Not So Minor League: The Wild World of Minor League Baseball in Texas

Cheap beer, affordable tickets, swanky surroundings -- what's not to like about minor and independent league baseball parks?

"The closeness allows for our players to take a short car ride and be examined by Rangers doctors, if need be. If a player gets called up [to the Rangers] to play, they can be there in a matter of hours," explained Fendrick. "It makes a lot of sense."

Profit, convenience, fan friendliness, player recognition, brand awareness. All of these advantages of owning a minor league team within a short distance of the major league parent club are reasons why we've heard Astros owner Jim Crane extol the virtues of owning the team's minor league affiliates.

Crane makes no secret of his affection for The Woodlands as a possible site for the Astros' AAA affiliate once their contract with Oklahoma City expires after the 2014 season, for all the reasons Fendrick outlined in his overview of Round Rock's business model.

BALLPARK NAME: WOLFF STADIUM

MAJOR LEAGUE AFFILIATE: SAN DIEGO PADRES AA

OPENED IN 1994
Courtey of the San Antonio Missions
BALLPARK NAME: WOLFF STADIUM MAJOR LEAGUE AFFILIATE: SAN DIEGO PADRES AA OPENED IN 1994
Bobblehead Craig Sager dolls.
Bobblehead Craig Sager dolls.

Crane hired former Ryan-Sanders CEO (and Nolan's son) Reid Ryan as the Astros' new president and CEO back in May. This sounds like a perfect project for him, doesn't it?

And Astros fans, because I know you're wondering, just know that Fendrick thinks that Jim Crane hit a home run in choosing Reid Ryan as the new president of the team. "A tremendous choice. The fans could have no better advocate in the front office than Reid Ryan."

Sold.
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Ask them their philosophy or mission, and every minor league baseball executive will give you some combination involving entertainment, customer service and value.

But unless they are with the Dayton (Ohio) Dragons, they can't claim that they've successfully sold every seat since the inception of the franchise.

Yes, the Dayton Dragons, the single A affiliate for the nearby Cincinnati Reds, a ­Mandalay-owned franchise (same as the Frisco RoughRiders), have sold out every single game since the franchise moved there from Rockford, Ohio, in 2000, breaking the professional sports record of 815 consecutive sellouts set by the Portland Trail Blazers.

Every. Single. Game.

When I spoke to Dragons Executive Vice President Eric Deutsch, "The Streak" had grown to 951 games with no sign of slowing down.

Simply put, to discuss the minor league baseball boom and not share the story of the Dayton Dragons is like being handed the boxed set for Season Three of The Sopranos, and the DVD containing "Pine Barrens" is missing.

The Dragons are Minor League Baseball's gold standard, having won the John H. Johnson President's Trophy in 2012 for being "the complete baseball franchise — based on stability, contributions to league stability, contributions to baseball in the community and promotion of the baseball industry."

Ask Deutsch about the foundation for the team's success, and on cue he lists his team's five principles that guide them: affordability, quality entertainment, customer service, community, and return on investment for sponsors and ticket holders.

You get the sense in talking to Deutsch that the organization is in lockstep, that if you passed any of the 36 full-time employees of the Dragons in the hallway, they should be able to recite the guiding principles on command.

That's how you sell out every game.

"We came out like gangbusters in the first year, but the harder part is sustaining that success, avoiding a tail-off. That's where our relationships with sponsors, groups, the Chamber of Commerce are all so important," revealed Deutsch.

Minor League Baseball has long been associated with zany promotions and sometimes bizarre but always entertaining in-game productions. The Dragons (and all Mandalay-owned teams, for that matter) embrace that subculture. To that end, the team has a full time director of entertainment and a game-day staff of 22 people whose mission is to execute the cumulative sideshow that takes place before games, after games and in between innings.

When I brought up the long tenures of Minor League Baseball executives (including him) to Deutsch, he laughed and said, "I love it. I've never had the same day twice."

Yep, other than selling every seat to that night's ball game. That's been the same every day for Deutsch and the Dragons.

You can set your watch to it. In Dayton, they've been pitching a perfect game for more than 13 years now.
_____________________

"Hey Sean, it's Tal Smith."

In an audio lineup of Houston voices, you'd pick out Tal Smith's in about three seconds, so when the phone conversation with him begins, you feel like you're hearing a chapter of Houston baseball being personally read to you on an audio book.

In the history of professional baseball in this city, nobody has worn more hats, experienced more highs and lows, than Tal Smith. He was an original employee of the Colt .45s, directing their farm system; was the general manager of the Astros in the late '70s; and then returned to the club as president of operations under Drayton McLane in 1994, where he served in that capacity until 2011.

Today Smith serves as a special adviser to the management team of the independent Sugar Land Skeeters.

A brief primer on what exactly being "independent" in baseball means:

With affiliated Minor League Baseball teams, the one aspect of the operation that nobody with the team is allowed to mess with is, ironically, the team itself. All of the on-field personnel (players, coaches, manager) are employed by the major league parent, so as a result, everything from the players on the roster to the in-game deployment of those players trickles down from on high.

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