By Benjamin Hill for Milb.com
Every year, once the season ends, those who work in Minor League front offices find themselves having to answer the following question: “So, what are you going to do now that there’s no baseball?”
The answer, perhaps unfortunately, is not “Lock the stadium gates and go on a six-month vacation.” Far from it, in fact, for Minor League Baseball is truly a year-round business, and what one manages to accomplish in the offseason goes a long way toward determining whether the ensuing campaign is financially and creatively successful.
This edition of “Minoring in Business” features a variety of individuals who took the time to explain (and justify) their offseason existences, shedding light on how the business operates in the time between September’s bittersweet final out and April’s hopeful first pitch.
The view from the top
North Johnson, the general manager of the International League’s Gwinnett Braves, uses a familiar analogy to explain the importance of the offseason.
“It’s easy to think that Christmas just happens, with Santa showing up and dropping off toys,” said Johnson, a veteran of more than three decades in Minor League Baseball. “But back at the North Pole, the elves were in the workshop all year making those toys. That’s us. Opening Day doesn’t just happen. We’re here in the workshop all year long.”
And preparing for the “Christmas” that is Opening Day takes a tremendous amount of foresight.
“We literally started thinking about 2011 in July, rolling out a season ticket renewal plan featuring special incentives to renew before Sept. 1,” said Johnson. “One of the advantages of us being so close to [Major League affiliate] Atlanta is we were able to treat our season-ticket holders to Braves games as well as provide the option to purchase playoff tickets.”
The end of the season brings with it the opportunity to reflect on what has just transpired, a luxury that is in short supply during the daily grind of a 144-game season.
“Last week, we had a three-day staff retreat and talked about everything involved in our operation from A-Z,” said Johnson. “We had our groundskeepers talking about marketing, the promo staff talking about community relations, community relations talking about sales and so on. It’s all about getting everyone engaged, so we can understand what we were able to accomplish together and how it was accomplished.”
Now, the focus is on sales meetings, sponsorship renewals, new hires, marketing campaigns, stadium improvements and a host of other necessary tasks.
“There’s so much to do, and every year things seem to go faster and faster,” said Johnson. “With the business being the way it is, we’ve got to keep our adrenaline pumping 12 months a year.”
As the head of a large-market Triple-A team, much of Johnson’s focus is on coordinating and overseeing the work done by dozens of more specialized staff members. But in smaller locales, a more “do it yourself” mentality prevails by necessity.
Chuck Brockett is the general manager of Iowa’s Burlington Bees, who operate in Minor League Baseball’s smallest full-season market. The first tasks of his offseason require him and his small front-office staff to get their hands dirty.
“We get right into cleaning and painting the stadium, because once spring rolls around, it’s still too cold to do that kind of work,” he said. “We’ve been doing work on the field nonstop, anything we can do now before the weather hits. And then once Nov. 1st comes, it’s time to start the selling season. … Right now it’s nice to be outside, not worrying about numbers, but we’ll be putting our  budget together by the end of the month.”
The Bees recently changed their affiliation from the Kansas City Royals to the Oakland Athletics, and members from the A’s front office will be visiting Burlington’s Community Field next month. A’s director of player development Keith Lieppman is a Bees alumnus, but the facility is sure to be in better shape than it was during his playing days.
[Lieppman] played here back in 1971,” said Brockett. “That was the year the stadium burned down.”
Moving parts and special projects
The Lakewood BlueClaws have one of the most jam-packed promotional schedules in all of Minor League Baseball, filled with giveaway items, celebrity appearances, theme nights and, of course, fireworks. Hal Hansen, the team’s promotions director, will spend the next five months putting it all together. It’s a process he likens to assembling a jigsaw puzzle.
“It’s a delicate balance, because multiple departments have to be consulted before you can get a date locked in on the schedule,” said Hansen, who has been with the team since its 2001 inception. “A lot of times it will depend on the group sales department. For example, if they schedule ‘Scout Night,’ then I’m not going to schedule a kid’s giveaway that day. The reason is that with so many scouts coming to the ballpark, we’d run out of the item early on. This creates the perception that we didn’t have the amount we’d advertised.”
And giveaway items, no matter when they’re scheduled, are often contingent on a sponsor.
“With certain giveaways, you get better pricing the earlier you order,” explained Hansen. “But in this economy, a lot of sponsors are waiting until the last minute before signing on. This can put us in a bad position, in that we might have to pay significantly more for an item than we otherwise would have.
“I know that some teams have announced their whole promotional schedule first and then sold sponsors around that, but that can be a little scary,” he continued. “You could run into a problem in that a potential client doesn’t like the items and wants to do something different, and then you have to add on to a budget that had already been set.”
It can be slow going at first, but as the offseason progresses the promotional schedule rapidly begins to take shape.
