International League president Randy Mobley likes to joke that he never knows where Norfolk Tides president Ken Young is going to call in from on the road.
Young, a man of many hats with a unique background as a team owner, is the veritable "Where's Waldo" of minor league baseball. However, he's no simple face in the crowd, but rather one of the most respected, and busy, operators in the game.
Look, there is Young in the International League, where he purchased the Norfolk Tides from the New York Mets in 1992 and has since kept the team among the league's annual attendance leaders and steadiest franchises.
Young can be spotted in the Pacific Coast League, too, where he guided the return of baseball to Albuquerque in 2003 and the renovation of a deteriorating ballpark into one of the minors' finest facilities.Young pops up in the Eastern and Carolina leagues, where since 2006 he has owned and served as team president for a pair of Orioles affiliates: Double-A Bowie and high Class A Frederick.
Remarkably, Young is equally active behind the scenes. He serves as the Joint Triple-A Board of Trustees representative, the chairman of the Minor League Baseball marketing committee and is a member of the sport's finance committee as well. He also serves on the executive committees of the IL and the PCL.
"Ken has been a wonderful addition to the league since coming aboard in the early '90s. He brought a different perspective," Mobley said.
Man On The Run
For a person with so many roles, it only makes sense that the seemingly universal description of Young's biggest attribute is perspective.
Perspective that comes from being in the food service business for 37 years, and running his own companies for 25 years. Perspective from growing those businesses into one, Ovations Food Services, that is now a multi-million dollar company that services and advises teams around the game. And, of course, the perspective of transferring that knowledge of customer service to the stewardship of several successful teams—and the willingness to share his wisdom with anyone who asks.
"It's hard to catch Ken in his office if you want to talk to him because he's always following activities related to his business, or the development of new business," Pacific Coast League president Branch Rickey said. "When you couple his role in baseball with the fact that he is active with Ovations Food Services . . . Well, he certainly wears a number of hats and does a tremendous job of juggling meetings and obligations. He always makes it look fairly easy. It's amazing the number of occasions he is able to be there when you need him."
A New Role
Young blended into minor league baseball more than he broke into it. Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner was operating the Kissimmee affiliate in the Florida State League in the early '90s when he first met Young, who had signed on to run the team's concessions. Young mentioned to O'Conner his desire to own a team someday, to which O'Conner suggested that he start out with "a short-A club. Maybe make a few dollars."
"He called me back six weeks later to say he just signed a contract to buy the Norfolk Tides," O'Conner said. "So much for sticking your toe in the water."
That opportunity came about when then-Mets vice president Al Harrison, whom Young knew from the days when Harrison ran Memorial Stadium for the Orioles, informed Young of the organization's desire to sell their Triple-A affiliate. They wanted to offer it to him.
"My first reaction was hell, I don't know," Young said. "I've never thought of anything like that."
But Young took the offer and hasn't looked back.
He got a second shot at ownership when he purchased the struggling Calgary PCL franchise and moved it to Albuquerque, a town that saw affiliated baseball disappear three years earlier. A renovated ballpark, a new team name and a dedication to customer service have assured baseball will remain in town for the long haul.
"The Albuquerque situation is so representative of (Young's) problem-solving skills," Rickey said. "When you compare what is going on there now with what proceeded it
. . . it is a quantum leap forward. And Ken has done it through a variety of ways.
"Consider that he didn't have any particular inside connections in the marketplace. He's done it by working with city officials who didn't even know Ken's name before he got there. He's done it by bringing in management that was new to the city. He's done it by bringing in a team name (Isotopes) that some people would have said was the wildest, rashest choice and has turned magical in the city . . . Albuquerque is one of the favorite stops of players and field staff in our league, and people in the city are wonderfully proud of the stadium."
Young has found the task of juggling Triple-A affiliates on opposite sides of the country an entertaining challenge. The teams are in contrasting markets, and Young quickly realized that he needs to treat them individually.
"You have to look from a marketing end at what would go over in each market. You have to look at that individually and determine what works in each market," he said. "That is where a GM who lives in that market is so important. I'd listen to him and the rest of the staff, and maybe ask 'This has worked in Norfolk, and why would it or won't it work in Albuquerque?' Ticket buying habits might be different in one place than a different place. When we're making certain decisions, we'll bring three or four key members in and listen to them. We get our best input from those people. I'm not the type of manager in any of my businesses that feels I make a decision unilaterally and not get some kind of consensus, not get input from people."
However, he has found that a dedication to customer service—the same model that made Ovations such a success—has been key in Norfolk and Albuquerque. For ultimately, the secret to success in the minor leagues remains the same, no matter the location.
"No matter where you are, it comes down to having fun at the ballpark," he said. "It still comes down to providing fun for everybody. If people leave and they had fun and were treated right, they're going to come back. That's why minor league baseball draws 43 million people a year."
Young has also had to make tough business decisions that appear to be paying off in both Norfolk and Albuquerque. After the Orioles' longtime relationship with the Rochester Red Wings fell through in 2002, Young pounced on the opportunity to bring the team to Norfolk—even if it meant parting ways with the Mets. The lure of bringing a regional team to town, coinciding with the Orioles' creation of the MASN television network, was too much to pass up.
Young was faced with a similar decision in Albuquerque following the 2008 season. The team had been a Marlins affiliate since its revival in Albuquerque began in 2003. However, the city had been a longtime Dodgers outpost before the team left town in 2000. So when the Dodgers pulled out of Las Vegas, Young didn't hesitate to return Albuquerque to its roots.
"We had a great relationship with the Marlins, but having the opportunity to get the Dodgers back was a natural," Young said. "Giving up the Marlins was difficult, although they understood the reasons for doing so. But the Dodgers have been great to work with. They have been a real partner. They even sent us Manny Ramirez for a couple of games.
"My feeling, again, is that you have to evaluate a lot of things. You have to evaluate your relationship with major league teams, not just on wins and losses, but how they are willing to work on things with you."