Guest Post: The Life of a Minor League General Manager

Most of you have some idea of what a Major League General Manager does – the management of baseball operations, including roster construction. But what about the equivalent title on a minor league club? As it turns out, the GM of a minor league team has a very different job. So what does a minor league general manager do?

We asked Jonathan Nelson, General Manager of the Birmingham Barons (White Sox AA affiliate), to write a guest post explaining the ins and outs of his role. Like most front office personnel in the minors, Jonathan has a varied collection of hats to wear. Read on to find out just what it is he does in managing the operations of the Barons.

By Jonathan Nelson

I have been with the Barons for 22 of my 23 years in the game, and for the past eleven I have served as General Manager. The one baseball season (1997) I did not work with the Barons I worked in Detroit with the Tigers, which provided great experience and insight into the differences between working for a major league team compared to a minor league team. Both experiences are great but there are huge differences in so many ways. A major league Club is really comprised of two major functions: baseball operations and business operations. A minor league club’s front office’s primary function is business operations, while their major league affiliate handles baseball operations (i.e. roster construction). My primary role is to run the day to day operation of our organization, which includes many details.

Having been a life-long Sox fan, being the Barons GM is quite a lot of fun especially when you work with guys that you admired as a young fan. When I say my job includes the day to day operations I mean that we are constantly preparing for the next game, home stand and the whole season. It is a constant cycle of preparation. This includes overseeing our sales operation. It also includes sponsorships, promotions, group sales, season tickets and in today’s sports world, unique experiences and non-game day events. In the time I have worked in the game, Business Operations continues to evolve and change to a year-round operation in which the ballpark is used for concerts, other sporting events, banquets, etc.

I really look at my job as GM in two segments: non-baseball season and baseball season. The non-baseball season actually has two halves: the first half includes rest, meetings and sales. Immediately following the season we all need time off, vacation and just down time because the baseball season is so demanding in every way. We also have league meetings and eventually the Winter Meetings. At the Southern League meetings we have committee meetings where we discuss previous season issues, future schedules and other league business. The Winter Meetings is a great time to catch up with friends in the industry, and attend the trade show where we find new merchandise, promotional items and entertainers. The Winter Meetings is also the final time our league meets to discuss/approve league business. We also meet with the White Sox to discuss the previous season, the upcoming season and new coaching staff.  We have enjoyed the longest affiliation of any White Sox affiliate (also one of the longest in all of Minor League Baseball) and certainly appreciate the partnership.

Then obviously sales, which is a year-round process, but we officially kick off our upcoming season campaign and renew season tickets, group ticket packages and sponsorships. Included in this preparation period is focus on building a detailed, new and fun promotional calendar. Unlike the Majors where teams promote their players, minor league teams must rely heavily on a quality promotional calendar to provide additional incentive for fans to attend a game. The second half of our non-baseball season starts the day we return from Christmas break and at that point it’s fast-paced and much more pressure to finalize preparations for the season. As each day goes by you get closer to the season and there are tons of details that must be resolved prior to beginning another season.

I obviously chose to work in baseball because I love the sport, and the season is without a doubt the best part of my job, though also the very difficult and demanding part. One of my favorite parts of my job is working with the manager, coaching staff, players, visiting teams and umpires. Over the years we have had some great Barons managers and coaches, and I have worked with the best in Julio Vinas. My relationship with our manager is extremely important because we must have a positive, quality working relationship as we work on a variety of activities (player appearances at Children’s Hospital, charitable events, etc.) and working through other issues that pop up ranging from rain situations or other issues that effect the team. Once the team arrives from Spring Training I always tell myself that a small baseball clock is “on” which means my job turns into my availability 24/7 and I must watch the weather (both current and extended forecast) until the season concludes.

One of my job priorities is ensuring we play all scheduled home games and if for some reason we cannot, make every effort to get it in. We have been fortunate to have not had a rain-out in Birmingham for 245 games (but who’s counting?!). Getting the games in is critical in so many ways for our operation because it has major implications on a game’s single ticket sales, group sales, promotions and attendance. Since moving to Regions Field in downtown Birmingham in 2013, we have not had a single rain-out to date. Yes we have had a couple suspended games, but no rain-outs. In order to accomplish this you must have a field that drains well, great groundskeeper and crew, some luck and – extremely important – a great relationship with your manager that will go to bat for you knowing it’s extremely important for the ball club.

Another reason the White Sox are great partners and have such long-established affiliations is because they want their players to be active in the community and desire them to work two hours per month during the season. This is huge because as we know our manager, coaches and players are really the faces of the franchise and can provide so many quality contributions to our community. The Barons have been in existence since 1885 and a big part of our success is being active community partners so this philosophy and commitment works perfectly with our focus in Birmingham.

Our season normally goes from the beginning of April and concludes early to mid-September (depending on whether we make the playoffs and how far we advance). Of course there are numerous additional issues that arise during the season and it all just goes with the territory. My role as GM as it relates to our players is to have a positive and quality working relationship. Rarely do we have local individuals as players so I always want to help provide beneficial information (about the area as it relates to apartments and other needs). I want our players to feel comfortable here and enjoy their time in Birmingham.

