Greenberg Ready For Jump To Major Leagues
Longtime minor league owner takes those roots to Texas
Todd Parnell was certain he would never work for Chuck Greenberg. But Greenberg isn't accustomed to taking no for an answer.
Greenberg had just bought the Eastern League's Altoona Curve in 2001, and his search for a general manager led him to Parnell, who was then a 35-year-old running the South Atlantic League's Kannapolis Intimidators in his native North Carolina.
"I told him right out of the chute that I wasn't interested, and three hours later he told me to figure out my compensation package," Parnell said. "I had built my dream house on Lake Norman, was working near the area I'm from. But the more we talked, there was an instant connection, instant energy with each other. I felt in talking to him there would be some special things happening."
"My wife and I visited Altoona (a few days later). Chuck knew then that I was locked in, so he spent 24 straight hours not talking with me, but talking with my wife. So he is smart in knowing the proper matchups." After a three-hour conversation, Greenberg knew he had his man. Parnell signed on with Greenberg and helped build Altoona into a model franchise over the next few years, the first of many winning moves for Greenberg on his rise through the minors to the majors—a familiar path for players but not one often followed by owners.
Now eight years and three teams later, Greenberg is on the cusp of purchasing the Texas Rangers as the managing partner and CEO of an ownership group that includes Nolan Ryan. The deal to purchase the team from bankrupt owner Tom Hicks has been held up by Hicks' creditors, but it's expected to be approved by the 29 other major league owners as soon as possible this spring.
"I never sat around and thought that I'd like to own a major league team someday, but certainly I always thought growing up that I wanted to be a part of sports," said Greenberg, a Pittsburgh lawyer. "Baseball has always been extra special to me. I can't say I charted a course for this, but in hindsight I'd say this is a culmination of a dream and I can't wait to get started."
From Altoona To MLB
Greenberg, 48, got his first taste of professional sports when he helped his friend and hockey legend Mario Lemieux purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins and save the team from bankruptcy in 1999. Greenberg became the club's attorney and led sometimes heated negotiations with the city for the Penguins' new arena—a $290 million venue set to debut next season.
But it was in the minors where Greenberg cut his teeth as a team owner, an opportunity that came in 2001 when bickering Altoona owners Bob Lozinak and Tate DeWeese read about Greenberg's success with Lemieux.
"They told me they have this nice little franchise in this nice part of town with this beautiful little ballpark," Greenberg said. "The only problem was that they couldn't get along and that the only way to settle their differences was to sell. They asked me if I was interested, and sight unseen, I said sure."
Greenberg overcame the collapse of the financial sector following the Sept. 11 attacks and closed the deal on the eve of the 2002 season. What followed was a whirlwind course in Ownership 101 that shaped how Greenberg and those who work for him conducted business.
"That first season was wild in a number of respects," said Greenberg, who sold Altoona back to Lozniak in 2008—at a considerable profit—to focus on his other two teams, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Carolina) and State College Spikes (New York-Penn), and the consulting group he started with Parnell. "I had spent my career, up to that point, working with sports franchises and franchise owners and having a good birds-eye view of everything in between. But it is still different the first time on your own. It was my first time making decision for my own account opposed to just advising others."
"We took over on the eve of the season when we had no offseason to prepare. So there were many nights Parny and (sales director) Rick Janac and I would be on the phone until 2 or 3 in the morning. We often said, 'By the time we get to the Winter Meetings, we're going to look back and laugh. But the Winter Meetings seem like a long time away.' "
What developed was an organization committed to creativity and customer service, and it started at the top. After an elderly fan once complained to Greenberg that the stadium's picnic tables were being monopolized by corporate outings, for example, Greenberg made sure more tables were added to the concourse for the next game.
"He is involved and participatory, but that's not a bad thing," Parnell said. "There are some baseball players who are really, really good in their own right. And there are players who are really, really good in their own right and make guys around them better—and that is Chuck Greenberg."
