Minor league baseball is full of hard-working people you rarely see, whose efforts behind the scenes make the games happen day after day, year after year. There are few people who have filled that role as long, and as well, as International League President Randy Mobley.
Mobley has spent nearly four decades working in Triple-A baseball, first with the Columbus Clippers and then the International League, taking over as president in 1990. He has helped the sport grow from mom-and-pop operations struggling to turn a profit to a multi-million dollar industry. Mobley is a three-time winner of Minor League Baseball’s Warren Giles Award for outstanding service by a league president and was named Baseball America’s first Executive of the Year.
What follows is my conversation with Mobley about his career and the state of minor league baseball. The transcript has been edited in sports for length and clarity.
Can you explain a little bit what it is you do as a league president? What are your main responsibilities?
It is primarily a role of supporting the clubs in anyway that you can. They are the ones that are in the trenches doing the heavy lifting. But in anyway we can, we support them. And in those cases, we can bring a perspective from this office where there are not too many things that you haven’t seen before, or some version of it. And again that allows us to bring some perspective. I’ll use a lease negotiation as an example: If you’ve got a ballclub and a landlord in discussion, you know that they are anxious to know how things have happened in other cases. “How has somebody done this? Or have you ever seen this?” And we can support the clubs in that way.
You are monitoring your league constitution and bylaws obviously, and making sure people are abiding by those. It’s the same way with the National Association agreement and the same way with player-development contracts. You are trying to remind them of these dates and help them be as efficient as possible in meeting their requirements to others within the league, others in minor league baseball and their major league affiliate. The umpires are also an important part of what happens in the league office on a daily basis. You are adjudicating the issues that arise on the field.
With your official scorers, we’re in an era where every pitch seems to matter and if a pitcher gives up an earned run that he doesn’t think it should be, you’re having an agent call the league office asking to have this looked at or that looked at. That seems to be more and more prevalent. The official scores matter, so the league is handling those situations as well. We’re involved in the big picture, ballclubs being sold, and clubs being relocated. I’m involved in a lot of those matters. Just trying to keep the family as happy as you can. You never know what is at the end of the telephone line. You wake up one morning and have an idea of what you are going to tackle that day, but the first phone call might change that entirely. You just never know.
It’s interesting that you say that more and more you’re hearing from agents representing players and others about disputes over scoring.
Just on this trip that I was on the last couple of days, I had a lengthy conversation with an official scorer. And I said to him: “Much of what you do is similar to what I do, in that I make decisions and if it involves something on the field, in all likelihood one club is going to agree and one club isn’t.
“As an official scorer, it is often times that same type situation. They might not agree with you, but hopefully you convey that you tried to make the best decision and the fairest decision without any bias at all. You’re always going to have different opinions coming from different dugouts watching the same play. And that’s understandable. If everybody keeps it on a professional level and doesn’t make it personal or be overly aggressive, then everybody comes out OK in the end.”
How long have you been involved in minor league baseball?
I started as a part-time intern in 1980 with the Columbus club while I was in graduate school at Ohio State. Back at that point in time, the team had one full time intern, so I was assisting him. It was supporting the retail side of things, which amounted to stocking the souvenir stands, during games making sure inventory supplies were where they needed to be. Basically, it involved in the souvenir operations . . .
How did you work your way up the ladder of minor league baseball?
Well, the next year I was the full-time intern. It would have been 1981. One of the funny parts about that is that our goal that season was to cross $100,000 in souvenir sales. I think we probably have clubs in the industry now, if you throw in a good weekend with a couple of decent weekdays, that do that in a week.
That next year I was the full-time intern in 1981 and was fortunate enough to get hired full-time at the end of the ‘81 season and remain with the team in various capacities through the 1985 season. And in the fall of ‘85, I was fortunate to be selected to go to the league office and work alongside Harold Cooper . . . He retired in late 1990 and I have been president of the International League ever since then.
Harold Cooper is a well-known person throughout your parts and a lot of minor league baseball. I imagine he was a pretty influential person in your life and career. What was he like to work with?
He was just a fantastic teacher. He had experiences from being a clubhouse boy to being a general manager and a league president. He had been involved in getting ballparks built, and just a very well-schooled, very blunt, very upfront individual. He certainly had his enemies, but I think his enemies respected him. Even though they didn’t agree with him, they knew where he stood. He didn’t pull any punches. He was a great mentor and teacher, and to have the opportunity to work alongside him for a number of years was invaluable.
Any particular memories of being involved with his very blunt and upfront side?
Gregg Jefferies played in the very first Triple-A All-Star Game in 1988. We had a situation where he was one of the first players to use a Mizuno bat. We had so few of these bats shipped over. The Mizuno bats, I don’t know if this is the case anymore or not, they were stained in a way that would leave the little bit of the knob on the barrel as well as the handle. When they would dip it into the stain, it left an unstained spot in the handle and the barrel about the size of a quarter.
Somebody objected to Gregg’s bats, claiming his bats were corked and said that’s how they did it, that was the evidence. So they confiscated the bats and sent them to the league office. At that time, our league office was in the first floor of a house in Grove City, Ohio. When the bat arrived, I said to Mr. Cooper, “Do you want me to get this bat X-rayed.” And in no uncertain terms, he said “We’re not X-raying this bat.”
He said to go to the landlord, who had his offices upstairs, get him to get his circular saw out and cut the end of that thing off and we’ll find out. So we go out on the back porch and he fires up the saw and he cuts the end off and it’s just fine. So the bat is no problem. The next day, Gregg Jefferies’ agent calls Mr. Cooper and said, “Gregg wanted to know if he could have his bat back because these are difficult to get into the country and he only gets a few at a time.”