The non-baseball season normally requires banker-type hours: for the most part 9-5. But the baseball season requires long hours and as mentioned being on call to deal with team issues at any time. My normal game day work schedule includes getting up early to see an accurate forecast, then working from 9 or 10 am to likely 11 pm. Of course this is for five days in a row and in the Southern League we normally have two 10 game home stands during the season as well. Game days are fun but are both physically and mentally demanding. I have always thought my seasonal routine of working five days (home stand) and “off” five days was like a doctor but without the big payday. We work normal 9-5 office hours when the team is on the road but certainly monitor the weather every day and see how the potential forecast could affect game days.

I hate to say it, but my job really is consumed with the weather during the season. Rain or the potential for rain, especially during a home stand, is something that dominates our planning and ultimately financial success or failure. During a game day I have the radar on my computer until the final out and in preparing for the next game we must determine whether we put the field tarp on overnight to protect from any issues that could cancel a game. I work with our head groundskeeper in determining this by contacting a local TV weather man and the National Weather Service.  If the chance of rain is or over 30% overnight/early morning then we cover the field with the tarp.

Another part of my game day routine is visiting the manager, coaches and clubhouse multiple times. I want to keep an open line of communication whether it be about weather, unique game promotions or just casual conversation. I also want to spend some time in the clubhouse and be accessible should a player need assistance with an issue.

Working in baseball is not easy and working a home stand in April or May is certainly not the same as working one in later July or August. To me, the volume of games add up and the more you work (even though it’s five long days and five short days for the most part), the more difficult it gets as the season progresses.

Another huge difference (which I learned working in Detroit and here in Birmingham) is that in the Major Leagues you perform one job and that’s it. In the Minor Leagues we all must where several “hats” and be prepared to do just about everything. While our operation has changed moving from Hoover to our downtown ballpark in Regions Field, I still work in several areas on game nights… but that’s the way I like it. On any given night I could be helping with our parking operation, concessions, selling tickets, weather related-issues, work and communicate with umpires and both teams, and the tarp crew. I also help with with customer service issues, check in and say hello to all the luxury suite holders and the media. Lastly, I must continue to monitor and check on numerous areas of our operation to insure the ballpark is clean, our game day employees are providing quality service and concessions and souvenirs, and other ballpark areas are running smoothly.

The baseball season is like a marathon because you must pace yourself, but it is the best part of my job. Game days are so much fun because you get here early in the morning, work on the current or future game’s details and then be a part of providing a fun, memorable night to so many fans. We relocated from Hoover, a Birmingham suburb, to downtown Birmingham in 2013 and it has been incredible. The new ballpark has helped this community in many ways. Both Barons and visiting teams love playing here because (from accounts by numerous White Sox and Major League Executives), Regions Field is like a mini-Major League ballpark.

One quick story… 2005 was my first full season as General Manager and it was quite a year. Yes it was special because of course the White Sox won the World Series but we, the Barons, also had a great team that would eventually make the playoffs before being eliminated by a talented Jacksonville (Dodgers) squad. We have numerous staff and team policies and one is that individuals cannot cash personal or third party checks. Well not to long into the season, Bobby Jenks came up to my office asking if he could cash a check. I told him that we had a relationship with Regions down the street but could not cash his check, it was just a policy.  He understood but then the next day again asked me on the field. Well, Bobby was called up from Birmingham straight to Chicago later that historic season and as we all know became the Sox closer that would eventually close Game 1 and the decisive Game 4 in the World Series, thus providing the White Sox their World Championship. The Sox visited Birmingham two years later for an exhibition game and I joked with Bobby that if I would have known that he would have closed Games 1 and 4 of the World Series that year, not only would we have cashed his check but I would have provided it in any currency or change he wanted. Bobby said he remembered and laughed.

A few quick hits:

Most memorable season: 1994 with Michael Jordan was off the charts. Such a fun and exciting season that was busy, demanding and unique but ultimately fun. While that was great, our first year at Regions Field (2013) was the best. That year we contributed to a downtown revival of sorts in adding to the landscape of downtown with a new, state of the art ballpark. Regions Field was named Ballpark of the Year, the Barons were named Southern League Organization of the Year and we won the Southern League Championship on the field. A dream season from beginning to end.

Primary White Sox Executives I work with as GM: Buddy Bell, Nick Capra, Grace Zwit and Del Matthews

Some favorite Barons players and coaches I have worked with: Mike Cameron, Mark Buehrle, Joe Crede, Bobby Jenks, Trayce Thompson, Marcus Semien, Tyler Flowers, Tyler Saladino, Julio Vinas and Terry Francona

Background on me:  You ask how I became a Sox fan? When all my friends picked their favorite football running back, I picked Walter Payton. Shortly after that I determined I wanted all my teams from Chicago and really liked Carlton Fisk, so I became a White Sox fan. The rest is history.

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