do stuff, we say yes as much as we possibly can. There’s gotta be a pretty daggun good reason that we can’t do it. Those are all the things that have played into our success.
Plus, [Richmond] wanted us here. I make this analogy: They were in a 42-year relationship [with the Atlanta Braves] and they got divorced. And then we came along and we were the pretty new relationship. I think it was love at first sight for both of us. When Chuck Domino called me and told me that Lou and he were talking about this and would I be interested. I was with Greeny back then, I thought it was a chance for Domino and I to come here under Lou’s ownership and really create a lasting legacy for both of us by building something from the ground up. Not many people in their lifetime get the opportunity to take a plain piece of paper and write down what they want to do. And we did that . . .
We wrote down on the piece of paper three things. I remember we did at the Holiday Inn right down the street here because there wasn’t two chairs in the stadium yet. It was just me and Domino, nobody knew who we were. We wrote down ‘be different, be fun, be impactful.’ And those are three things that if you walk down our hallway here in Richmond now, it has a wall that says ‘Different’ on it, and it has a pictures of how we are different—including my wonderful pants, by the way. And it has a wall that says ‘Fun,’ and it has pictures of all the people having fun. And it has a wall that says ‘Impactful,’ and it has pictures of the things we’ve done in and around the community.
So, I think that’s what created this love affair, and I think that is how I would describe our relationship with Richmond: It’s a love affair. I think it is one of those love affairs that continues to grow. We’ve had our ups and downs as far as the ballpark goes, but we decided several years ago that it was about people and about our fans and about relationships with them, and we were going to let the ballpark either take care of itself or not happen. But every year Lou and the ownership group was going to support us if we wanted to do different things physically to this ballpark at the Diamond and they’ve done that, and I think that is why the relationship continues to be, as you termed, one of the best success stories in the industry . . .
Those three words that you used to describe the team also seem to be a fitting description for you. You’re this colorful, fun guy who is seemingly willing to do anything for the team, on or off the field. But I’m sure that there is also a method to your madness. Can you describe your approach or philosophy to running and branding and promoting a team?
I think you have to be ubiquitous. I think you have to be willing to do anything at anytime. And that comes with sacrifices. My kids have been a lot of places with me that they probably wouldn’t go to, but we went. Tonya, my longtime girlfriend of six years here in Richmond, we can’t get through a dinner in town without somebody coming over to talk about the promotion we just did, or what’s up with the new ballpark. But that’s all great. If you build the team’s brand in a way that it becomes one of the most identifiable pieces in the community, that’s what comes along with it. And nobody complains about it and that’s part of our life as a family. And we enjoy it.
There’s a lot of relationships that have been built. I love sitting in Parney’s Pub after a game (Parney’s office transforms into a pub after ballgames) and talking to the staff, particularly the younger staff, and the TV will come on to Baseball Tonight or whatever, and it will be Brandon Crawford, former Flying Squirrel, hitting the game-winning grand slam. Or Andrew McCutchen, who came to my daughter’s 12th birthday party in Altoona and sang Usher because it was a karaoke party. All those memories that my family has built because of this industry is something that I wouldn’t change ever, either. So not only professionally are we in the memory making business, but because of our profession, personally for a lot of us and our family, we are given the opportunity to have memories for our families as well. So that’s special.
The philosophy of building the brand is just to follow those three things: be different, be fun, be impactful. But I think the difference is: it’s everyday. It’s everyday you need to take advantage of that. Lindsey and Sammy, my daughters, they roll their eyes when I say this: But today’s date is June 8, 2018. We are never going to get another June 8, 2018 again, so don’t sleepwalk through it. Make it the best June 8th, 2018 you can ever possibly make it because you are never going to get that day back.
So that is the kind of thing that drives me, Monday through Sunday, when I wake up and I come to the ballpark. Some days are 18-, 20-hour days. Some days are 12-hour days, and some days during the fall I come in and watch College Football Gameday and enjoy myself and do two hours work and I leave. But the ballpark is part of every single day of my life.