Mr. Cooper says, “Absolutely you could have your bat back. It’s in two pieces. Do you still want it?” The answer was a very disappointed “no” on the other end. Mr. Cooper wasn’t going to fool around with X-raying a bat. He was going to find out and be done with it.
How has the business of minor league baseball changed most over the course of your career?
The way I try to describe it is that we have gotten much more sophisticated in all aspects of the operation. It goes from having small staffs to some clubs having 30 to 40 or maybe even 50 people on staff. Going back to those days when I was on a Triple-A staff, you had a general manager, an assistant general manager, and then I think we had five people, making us one of the larger staffs at the Triple-A level. Whoever would have thought we would now be hiring graphic designers in baseball? Whoever would have thought we would have groundskeepers with graduate degrees? Everything we have done has just gotten so much more specific, detailed, sophisticated. I think that is why business is prospering to a large degree. It’s the attention to details.
We truly were mom-and-pop operations up through some point in the ’70s or early ’80s. It’s not that long ago that a lot of clubs were running on shoestrings. That’s certainly is an exception to the rule these days. The big challenge now is ballparks and the cost of ballparks. Not only the cost of the [new] ballparks, but going through the tremendous building phases [in the 1990s and early 2000s], now some of them are getting a little age on them and require significant financial investment again. Public dollars are much more difficult to come by these days, and that adds to the challenge. Our bread and butter has been family entertainment at affordable prices in a safe environment. When the cost doing business continues to rise, it’s becoming more and more challenging for clubs that don’t want to continue to raise prices to meet their financial obligations.
Are you pleased with the state of the International League? It seems like except for the ballpark situation in Pawtucket that the league is stable with a lot of new or renovated ballparks.
I’m obviously biased but I think we’ve got a great group of folks who do a wonderful job and are very committed to what they are doing. So things are good. We’ll bring the Mets into the league next year [in Syracuse], so that will be a change for us. I think that ownership has certainly stabilized that franchise for an extended period of time. I think that was necessary to ensure Triple-A baseball in Syracuse for a number of years going forward.
We’ve got the Pawtucket ballpark situation that’s the hot issue right now and has been for a while. But I think that will come to some head here before too long. I would certainly love to see it stay right there in Pawtucket if at all possible. That community has been so very supportive. You don’t like to leave situations like that. You hope things can be worked, so we do hope that can happen. But we left Richmond and hated to leave, but if circumstances make that necessary then you can’t be afraid to do it. We’ll see what happens.
And then there is Charlotte, where the team went from being on the outskirts of town and one of the worst-drawing teams in the International League to now one of the top teams in all of minor league baseball.
There may be others that want to argue that there is somebody on par with what they’ve got going there, but I don’t think there is anybody having any more success or doing a better job or has a better facility.
Triple-A is unique in that it is part of affiliated baseball but also its own separate business. Can you explain how that works and the success and challenges you’ve had creating the various events you put on?
This goes back to the ownership of the teams back in 1998 when the American Association dissolved. In 1988, we started the Triple-A all-star game. It was a situation where the ownership of the clubs got together to do some things. That game has obviously developed into a fantastic event; the 31st one is here in a couple of weeks.
Once the American Association dissolved after the 1997 season, one of the things talked about was to be able to have a Triple-A International champion. In 1993, the three leagues got together and had a championship in Louisville, which was anti-climatic. The winning team actually was sitting in the stands and won as a result of what happened on the field between the other two teams. But with the move to just two leagues in 1998, it allowed us to have a national championship game. The activity since then has been very positive . . .
Has the championship game become more successful in recent years as you limited it to one game and rotated it among your top franchises?
Early on we had a series out in Las Vegas, where we played seven games, we played five games. We learned a lot from that. That wasn’t the right kind of approach to take. In fact, one of the programming guys at ESPN at the time suggested to us, “Why don’t you play one game of winner-take-all?” I was right there at the top of the list just laughing at him saying that’s not baseball . . .
Later, we said why don’t we just try this [and play a winner-take-all series]? So we did and we played it there in Oklahoma City for five years. The city was very good to us in supporting it. That was another phase of it. We learned some things there. We learned that it wasn’t something that was going to have a long, long-term future there. So we decided to try that all-star game approach. We’ll take it to a different city each year and make it a special event. That’s worked out well for us. There certainly has been growth in that event. It’s gone from being a seven-game series at one point in time in Las Vegas to now being a rotating one-game, winner-take-all in different cities.
Minor League Baseball took some heat in the offseason with the new experimental extra-inning rules as part of its role as a testing grounds for the majors. How do you feel about the minors serving as a guinea pig of sorts for the majors?
I think within reason that makes a lot of sense. Again, my personal opinion, I don’t think that qualifies here [with the extra-inning rules] because I don’t think they are testing for anything. I don’t think they have any intention of doing this at the major league level. The commissioner has said that. I don’t think this falls into that category of being a test.
This is all about saving arms, not pitchers throwing, in their mind, unnecessary innings. It’s about eliminating position players from pitching when you get into the 13th and 14th innings. So I think this one is in a different category than the testing area. With the clocks, I think there is a degree of testing involved there. I think we have to be careful to separate those two types of things.
I’m sure you have a wealth of good memories when you look back on your career. But are there any specific highlights that really stand out for you?
It’s mostly the people. I don’t get to know players in this role, but I do get to know field managers. It’s wonderful to see people come through and go on to have long-term success. It’s enjoyable to have worked with farm directors over the years that have gone on to be general managers and have other successful positions. It is great to be able to work with the folks that I do around the league on a daily basis, and a lot of them haven’t gone anywhere. We’re quite fortunate to have guys working with their teams for 20, 30, 40 years. Those people obviously are very special to me. They have been in the trenches. They are the people making this league what it is. It’s a privilege to work with people that are committed and care as much about the game and the fans as they do.