“Once it really gets going — and group sales has a few dates penciled in — it’s like dominoes. Everything ends up falling into place,” said Hansen.
While Hansen and his promotionally minded ilk are working on a schedule that will draw fans to the ballpark, individuals such as Jeff Tilley are working on the ballpark itself. Tilley is the stadium operations director for the Iowa Cubs, who play at 11,500-seat Principal Park in Des Moines.
“We’re not a year-round facility, so we aren’t using the majority of the building [in the offseason],” said Tilley. “So the first thing we focus on is shutting things down, cleaning them up, turning off the water supply, that sort of thing. But we still need to maintain the field and the outside grounds. We have a bike path and fountains outside, and we always need to make sure everything is clean and safe.”
The offseason is also a time for special projects. This year, Tilley and his crew will be replacing the wall padding in the outfield, as well as time-consuming chores such as painting and caulking that are difficult to do when thousands of people are visiting the ballpark on a nightly basis. So while there remains plenty of work to be done, Tilley admits that the offseason always requires a bit of an adjustment period.
“We’ve all been so busy for so long, and then all of a sudden it just kind of stops,” he said. “Getting out of work at 5:00 every day feels like a vacation.”
Donny Baarns, the voice of the California League’s Visalia Rawhide, has established himself as one of the best young broadcasters in the Minor Leagues. But when the season ends, he transitions from the mic to the telephone.
“I’ve been doing a lot of sales,” said Baarns, who just finished his third season doing play-by-play for the Rawhide. “There are about 600 clients I keep in contact with, sponsors and season-ticket holders both, and right now I’m reaching out to them as well as trying to drum up new business for next year.”
The offseason also allows time for special projects. Baarns maintains a historically minded Visalia baseball blog called “Goshen and Giddings” (a reference to Recreation Ballpark’s cross streets) and is working on a booklet that will commemorate the 65th anniversary of professional baseball in Visalia. To that end, he’s researching the region’s baseball history and reaching out to team alumni who may be interested in attending the team’s hot stove dinner and in-season promotional events.
And, though baseball has ended, hockey season has begun. Baarns will continue to hone his play-by-play craft by calling games for the Fresno Monsters of the North American Hockey League.
“I’m very fortunate to stay busy with broadcasting,” he said. “It keeps me off the streets.”
On the visual end of the A/V equation is Tulsa Drillers video production manager David Ruckman, whose first season with the club coincided with the team’s move to brand-new ONEOK Field. With no fans to entertain via the stadium’s state-of-the-art videboard, Ruckman has been logging video clips, brainstorming promotions, and preparing video and Powerpoint presentations that can be shown to the team’s sponsors.
And, of course, the videoboard remains a primary focus.
“I’ve been using 3D modeling programs to convert [scoreboard graphics], simulating three dimensions within a two-dimensional environment,” said Ruckman. “This adds depth and dimension and a more professional look, something fans can appreciate as well as sponsors.”
Ruckman is also producing online videos throughout the offseason, including a planned comedic series featuring team mascot Hornsby the bull.
“People associate baseball teams with the baseball season, and then during the offseason it’s out of sight, out of mind,” said Ruckman. “But we look at ourselves more like a TV station, producing entertainment on a weekly or even daily basis.”
The best job in baseball?
John Schumacher serves as the food and beverage director for the Goldklang Group, which owns and operates four Minor League teams. He’s based out of Charleston’s Joseph P. Riley Stadium, home of the RiverDogs, and is in the process of recapping the season that was.
“It’s like opening a new restaurant every year in that you have the luxury of a definitive beginning and end,” he said. “We’re able to take the time to figure out what worked and what didn’t, and what might work in the future.”
A big part of this process is brainstorming new products, and this is where Schumacher’s job begins to sound very enviable.
“During the offseason we have the chance to go to the food shows put on by distributors and visit other sporting venues to see the kind of stuff that they’re doing,” he said. “It’s also really helpful to check out state fairs, because they’re on the cutting edge of what’s crazy. If something can be dropped in a fryer or put on a stick, they’ll do it.”
Once this important research has been completed, the Joseph P. Riley concession area becomes a test kitchen.
“These days everyone in Minor League Baseball is always trying to outdo one another, so we’re always trying to stay ahead of the curve, make a splash, and get some media attention,” said Schumacher.
The RiverDogs have excelled in this area in recent years, gaining attention for their wide array of creatively topped hot dogs (including the half-pound “Homewrecker”) as well as specialty items such as boiled peanuts and turkey legs. This season’s big addition was the “Pickle Dog,” featuring a hollowed-out pickle as the bun.
“In this business, it seems like the eternal question is ‘What’s new?'”, said Schumacher. “There’s no room to sit back on your laurels. We’re trying to invent a new hot dog here, and that’s going to take some work.”
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.