Minor League front offices across the country are filled with individuals who are just about to enter their first season in the world of professional baseball.
Many of these industry neophytes are recent college graduates who are settling into their first "real" jobs, while others are serving as interns as they complete their degrees. What nearly all of these new hires have in common is that they are starting out on one of the lower rungs of the Minor League front office ladder. After all, it's a long climb to the top, right?
Well, not if you're Randy Whitaker, the new general manager of the Harrisburg Senators.
Whitaker took the reigns of the Double-A Eastern League franchise in late November, despite the fact that he had never held a job within the world of professional baseball. His story, quite obviously, is an atypical one.
Community insider, baseball outsider
While Whitaker has never worked in a front office before, he is a self-professed baseball fanatic and long-time Harrisburg resident who has fervently rooted for the Senators since their inception in 1987. Whitaker's passion for the national pastime was strictly an outside interest, however. Prior to taking a job with the Senators, he had spent 19 years with WHTM (the region's ABC affiliate), working within the sales and marketing departments.
While employed in this capacity in January 2007, Whitaker had a fortuitous meeting with a consultant for Michael Reinsdorf (the son of Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf), who has since purchased the club. The Senators had been previously owned by the City of Harrisburg, which put the team up for sale in order to reduce a growing budget deficit.
"One of Michael's consultants came into town and basically said 'Michael wants to get into the Minor Leagues. Is this a good market and a good situation?'" Whitaker recalled. "He wanted to find out how to market the team and how to buy TV commercials, so he came to talk to me."
"As we talked, I had a hard time hiding my enthusiasm for Senators baseball. I was just throwing all sorts of ideas out there, saying 'The team needs to do this, and the team needs to do that.'"
Whitaker's irrepressible enthusiasm has paid off in a way that he never could have imagined at the time.
"Once the sale [of the Senators] was complete, it became evident to Michael's people that the former management was not going to stay on with the team. The consultant I had met with told Michael, 'I have somebody in mind. He has a knowledge of the market, as well as a knowledge of the business community.'
"I guess they thought it would be better to bring in someone from town with no baseball experience and knowledge of the community, as opposed to the reverse situation," he added. "The job offer did surprise me initially, but I was all for it. My dream job had always been to be the GM of a Minor League team in North Carolina. Well, I didn't end up there, but at least I didn't have to move."
Thrown into the deep end
Within a week of being hired, Whitaker traveled to Nashville in order to attend the annual Baseball Winter Meetings.
"There I was, walking around in a suit, just like all of the young job seekers. I didn't know any of the rules, like that you're really supposed to go casual," he said. "I had to take in so much, so fast. And I'm a huge autograph collector, so it was really frustrating seeing all of these baseball legends roaming around the hallways. I had to just put my hands in my pocket and walk by like that didn't affect me. I remember seeing Tommy Lasorda at one point. My eyes were just about bugging out of my head, but no one else was reacting. I felt like yelling 'What's wrong with you people?'"
Whitaker's inexperience also made it somewhat difficult to network with his new co-workers within the baseball industry.
"No one gave me the cold shoulder, but I think a lot of people didn't know what to make of me," he recalled. "So many of these guys have been in it for so long, the conversations they were having were started years ago. So it was awkward to be dropped in the middle of that, awkward for me, and awkward for them. But I suspect that Las Vegas [the site of the 2008 Winter Meetings] will be different."
A Fan is the GM
Despite the occasional frustrations, Whitaker takes pride in his current status as a baseball outsider. He has even started a blog on the Senators website entitled "A Fan is the GM," which chronicles his experiences as he acclimates himself to the baseball industry.
"I've seen over 100 different ballparks as a fan, so from that angle I've really been exposed to what works and what doesn't work," Whitaker said. "I've seen the good and the bad in facilities, promotions, and concessions, and I want to utilize that knowledge. From a consumer standpoint, I'm probably in the top one percent in terms of the amount of games that I have witnessed. I know what I've seen and I know what I like, and that translates to 'A Fan is the GM.'"
