BIRMINGHAM–With the small distraction of a presidential election going on in the background, a couple of hundred baseball executives have gathered in the South’s most-nicknamed city for Minor League Baseball’s annual promotional seminar.
This is my first visit to Birmingham, but already I have seen it referred to as the "Magic City," "Diverse City" and "Pittsburgh of the South." Situated as we are across the street from the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex, site of many an NCAA basketball game, I remember this as "the place where Dean Smith reminded Rick Pitino of his place in the coaching firmament in a 1995 regional final."
The first full day of the seminar went swimmingly, but the more obvious question you’re probably asking is, "What the heck is the minor league promotional seminar?" It began in El Paso, Texas, in the late 1980s as an informal gathering of friends of Jim Paul, who was the owner and general manager of El Paso’s Texas League team at the time.
The seminar grew up over time, becoming a more organized event–though still with a decidedly casual feel–that drew at least a hundred people a year to lovely west Texas. When Paul sold the Diablos and got out of baseball, he also sold the seminar to Minor League Baseball. MiLB initially tried to package the seminar with the short-lived Triple-A World Series in Las Vegas in the late 1990s, but neither of those ideas worked.
Taking it to random cities such as Cincinnati in subsequent years also didn’t stir much interest, but moving it to minor league cities in the last few years seems to have given the event new life. I attended one of the seminars in El Paso in 1994, and one in Las Vegas, and this one does a much better job of capturing the casual feel of El Paso with a well-organized agenda and some good changes.
The basic idea is that a GM or other front-office member from a minor league team will stand up in front of the gathered masses and talk about a promotion or other idea that his or her team tried, what the team learned about what worked or didn’t work, and how the idea could be replicated in other parks.
It plays on one of the best qualities of the minor leagues; namely, that its members are more than willing to share ideas with one another. And while the old format just featured a never-ending series of half-hour speeches for three days, the new format brings new ideas, like more rapid-fire presentations and breakout groups that allow for more interaction, that improve on the time-tested formula.
Can’t Improve On The Classics
And yet with all that, the highlights of the first day were not related to promotions at all. If you’re interested in that stuff, don’t worry, I’ll get to that in future posts. But for now, the magic moments in the Magic City came from two baseball institutions that have stood the test of time.
The first is Roland Hemond, the longtime baseball executive who now works as a special assistant with the Diamondbacks. We have written many times about Roland’s greatness at BA, so just search for his name on our site if you want to read the whole story of his life in baseball. I’ve had the good fortune to see Roland speak many times, and what always blows me away is his humility, his love of people, and the connections he has to seemingly everyone in the game.
You may already know that Roland gave both managers and GMs in last year’s World Series their first jobs in baseball, and just try to find a prominent baseball executive who isn’t connected to him in some way. "Six Degrees of Roland Hemond" would be an unbeatable baseball party game. The one I learned about today was Bill Smith, the new GM of the Twins. Not only did Roland help Smith get his first job in the game, but he also served in the Coast Guard with Smith’s father. What an amazing life, and what an amazing man.
Hemond spoke off the cuff for about a half-hour to kick off the seminar, talking about everything from Bill Veeck to his efforts to promote college education among players and executives to his wisdom for professional life: know people’s names, return your phone calls, turn adversity into a positive, accept criticism well, don’t let the tough days get to you, and let your imagination run rampant.
"Major league success is built on the work of the minor leagues," he said. "That’s what you’re accomplishing, and it’s beyond my imagination from when I started in this game."
So if that wasn’t enough, we also got to visit Rickwood Field this evening, which purports to be America’s oldest ballpark. It was built in 1910 and served as the home of the Birmingham Barons until 1987. It also was the home of the city’s Negro League team, the Black Barons. The Barons moved to the suburbs in 1988, but volunteers in Birmingham have kept Rickwood in great shape since. The Barons also come back for one game a year–the Rickwood Classic–when they play in throwback uniforms and fans can enjoy the old park again.
Rickwood has also served as a vintage park in movies and commercials, so the advertisements in the outfield remain as genuine period reproductions. The park still has seats and light standards that came from the old Polo Grounds, and when you walk in you really do feel like you’re stepping back in time.
We got to walk around the grandstands and through the clubhouses, but the real treat was walking across the same grass where Willie Mays once patrolled the outfield, then passing through an opening in the wood outfield fence to see the ballpark’s original, concrete fence, which featured distances approaching 500 feet to all fields. I also got to climb up to the park’s old manual scoreboard in left-center and check the view from there.
All in all, a great way to spend an evening. I have photos, so if they look decent and I can get them into blog form, I’ll post them tomorrow. Otherwise, we’ll update you on some promotional ideas and the latest from the presidential front.
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