What does a dancing mascot, a team owner and a stable full of general managers have in common? Yep, you guessed it, they were all interviewed as part of the Talking Baseball series on Bandbox News.
With the minor league season nearly in the books, let’s take a look back at excerpts from some of the most memorable interviews (listed chronologically) from the first year of the website dedicated to covering the business of minor league baseball. Click here to read all of the Talking Baseball interviews.
Have a comment or a story of your own to tell? Send it to me on Twitter at @bandboxnews.
Chuck Greenberg has owned four minor league teams and has served as president of a major league team, so he certainly has a good perspective on what it takes to run a successful franchise. In our conversation, Greenberg discussed the similarities in his approach to running franchises in distinctly different markets.
What they all have in common is that from Altoona to State College to Myrtle Beach to Frisco to the Rangers, people are people. They want to be treated well. They want to know that you genuinely care about them. They want to feel an intimate connection with the franchise. They want to be heard. And they want to know that they really matter.
While we don’t take ourselves seriously at all, we take our charge with our fans and our communities very seriously and with a great deal of passion and with a 365-day commitment. And whether that is doing good work in the community during the seven months of the offseason. And whether it is reinventing our show on a nightly basis so that whether you go to one night a year or every game all year, you’re going to find it fresh and new every night. Or taking what is going to be the eventual bad experience that a fan has no matter how hard you try, and turning what is initially angst on the part of the fan into appreciation for hearing them out and taking good care of them and for what I always say is working backwards from yes to just take care of them.
We take a great deal of pride in all of that and that’s why I think all five operations during my time with them have been known for not only being fan friendly but truly, passionately, 100 percent committed to our fans. And I say it all the time. Just take good care of people. It’s not that hard. Just take good care of people. Just say yes and figure it out.
Jason Klein, the co-founder of the sports branding and marketing company Brandiose, which has designed new logos for nearly half of the teams in minor league baseball, talks about the importance of making a splash.
People always ask if it is the worst thing when someone hates what you do. No, the worst thing is if they are apathetic about the work that we create. Whether you are a baseball team or a sports team or a business, or whatever you are working on, your brand is dead [if they are apathetic]. You want people to talk about it. You want to build excitement. There are always going to be detractors, and that debate back and forth about anything is good for the brand. So ultimately the lovers always convert the haters, whether that is outside minor league baseball or inside minor league baseball, everybody comes around.
There likely is not a more creative promoter than Lehigh Valley IronPigs General Manager Kurt Landes. From launching a successful, if sometimes controversial, team branding to creating a variety of promotions that have been adopted by other teams, Landes has long been a trendsetter in minor league baseball. Here are his thoughts on the ingredients of a successful promotion.
I think there are two different types of promotions for us. There is a thing like LeBron James [coming to play for the IronPigs] that is an idea and it comes up quickly and you have to be willing to take advantage of it when you hear about it. The idea for LeBron James, from start to finish, there wasn’t a lot of time. It is kind of a pop culture event that comes up quickly and you can get some buzz and PR from it if you act quickly.
Back when I was [GM] in Hagerstown, I think [the Phillies sold] Citizens Bank Park naming rights for something crazy for back then like $95 million. We had a sponsor who said I wish I could spend $95 million to make a name for myself and make a splash. We came up with the idea of while I can’t sell it to you for $95 million and you can’t afford naming rights in Hagerstown, I’ll sell naming rights to the field for $95 for one week and we’ll do a one-week promotion. And that hit the papers and the AP wire and went around the country. That small promotion of doing naming rights promotions for $95 was kind of a tongue-in-cheek way of saying that we do things differently in Hagerstown than in Philadelphia. But that sponsor had a lot of love just because we did that for $95 for one week . . .
It’s just about seizing opportunities when they become open. In Hagerstown, we rained out the first three days of the season one year. And being the Suns, for Game Four we had enough. We changed our name to the Raindrops until we finally played a regulation game. So that is just taking advantage of an opportunity when you have something real quick like LeBron James.
But the other type of promotions are the ones that, for it to be successful, you really have to plan out and do correctly. So, if it is the Smell the Change campaign with the bacon-themed jerseys, and Bacon USA and bacon stripe on the hat. Or if it’s Bacon vs. Tacos or the Salute to Philly Night, which we [changed our name to the] Cheesesteaks. Between the bacon and the Cheesesteaks, that really started the whole process across minor league baseball of doing food monikers. Those were a little more thought out, planned out. You have a microsite. You have a careful run out of the logo and the brand. So I guess it is a combination of intense planning and thought to do it right versus also having to seize the opportunity when you see it and go for it.
The Hands Free Urinal Games, that is one of the hugest things we have done here. And that was planned out for two years. It took us a long time to find someone that had the product or could build the product. That idea we had for at least two or three years before we could introduce it.
By the end of this season, Ben Hill will have visited every minor league ballpark during his time as a reporter for MiLB.com. Here he talks about similarities he sees in baseball’s best-run franchises.
