Minor League Executive Of The Year: Bob Richmond
The personal relationships are what Bob Richmond will miss the most, when his 30th and final year as president of the Northwest League comes to an end at the Winter Meetings in Nashville.
Judging by the response of Richmond's many colleagues in the game about his winning the Minor League Executive of the Year honors, it is clear his presence will be equally missed.
Pacific Cost League president Branch Rickey III described Richmond as a friend and colleague and, noting Richmond's law degree and experience brokering sales of franchises, described his skills as a league president as "multidimensional."
"It's beyond what most league presidents can or would do," Rickey said. "Because of his law degree, he has gotten involved in the seeking out buyers and the helping in sales of clubs . . . He is truly multidimensional."
Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner first looked up to Richmond as a mentor when he was breaking into the business as a young operator in the Florida State League in the early 1990s. As president, O'Conner views Richmond as a steadying presence and a wise leader.
"I've never had to worry about Bob's leagues," O'Conner said of Richmond, who will continue in his role as president of the Arizona League. "Bob was always a calming influence, not only to me, but to any league or conversation he was a part of. A smart guy, but humble, and just as good a person. . . . He's one of the good guys in our business."
And he's one of the most experienced. Richmond was serving as the Northwest League attorney in 1974 when team owners asked him to temporarily fill the vacant presidency. He remained in that "temporary" position for eight years.
He broke in at a time when the minors were not nearly as stable as they are now. And the Northwest League was in many ways the wild west of minor league baseball. It was made up of independent and affiliated teams, as well co-op clubs shared by big league affiliates. Richmond spent much of the early days just keeping the league afloat, whether that meant calling farm directors and begging them to send players or convincing failing owners that they shouldn't close up shop. He would often bring his longtime friend and fellow minor league trailblazer Bob Freitas along on road trips to help talk owners off the ledge. "One time I got a call from the Salem franchise at around 11 p.m.," Richmond recalled. "It was the owner saying 'I called to tell you that I'm quitting.' I told him that you can't quit. I got in my car, picked up Bob and drove all night—I got a speeding ticket along the way. Bob and I convinced him to hold off . . .
"It was much different then," Richmond said. "We charged teams $500 to be admitted to the league and asked them to pick up last year's bills. There wasn't an approval process. It was more us begging people."
Richmond and Freitas—who passed away in 1989 and for whom Baseball America's annual awards for franchise excellence are named after—realized that they had a talent for brokering team sales and decided to take this skill to a private practice in 1981. Richmond stepped down as president in 1981 so he and Bob Freitas—who died in 1989 and for whom Baseball America's annual awards for minor league excellence are named—could form the brokerage company Baseball Opportunities, which Richmond still operates.
"There are a lot of people who do that now," O'Conner said of Richmond's ability to line up prospective buyers with teams, "but not too many who have done it longer than Bob Richmond."
Before Richmond returned to his current post with the NWL in 1991, he helped form another minor league. When some Midwest and West Coast major league teams tired of sending their young prospects to Florida for the Gulf Coast League, they asked Richmond to help launch the Arizona League in 1988. Richmond worked with veteran executives like Walt Jocketty, Bill Bavasi, Tom Romanesko and Bruce Manno to get the league under way. The AZL featured just five teams in its debut season, and there was concern that playing under the hot Arizona sun would prove too unbearable for a second.
Richmond recalls sitting in the stands before the first game with former minor league umpire supervisor Barney Deary, who while wiping sweat off his brow voiced a concern that his "boys won't be able to work out in this heat," Richmond recalled. Just then, Richmond and Deary turned to see a group of young players walking to the field wearing sweatshirts. "I turned to him and said, 'I think this just might work out.' And it did."
The AZL experiment has grown into a thriving league with 13 teams.
"The Arizona League has its drawbacks in that it is complex baseball and we don't charge admission and have very few fans," Richmond said. "It's just pure baseball."
The Arizona League has also led to the growth of the Cactus League, the spring training circuit which now features multiple teams playing at sprawling multi-million dollar complexes in and around the Phoenix area.
Working in baseball has always been about much more than business for Richmond. It gave him a chance to do something he loves for a living, and to work with his family. His son Rob has helped him run both leagues for the past 19 years, and his wife Sandy has handled the leagues' books.
"The Northwest League has been part of my life for most of my adult life," he said. "It's bittersweet, but it's a good time to step away."