25 For 25: Miles Wolff, Robin Ventura, Mike Veeck, Paul Snyder, Joe Spear
It would be impossible to properly
catalog all the people who have played a part in the evolution of
baseball and Baseball America over the past 25 years. From the bullpen
catcher for a Rookie-level team to the men who have served as
commissioner of baseball, thousands of people have helped bring the
industry to where it is today.In
celebration of our 25 years in the game, we're focusing on the 25 most
significant of those people in our world. As a reflection of our
coverage of the game wherever it's played, you'll see much more than
just major league figures in the following pages. So while many of the
people you'll read about are quite familiar to you, some probably won't
be. We're happy to introduce or reacquaint you with them. After all,
that's what Baseball America is all about.
Like most scouts, Paul Snyder doesn't seek the limelight. But if not for his hard work, the Braves would have had a much harder time building their development-driven dynasty. With experience and an expert scouting eye, Snyder helped to cultivate and stock a top-notch farm system while serving as scouting director in the late 1970s and early 1980s, enabling the Braves to become a dominant force in the majors in the 1990s.
"He's the ultimate professional," current Braves scouting director Roy Clark said. "He's just a wonderful mentor for a whole lot of us. He leads by example."
The Braves' 14 consecutive division titles with an evolving cast of characters demonstrate the strength of their player-development system. Snyder's work enabled players like Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Tom Glavine and Javy Lopez to climb through the system and become stars.
Snyder's philosophy focused on looking at high school players, particularly pitchers. "The habits you have at 17 or 18 are much easier to break than the habits you have at 21 and 22," he said in 1996. "It's much easier for us to train someone in the Atlanta Braves' way the earlier we get them."
Snyder started out as a player for the Milwaukee Braves in 1957 at the age of 18 and never left the organization until he went into semi-retirement in 1999--though he still does work for the team. He retired from playing in 1963 and turned to managing and scouting.
Snyder found his new niche as scouting director in 1977, a job that brought with it tremendous responsibility for the future of the Braves. And by looking at the talent the Braves produced, it's easy to see how successful he was.
He helped the Braves restructure and refine their farm system, laying the groundwork for the teams of the 1990s by producing promising prospects. While Snyder likes to say that he never signed a player, he had a hand in the signing of every major star from Dale Murphy to Chipper Jones and beyond.
Snyder has held a variety of titles in the organization, but he'll always be a scout at heart, and will always be regarded as one of the best ever at what he did.
"I succeeded him, but no one can fill his shoes," Clark said. "He's got that much respect in baseball."
If you want to assess Joe Spear's influence on baseball over the past 25 years, don't take our word for it. Ask the more than 170 million people who have enjoyed games in ballparks he designed.
Perhaps the most anonymous person on this list, Spear nonetheless has touched more baseball fans more directly than anyone. The lead architect for Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, Spear helped transform the in-stadium experience--not to mention the game's economics--by designing eight of baseball's new "retro" ballparks and playing a role in four others.
"Baseball is the only sport where the architect or designer gets to affect the play of the game," said Spear, 53, "and I think you can just take it and go from there. Baseball as a sport is a very social game. And by that I mean the pace is such that you can carry on conversations, you can get up and stroll around and still feel like you're connected to the game. Try that at a hockey game.
"We have seen in the last 10 or 12 years, people or ball teams really want to enhance that interactivity and they want people to say, 'I can see the game from the concourse, I'm just going to go up, hang out, and see who's there.' It's part of the experience to get up and walk around the park."
Spear, along with Orioles executives Larry Lucchino and Janet Marie Smith, revolutionized baseball in 1992 with the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Fans across the country rejoiced at this merging of nostalgia with pragmatism, and owners across baseball instantly envied new facilities of their own. (Spear also headed the design of Buffalo's Pilot Field in the late 1980s, which helped kick-start the minor league ballpark boom.)
A self-effacing Kansan who only sheepishly acknowledges his influence on the game--and quickly shares credit with his HOK teammates--Spear stresses that the stadium site and community dictate the design of his parks. His next project, the Nationals' long-awaited ballpark in Washington, will spread that vision to even more millions of fans.