It’s so hard to compare things across minor league baseball given how diverse teams can be and what level of play they are at. One thing for me, I often show up at a ballpark on an off night, on a Monday or a Wednesday or whenever. I always hear from the teams, that ‘you should have been here yesterday or you should have been here on Saturday,’ wishing that I was there to cover some energetic night. What I find is the teams that still bring it on those off nights are a lot of my favorite teams. There might not be much going on in terms of crowd energy, but they are like ‘This is our job and this is what we have planned and let’s just go for it.’
And I think that is really important, to keep up that energy even on the bad nights. I think that in a lot of cases where you can see people trying and see people have this spirit of why not? That is what I relate to most and I do think that translates to an overall successful front office, because I think it ends up with people invested in the product you are trying to provide every night.
The passion that Todd “Parney” Parnell has for minor league baseball may not be easy to replicate, but there certainly is a method to his madness that can be considered a learning tool. Give a read as Parney discusses why he loves minor league baseball so much and the impact teams can have on communities and individuals.
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 . . .
When Chuck Domino called me and told me that [team owner] Lou [DiBella] 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.
Dominic Latkovski and his BirdZerk and Zooperstars traveling acts have been entertaining fans at minor league ballparks around the country for nearly three decades. Dominic discusses how the game has evolved over that time and what he hopes BirdZerk and Zooperstars influence has been.
Back then, we performed in Toledo at their old stadium before they got their nice new stadium downtown. Jacksonville went from an old one to a nice new one. Louisville from an old one to a new one. I’ve seen a lot of new stadiums come along. I remember when Norfolk had a nice new one and now it is one of the older ones in the International League.
You see it all. You see the real nice fancy ones, like the one the Great Lakes Loons have, where you could seriously eat off of the floor where the groundscrew keep their equipment. It’s that clean. Then you go to other places, and it’s dirty and worn down . . . I’m not naming any names, but you just see it all.
In the end, none of that matters because we know we are there to entertain people and help people have a great time. So that when they leave the game and go home, they have that memory of when they went to a game and saw Harry Canary sing during the seventh-inning stretch. And they saw Mike Rainbow Trout eat the batboy and spit him out in his underwear. And when they saw BirdZerk throw the third baseman’s glove over the wall.
I have [similar] vivid memories of the San Diego Chicken and Max Patkin and Captain Dynamite and all of them from when I was a kid. I can’t tell you the score of the games or how many hits Willie McGee had when he played for the Redbirds, but I can still see Max Patkin coaching first base and spitting that steamy spit stuff in the air. I can remember Captain Dynamite’s box blowing up, Morgana running across the field calling timeout. That’s the stuff I can remember.
Fort Wayne TinCaps President Mike Nutter spoke passionately about his career in minor league baseball, including his rise from a college intern with the Kane County Cougars to his current role. Here’s the advice he gives his interns on how to be successful in the minors:
My mom’s background is as a teacher and a guidance counselor, and so a lot of times I’m trying to go out to the colleges and a lot of the high schools. If anybody asks, I’ll just get out there and do it and talk to them at the career days . . . Everybody [asks], ‘Hey, how do I get your job?’ And as cliche as it is, you gotta start. You just gotta start somewhere at the bottom . . .
I’m not trying to be the crotchety old guy, but I do pull our interns aside a lot and will talk about things like, Did you know that Jared Parcell—that’s our director of group sales in the office next to me—was the clubbie in Beloit? And these people will be like, No way, is that even true? Yes. He wanted to get in the game. He knew when he got in, that he’d do it.
For me, one of the biggest things that I got to do with Bill [Larsen] and the crew at Kane way back in the stone age, was the concession stuff. We managed our concessions—I want to be clear, I am not against the third-party stuff, but the teams that I’ve worked for, we’ve always done it. And trust me, it’s a lot easier not to do your own concessions, but I personally feel like we want to have the control and if there are changes to be made it’s on us, and when we don’t meet fans’ expectations, it’s on us. So those early days come in handy a lot.
I think back, when I was first starting out in sales, I wish the technology existed that we could hear how bad my sales pitches were and the voicemails we were leaving people, and things like that. So I do try and pull these younger guys and gals in and say, ‘Listen, just relax a little bit. You’re seeing some other people have success. And your time will come.’ And sometimes they will say, Hey do you have an example about this or that. And you can go into a story either about yourself or somebody else you’ve known over the years where it’s like, it’ll come.
You know everybody is in love with the term ‘the process’ now. But there is some of that even in the case of us in the front offices, not the players. You just don’t become [an expert] in sales and those kind of things, you have to hone your craft.
Mike Birling has been at the helm of minor league baseball’s most iconic franchise for nearly two decades. Birling, a Wisconsin native who began his career in the Midwest, discusses how the Durham Bulls market themselves differently than most other teams.
It impacts us a ton. We’re fortunate that we get attention because of who we are. But with that I think there is a certain standard that we are expected to uphold, or at least we kind of force that upon ourselves. You know, we like doing crazy promotions just like all of the other minor league teams, but we’re not going to push it over a certain level. We just don’t feel like that is what this team is about. This team is an iconic brand. It’s a brand that, like I said, everybody is looking towards. We’re not going to be the ones that step out and do some of the things that minor league teams do to get attention.