When it comes to what Whitaker likes, he doesn't have to look outside the confines of the Eastern League (or Pennsylvania, for that matter).
"I view both the Reading Phillies and the Altoona Curve as examples of a model organization," he said. "Reading is a perfect example of a team overcoming a somewhat outdated facility. They put on a great show and run it in a way so that everyone has a good time. A Reading Phillies game could just be an empty field surrounded by folding chairs, and the fans would still come out for it.
"In Altoona, they have a state-of-the-art facility, and their attention to detail is just outstanding, as well as the energy level they create every night. It's really something to aspire to."
Bugs and bleachers
Of course, every team has its own set of unique challenges, and Whitaker is well aware of the obstacles he has to overcome in Harrisburg. Many of these obstacles are directly related to Commerce Bank Park, a bleacher-filled stadium which has become rather outdated in the midst of the Minor Leagues' ongoing ballpark renaissance.
"It's an old facility, so right now the best we can do is make a series of tweaks," said Whitaker. "In the short term, one of my primary goals is to raise the level of customer service. There are some things we can't change, but we have to put more effort into spiffing the place up. On game day, we all get so busy that no notices something like a cobweb on the ceiling or a spill in the corner. But that's what the fans notice, because they have time to look around. I need to make sure that we take care of things like that."
Unfortunately, no amount of tweaking can solve one of Commerce Park's biggest problems: the mayflies. Because of the ballpark's riverfront location, hordes of the harmless little insects descend upon the stadium each night, irresistibly attracted to the lights. In the past, the problem became so severe that the club moved up the start times of its games in order to play in as much daylight as possible.
"These mayflies get cooked in the lights and start raining down on the fans below," said Whitaker. "In Harrisburg, you really get to know your neighbor at a Senators game. When you see a bug fall down and land on someone's shoulder, you brush it off and throw it down on the ground. It's a community thing."
Indeed, the Senators and their fans seem to have developed a grudging fondness for the insects that surround them each night. Last season, the club even introduced an alternate Senators logo that featured a bat-wielding mayfly.
"Hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," joked Whitaker.
One season at a time
Fortunately for the Senators and their fans, the City of Harrisburg is planning on totally rebuilding Commerce Bank Park (the only thing that would remain is the playing field). The new facility, slated to open in time for the 2009 season, will feature innumerable upgrades, such as built-in bug control features as well as plenty of non-bleacher seating.
But for the upcoming season, the team will have to make do with the current situation, and Whitaker and his staff have already hit upon several new ideas. For example, a series of bobbleheads honoring prominent high school football coaches is planned, and the club will choose its first-ever Klubhouse Kids (one boy and one girl) at this Saturday's FanFest.
"We're going to give all interested kids one minute to prove that they are the most enthusiastic Senators fans around," said Whitaker. "The winners will get their own customized jersey, receive free season passes and be featured in the team program. Essentially, they will serve as the young face of the organization."
And, in typical Minor League style, the Senators plan to lampoon some of the more frustrating aspects of their current situation.
"We are going to stage an 'Outdated Technology Night,' because that's sort of the theme of the ballpark," said Whitaker. "We'll have Frisbee throws with 33 1/3 LPs, and VHS tape-stacking contests, that sort of thing. But it will culminate with the giveaway of a 42-inch plasma television, because that's what it's going to be like when we move in to the new place."
Can a GM still be a fan?
Not surprisingly, Whitaker has concerns that his new position will leave him unable to enjoy baseball as he once did. After all, it's hard to simply be a fan while one is also in charge of making sure that an entire organization is running smoothly.
"I don't think it will squelch my enthusiasm for the game, but I have worried that I won't have much time to enjoy it," said Whitaker. "On game days, I hope to be able to spend as much time as possible interacting with the fans, asking them about their experience and getting suggestions. What we all really want to do is learn how to make a good experience great."
To that end, Whitaker is hoping that his unique position within the world of professional baseball can be used to his advantage.
"I don't want to be viewed as a baseball executive," he said. "I want to be seen as a fan who is representing his fellow fans in the business side of the game. It's my job to bridge the gap between the two sides."
Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.