"You tailor something that fits a neighborhood," Spear said. "We want it to fit the city. And I think that really is the success story. Camden Yards fits the city of Baltimore the way Jacobs Field fits Cleveland and the way Pac Bell Park fits San Francisco and Petco Park does San Diego. You want people in a community to feel like this is theirs."
Fun is good, preaches Mike Veeck, and if it rankles the baseball establishment, it's divine.
Veeck is a renowned baseball promoter and part-owner of six minor league teams ranging from the independent St. Paul Saints to the Fort Myers Miracle of the Florida State League, and his mission has been simple: To make baseball fun for all. But as he puts it, "Trying to sell something called minor league ain't easy."
"I think the major leagues need to adapt things the minor leagues do well," Veeck said. "Things like demanding good customer service and hiring talented employees. One day, the difference will be that the teams who've adapted these principles will thrive."
"But for the first time, major league teams are hiring minor league talent at an unprecedented rate."
The man who brought you Sister Rosalind, the masseuse for Saints home games, owes more than a little to the influence of his father, longtime Indians, Browns and White Sox owner Bill Veeck. After all, Veeck the elder is most famous for sending little person Eddie Gaedel to bat for the Browns in a 1951 game, a stunt which resulted in all player contracts needing the commissioner's approval before a player can appear in a game.
Father and son worked together during Bill's second stint as White Sox owner, and it was in the summer of 1979 that Mike hatched the idea for the infamous Disco Demolition Night, when thousands of fans stormed the field and forced the forfeiture of the club's second game of the doubleheader against the Tigers.
Ignoring the fact that more than 100,000 fans--40,000 of them stuck in traffic trying to get to the park--wanted to witness Disco Demolition, the major leagues no longer wanted the Veecks. Bill sold the Sox in January 1981 and Mike would not work in baseball again for 10 years. In the interim he hung drywall in Florida and worked for an advertising agency.
His chance to get back into baseball finally came in November 1989 when Marv Goldklang offered Veeck a job running the then-Miami Miracle, but it was with the independent Saints that Veeck hit his stride.
"Hands-down my favorite promotion was Mime-O-Vision Night in St. Paul, which was my retaliation versus the movement for instant replay in baseball," Veeck said. "I had mimes re-enact the plays, and the fans absolutely hated it. We had 6,329 people (the park's capacity) sitting on their hands. They'd tolerate almost anything in St. Paul, but they didn't tolerate that. It's the only promotion that ever started a food fight."
Other clubs were quick to follow Veeck's lead in emphasizing promotions as much as the game because, well, people spend more when they're having fun. The results are hard to argue. Minor league baseball is more profitable and popular than ever, and for the $2 million he invested in his "broken-down clubs," Veeck has amassed nearly $30 million in assets.
A sampling of Veeck's greatest promotions:
• Vasectomy Night. Nixed Father's Day promotion would have awarded a free vasectomy to one lucky fan.
• Tonya Harding Mini-Bat Night. The notorious former figure skater was on hand to autograph the collectible bats for fans.
• Enron Night. Attendance was later adjusted downward, and of course paper shredders were available at the gates.
• Nobody Night. Fans were locked out of the park until the fifth inning, when the game went in the books. Official attendance: Zero. Unofficial attendance: 1,800.
• Silent Night. No talking, as fans taped their mouths and used signs to cheer, boo and hail the beer man.
But Veeck, a bit surprised at being recognized by Baseball America but honored nonetheless, said he wants to be remembered not as a promoter but as a teacher.
"What really matters is how you influence and learn from the people you hang around," he said. "I hope the guys--and I use that term inclusively--learned from me, like I learned from my father and so many people in this game."
During his big league career, Robin Ventura never carried of the label of superstar. Yet when Bill James revised his Baseball Abstract in 2001, he named Ventura the best third baseman of the 1990s.
It's surprising because when Ventura's name comes up, it is typically his college career (along with his fight with Nolan Ryan or his "Grand Single") that comes up first, and understandably so. The Oklahoma State alum is the most decorated college player of the Baseball America era. He is the only position player to be a first-team All-American three times. He was our Freshman of the Year in 1986, College Player of the Year in 1987, he won the Golden Spikes Award in 1988 and was then named player of the decade.