The idea for the now famous Awful Night came after the 2002 season during a team retreat, when Greenberg suggested that because they spend so much time trying to do things right, on one night the team should be committed to doing everything wrong. What resulted was an evening at the ballpark when every player's name was misspelled and vendors added Spam to the menu. Every other night, however, Greenberg worked to ensure the ballpark experience was anything but awful for fans."One of the reasons that Parny, Rick and I meshed so well was that we had a shared vision of a franchise that would be passionate and completely committed to our fans," Greenberg said. "We decided that we would take what we did seriously without taking ourselves seriously and embrace every opportunity we could to get better without questioning who the source of the questions or critiques might be . . . We were not so proud to think that we had a monopoly on wisdom.
Greenberg made good on his promise of a grand future in 2006 when he purchased Myrtle Beach and debuted a new franchise in State College, playing in a new ballpark it shared with Penn State. Parnell supervised both operations in addition to serving as president of the Greenberg Sports Group.
"Opening up a new ballpark and purchasing a new team within 10 days is not a good prescription for mental health or a good night's sleep," Greenberg said.
Greenberg's goal was to replicate the Altoona experience at his two new ballparks, which was easier in State College because it was close to Altoona and a blank slate. Myrtle Beach was more of a challenge. Greenberg hired North Johnson, a longtime Carolina and California League executive, to run the team and embarked on a $2.5 million ballpark renovation.
Johnson said Greenberg's brilliance comes from his ability to see both the small and big picture. It was Greenberg who suggested that the Pelicans move their ticket booth and add a concession stand where fans enter the ballpark in right field.
"The renovation seems like a simple thing, but it had a huge impact on our fans' experience walking into the ballpark," said Johnson, who left the Pelicans this winter to become GM of the Gwinnett Braves (International). "Chuck understands the right sensory experiences that fans need to have. We put in a million-dollar scoreboard, which is unheard of for a Class A team. We have cameras all over the park and a production room that is state of the art. He pushed us to make sure that we are always thinking out of the box."
The Pelicans set an attendance record in 2008, when they had one of the best teams in the minors, and did the same in 2009, when they had one of the worst.
"It took a while, but by the time of our second full season in 2008, it felt like going to a ballpark in Altoona except for nicer weather in the spring," Greenberg said. "I had friends who would go from one ballpark to another and see if they could spot any instances if we were coming up short in one area. While our presentation was unique to the community, the spirit and energy and fun and irreverence was common to all three ballparks."
Walking The Concourses
Now Greenberg has to answer the same question as every top prospect moving up from the minors: Can he make it in the big leagues?
Greenberg has no intention of turning Rangers Ballpark in Arlington into an over-sized minor league facility; Awful Night will not follow him to Texas. "I think Awful Night has been laid to a dignified and deserved rest," he joked. "We had a lot of fun with it, but I do not look forward to giving away pictures of my employees' gallbladders)."
Instead, he hopes to merge the customer service and ballpark experience he mastered in the minors with the on-field traditions of the major leagues.
"The key distinction between the majors and the minors is that in the minors you'd rather win than lose, but it's not about winning. It's the experience of the ballpark because we have no control over what takes place on the field," Greenberg said. "In the majors we do have control, so winning is very important. But what takes place in the ballpark has to be about more than that. While we have to be committed to building a ballclub that can win on the field, that is not a substitute for getting out in the community, creating a family-friendly environment, creating a fun atmosphere at the ballpark and doing the things that fans will enjoy," Greenberg said. "Being completely focused on winning and being completely focused on delivering a great product—those are two things that are not mutually exclusive."
Those who have worked with Greenberg have little doubt that the model he has built in the minors will work in the big leagues.
"I think he will be a new breed of owners," Parnell said. "I think he may watch a few games in the owner's suite, but I don't think he'll be comfortable up there. We grew up together in the minor leagues walking the concourse."