Now on the other side, we’re fortunate that we don’t have to do that, because we do get attention because of who we are. But I think there is a standard. We kind of look at ourselves as the 31st major league team. And we have a responsibility with that. That’s kind of how we guide things. Everything we do, we always want to be the first. We always want to be the most technologically sound. We always want to be pushing the envelope, but not necessarily on a wacky, crazy promotional side. We want to push the envelope on a fan side, on a fan experience side, on a technology side. I think we are always going to try to lead by example that way.
Amy Venuto has gone from selling for minor league teams to training and advising teams on how make the most of their sales opportunities. Venuto is one of the longest-tenured women in the game, and here she discusses the challenges women in minor league baseball face and the changes she has seen in the game.
I think there are two challenges for a woman and I think a lot of women would agree with me on this. The first challenge is I don’t think a lot of people view us as being equally sincere in our dedication toward the business. There is an absolute stigma that we’re in it to meet the players. That stigma exists. I bet you every woman in the business has faced that stigma. Whether or not she has been good in that area, I’m telling you that every woman has been accused of that.
I think that is unfortunate because there are so many women that I know that have been A-plus, and are in it for the right reasons. I can tell you that when I worked for Mandalay, there was a senior adviser with Mandalay—not with the team but with Mandalay—he used to say that he wasn’t going to hire women as salespeople because they cry. He said this. If that ever came out today, there would be huge trouble. And this guy has done really well in his career, too. This is on a societal nature and isn’t just sports, but maybe people don’t take us as seriously because they think we are going to go home and raise kids.
Then the other challenge that we face . . . this is a boys network. I know for a fact that there were times I did not get the same salary as a male equivalent, or times where I did not get promoted. I remember one time I had an opportunity at a position, it was an assistant general manager position, and my supervisor went golfing with another guy and all of a sudden I find out that he was going to be the assistant general manager. I know I have had to work harder to get the things that would have been given [to a male peer].
I used to serve as the MC for the Women in Baseball Leadership Event and there are too many stories [like mine] that exist from women who are incredibly impactful in the business. I think there is a boy’s network and I think there is a stigma that’s attached to us. And, you know, unfortunately there are some women who did the wrong things. And we struggle with that. That’s why I don’t get angry about that, that just makes myself and other people who are like me hold ourselves to such a high standard that we do turn the tide and I think definitely [create] change. Gosh, I started in ‘94, and the years that I’ve been in, it is so much better now . . .
It’s gotten better. It still has a lot of room to grow. I was reading some of the articles that you had written, I think Mike Birling and Kurt Landes both said something like, ‘You know I was meeting with somebody and he is going to buy a team and he said do you want to be my AGM.’ That doesn’t happen anymore. That’s the way it used to be. And I know they were both very hard workers. Mike Birling is amazing and Kurt is probably my biggest client, so I am very tight with him. I am blown away by how talented he is. And Mike Birling, I’ve gotten to work with him, and I am blown away by how talented he is. So there is nothing against how they got their start.
Nowadays, I know this from owners that they are hiring people as GMs with a sales background. If women don’t start taking on sales—and there is still a trepidation of taking on sales by women more so than in men—and if they don’t start taking on that role and learning how to manage and grow a sales department, we will continue to have more organizational roles.
Staying on top of current trends is important to Reno Aces President Eric Edelstein, who has worked in markets of all shapes and sizes, from Jamestown (N.Y.) to Wichita (Kan.) to Northwest Arkansas. Here is why he believes being able to adapt is so important:
I just sent an article to our executive staff yesterday that Walmart is testing Waymo autonomous vehicles in Chandler, Ariz., where if you order your groceries online, they will send the autonomous vehicle to come get you and bring you to Walmart, where you will have your groceries loaded and then send you back home. And the premise of the idea is that the value of the customer is worth more than the cost of the ride, so Walmart is going to look at footing the bill.
Well, we are probably a little ways away from that being real, but we are probably closer than you realize. If you can be the place that says, ‘Hey, if you live within 20 miles of the ballpark, we’ll pay to get you here,” how many more fans could we attract? We try to stay on top of the [publications like] “Inc.com, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company.” Those are some of my favorite publications that I try to stay on top of and see if we can jump the trends a little bit here . . .
Especially around baseball, the game is this really casual experience which unfortunately has less and less to do with the actual game itself and more and more to do with the actual experience around the game. So I’m not just looking at what other baseball teams are doing. What are movie theaters doing? What are malls doing? What are festivals doing? Trying to capture all those places that try to bring you in, that help people gather, we have to figure out what they are doing too, and then try to apply those to what we do.
I have said before that I look at what we do as live-action dinner theater. The only thing that I don’t control is the game. I still have my own opinions on the game and that is still why I am in the business, because I love the game of baseball. But the business is being driven by things that don’t have as much to do with the game itself anymore. Time will tell. Major League Baseball certainly has seen a pinch point this year. Is it an anomaly? I don’t know. Have we gone too far into placating and catering to those people just looking to have a good time to the point where we haven’t built strong baseball fans? I don’t know, but those are questions we are going to have to figure out in the next few years.