"I don't feel slighted that people bring up college more than my pro career," Ventura said. "I don't feel like they are disappointed by what I did as a pro."
Nor should they be. Though Ventura made just two all-star teams, his six Gold Gloves are third-most among third baseman behind Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt, and he finished his career with 294 home runs.
Yet for all his professional glory, it was his college career that was the stuff of legend. Born and raised in Santa Maria, Calif., Ventura was offered a scholarship by former Oklahoma State coach Gary Ward sight unseen, thanks to the recommendation of an area scout, an opposing coach and Ventura's high school basketball coach, whom Ward knew dating back to his days at Yavapai (Ariz.) Junior College.
Ventura got to college mostly as an opposite field hitter, and early in his career Ward took him to the cage to show him how to drive the ball more. Ventura was a quick study.
"You show him how to do something, and then you put him in front of a mirror and he can mimic it perfectly," Ward said.
The night of their session, in an exhibition game against Triple-A Oklahoma City, Ventura hit two balls to the wall in right-center and then a home run to right.
"I remember going home that night and telling my wife, 'I think I have a real great player,' " Ward said. "He was able to go back and make some adjustments and do what he needed to do.
"I don't know you had to touch him much from that point on."
Ventura gained national prominence the following season on the strength of his record-breaking 58-game hitting streak; and he has former Cowboy sports information director Jack Carnefix to thank for it lasting as long as it did.
"We are at Kansas and up 12-0 in the first game of a doubleheader, and I am taking my starters out," Ward said. "Jack comes to me and says, 'Don't take Robin out, he has a 27-game hitting streak.' I said 'OK, I'll let him in.' I left him in and he got a single.
"I remember when Joe DiMaggio presented him with the Golden Spikes Award, all I could think about was, 'Thank God Jack brought that to my attention.' "
He bought the Durham Bulls for less than the price of a used Volkswagen, and turned them into minor league baseball's most famous team, thanks in part to Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon.
He purchased Baseball America and served as its owner and publisher for 18 years, which was essential in making sure that we're around to celebrate our 25th anniversary. He has written a novel, owned a minor league hockey team (even though he admits he knows little about hockey), and owned minor league baseball teams around the country.
But Miles Wolff knows that for many people, he'll always be remembered as the father of independent baseball, and he's quite happy to have that as his legacy.
In the early 1992, Wolff started getting calls in his role as Baseball America publisher from cities like Thunder Bay, Ontario, and St. Paul, Minn., asking one simple question: "How can we bring baseball to our city?"
Looking at the situation conventionally, the answer was simple: You don't. The number of minor league teams was fixed by the National Association and Major League Baseball. And territorial restrictions meant that many cities were effectively blocked from ever having a minor league team.
But independent leagues operate without the support of Organized Baseball, and thus are not subject to the same rules.
"I get a phone call from Sioux Falls, Thunder Bay and Duluth, all within a month--how do we get baseball here? It just started growing," Wolff said. "I thought, 'We have some cities and ballparks here, if I could put the right people here this could work.' "
The seeds had been germinating for years. Bob Frietas, a longtime field representative and ambassador of minor league baseball, had preached about the possibilities of developing an independent league. A number of teams inside the NA were operating without affiliation agreements, signing players themselves, and getting players loaned from other teams.
"There were fits and starts of independent baseball before that, but the economics weren't good enough to make it happen," Wolff said. "But by the early 1990s, the image of minor league baseball, the marketing of minor league baseball had improved, the time was right. Everything was ready. Cities that in the past didn't want minor league baseball now were interested."
So Wolff gathered together Marv Goldklang, Harry Stavrenos, Van Schley and other owners who had experience with running independent teams in affiliated baseball to form the Northern League, with Wolff as the commissioner. It debuted in 1993, and was an instant success. The league packed stadiums in its first year, with the St. Paul Saints selling 97 percent of their tickets for the season.
That success spawned imitators, and while more than a dozen leagues have failed through the years, there are now seven independent leagues around the country, and the college summer league circuit has also exploded in popularity, following in many ways the indy league model.
"If you look back at the glory years of minor league baseball in 1948 and 1949, if you add up the independent leagues and the summer college leagues, there is almost as much baseball being played now as it was then." Wolff said.