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Minor league GMs focus on customer service instead of contracts and deadline deals
By J.J. Cooper
2005 General Manager Package:
• General Manager Roundtable
• Ten Tips For Getting Into The Game
• Three Major League GMs Recount Their Path
• Fighting To Get In: Getting To The Top Isn't Easy
• GM History Lesson: Dave Dombrowski's College Thesis
• Minor League GMs Focus On Customers
• Indy GMs Find Added Worries
• The Baseball America Executive Database
Rome Braves general manager Mike Dunn wears many hats, and a few aprons, on game day.
He's a business manager, a ticket taker, a garbage man, a salesman and a spokesman. If it gets busy enough, he'll even work as a grill master, flipping burgers.
"You have many changes of clothes in the office. You go from the tarp crew to the press conference to the front gate and back to the office," Dunn said.
But unlike the major league general manager above him, Atlanta Braves GM John Schuerholz, Dunn doesn't have anything to do with the quality of the team that takes the field in the South Atlantic League. While a minor league GM wears many hats, most of them have little to do with the game that's going on in his ballpark all summer.
It's a fact of life that many prospective GMs have to get used to during their first internship. In the minor leagues, being a successful GM has nothing to do with your eye for talent and everything to do with running a successful business.
The other reality is that working in a minor league front office is not a direct path to becoming a major league GM. While many major league executives say starting out in the minors is a good way to get your feet wet in the baseball business, sheer numbers dictate that few people will cross over to big league teams, and fewer still will rise to the top of a big league baseball operation.
"This year we had 30 interns. I talked to most of them by the end of the season," said Rick Muntean, GM of the Kansas City T-Bones of the independent Northern League and a longtime minor league executive. "When someone says, 'I want to be a major league GM,' I feel bad for them. It's a one-in-a-million shot."
While they hold the same title, a minor league GM and major league GM don't have that much in common, beyond both working in baseball. The hours are similar (long in both cases), but while major league GMs are usually tied to their cell phones, minor league GMs are hands-on leaders of a sales staff.
"You're walking through the crowd. You're doing the interaction. You're chatting with the client watching baseball. That's pretty special that you're getting paid to do it," Brevard County Manatees (Florida State) GM Buck Rogers said.
Rogers describes his main job as motivator. Just 15 years ago, the GM of a minor league club may have been the leader of a full-time staff of three or four. Now, as revenues have climbed and ballparks have gone from bleachers to multimillion-dollar palaces with luxury suites, hot tubs and restaurants, the GM of a minor league club could lead a full-time staff of 30, with a corps of part-time workers during the season.
"An affiliated baseball GM is really a business manager," Muntean said.
While the life of a minor league GM doesn't feature five-star hotels and deadline deals, unlike the major league GM job there is a clear path to the top for those interested in the jobs.
At the Winter Meetings every year, a new crop of fresh college graduates will interview for internships and other jobs through Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities. And every year, a number of future GMs will get their start at the bottom rung.
"You have to do an internship for nothing, for who knows who long," Muntean said. "You're then going to be the low man on the totem pole. What I tell interns is, 'Don't have a lot of bills, and don't say no. Always say yes.' "
Still, it's a tougher climb today because the success of minor league baseball, and the explosion of sports administration degrees and people interested in working in baseball have led to a much larger pool of qualified applicants.
"If you want to succeed in this business, you have to be better than that next person," said Roger Wexelberg, the GM of the Northern League's Gary Southshore Railcats who started out as an intern at Oklahoma City. "Once they're in it, you can tell who the passionate people are. You can tell for whom it is a love and who it was just a dream."
Beyond business acumen and a great smile, GMs can spot the interns who may one day have their jobs. The biggest key? You have to have a love for the game, and a work ethic that can endure the hours.
"You have interns that show up early and don't care what their responsibility is. And others who complain that they don't want to work in stadium ops today," Dunn said.
That first year of an internship is a giant filter that leaves only the dedicated wanting to come back. It isn't easy to work an 80-hour week and look forward to the next one. It's not easy for an intern, and it's no easier for a GM.
When Dunn took over as Macon Braves GM in 1997--before the team moved to Rome--he was the new guy in a league filled with longtime GMs. Now he's not only the dean of the league, but he's also one of the few GMs with more than three years with his current team.
"Your whole life will change if you commit to this as a career," Rogers said. "My wife worked for a doctor. She quit because I had her working group sales. I have kids who grew up at the ballpark. Your social life becomes this. You're hanging out with the staff at a Chili's afterward. It becomes your social life and it becomes your family life."
Many GMs either find friends and spouses around the ballpark, or they find that their friends and spouses have trouble understanding the job.
"I've had my clothes thrown on the porch twice," Muntean said. "I had no idea coming in. I learned real quick on my second day on the job. It's an eye-opener. You have to dedicate your summer to the ballclub and beyond that. I don't think a lot of people realize it's not 9-to-5, it's 8-'til-whenever."
Mike Edwards climbed the ladder from Rookie-level Burlington to opening a new stadium with Lake County in suburban Cleveland. In spite of his professional success, though, he stepped back, called it quits and headed back to North Carolina. Now he's the GM of a summer college league team while working toward a graduate degree that he hopes to use to teach.
"That was part of my reason to take a step back was to focus more on my family," Edwards said. "I laughingly tell my friends within baseball, I'm still running a team full-time, and I'm in grad school full-time and I'm at home twice as much."
For a number of baseball lifers, though, the lure of the game keeps them coming back game after game, and year after year. It's a hard job, with long hours, but it still means that they get to work at a ballpark every day.
"My hat goes off to the guys who can make 20- and 30-year careers out of it. It's not a job; it's a lifestyle. It's hard. For those guys who can do it every year, they're soldiers," Edwards said.
Rogers, a former infantry squad leader in the 82nd Airborne, is one of those soldiers. And he can't imagine doing anything else.
"You're walking through the crowd, you're doing the interaction. You're chatting with the client watching baseball. That's pretty special that you're getting paid to do it," he said.
There is a romance to the game, which is the reason that thousands of prospective interns will line up for interviews at the Winter Meetings, looking for jobs in the majors or minors. And it's the reason guys like Wexelberg keep coming back.
"In my case, it's almost like a drug," he said. "It's
tough when you're going through it, but you keep coming back because
you love it. I actually work in the business that is my first love."