Just to be clear, Parney’s Pub, that’s your office, right?
That’s my office. That’s literally my office. I went down to Montgomery (Richmond also operates the Montgomery Biscuits) one time this winter, and when I came back, where I usually park there was like bricks and stuff in it. And I was like, ‘What is that all about?’
Chuckie had decided that it gets too crowded in [Parney’s Pub] to have my desk around, so Chuckie built me an office that is adjacent to Parney’s Pub. So there is now tables and stuff. So there is like a legitimate pub now that the staff can go into and the coaches come over and the sponsors. It’s become like it’s own phenomenon in Richmond where people want to take a look at Parney’s Pub.
Again it’s like the place people can’t see. It’s looking behind the curtain. I tell the younger people [on staff] to just come in there. You can drink soda or water, you don’t have to drink a beer. Just come in there and sit down and listen. Sometimes Domino will get started on stories from the past. Or Will Clark will walk across when he’s coming in town from the Giants and he’ll sit there and tell some stories. Or our manager, Willie Harris, played 12 years in the big leagues.
One of the things that I love the most about baseball is the storytelling is better than any other sport. If you sit around and listen to the stories, not only are they enjoyable but you’ll learn stuff about the work ethic it takes to get to the highest level and the sacrifices that people made in their lives and careers to get where they are.
You have had the opportunity to work with and for two of the most successful minor league owners and operators in Chuck Domino and Chuck Greenberg, with both being quite influential in a variety of markets. What has that experience been like and how has it influenced you as an operator?
In so many ways I can’t even explain them all. And I’d throw Lou DiBella in that category too, certainly because Lou is a hard-charger and Lou is one of the most well-known boxing promoters in the world, which by the way is a real big place. I think all of the people that I have worked for and alongside have helped me, and I think you pick things up. You pick little pieces of Chuck Greenberg up, you pick little pieces of Lou DiBella up, you pick pieces up of Chuck Domino . . .
And then your friends, the people in the industry you love and adore. I mentioned Andy Milovich, J.J. Gottsch, [former Lake Elsinore Storm President] Dave Oster. [Reading Fightin Phils GM] Scott Hunsicker is certainly somebody that I have learned from. Scott was an intern with us and he followed me around as an intern and now he’s one of the most successful long-term GMs in minor league baseball. Scott never changed one bit. And that is something I took from him.
You are who you are. And that’s why I wear the pants. I wore the pants one night like seven years ago. The next night I wore khakis and the fans said, ‘You’re not even trying anymore. What are you doing?’ And then I thought, ‘OK, they like it.’ Now I can’t even go out to dinner with Tonya without wearing crazy pants because if I walk into the restaurant and I’m wearing jeans people act like they are disappointed. So I think you take things from others and you utilize it into your own brand and your own personality as it fits.
I look back at some of the stories I have written about you and the Flying Squirrels, and there are a lot of wild on-field antics that you have been involved in. Are there any particularly memorable antics from over the years that stick out in your mind?
I think we could probably write a whole book off of the crazy antics. The time that I rode the roller-coaster 500 times in Altoona for charity. I couldn’t walk for three days my legs were so sore after doing that. Just last year I got 2 pounds of mustard, ketchup and relish poured on me to become a human hot dog on the field because a friend of ours charity raised a certain amount of money before the game. It’s all fun and they are all great memories.
That’s one of the things that at the Winter Meetings when we have this little cocktail party that Jason Dambach throws together. All those stories come out and it becomes over time a wow moment where you realize all the things we have done together through the years have not only been fun and they have not only been crazy stories—because I’ve got the crazy stories for you too that usually end up at 4 or 5 or 6 in the morning—but they also really touched a lot of people’s lives. You used the phrase method to the madness, and with every single thing there is a method to the madness—every single thing. And I think that’s why we have impacted so many people’s lives, which is the name of the game.