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02/16/2010 3:14 PM ET
The Interrogation Room: Bill Smith
By Chris Mehring / Wisconsin Timber Rattlers
league baseball most fans follow the advancement of the players to the major
leagues. There have been many, many Papermakers, Foxes, and Timber Rattlers
players who have moved on to the big leagues.
Appleton Baseball has also seen one of its own move out of the Goodland
Field front office up to 'The Show', too.
Smith was the General Manager of the Appleton Foxes from 1983 through 1985.
Currently, he is the General Manager of the Minnesota Twins.
As baseball prepares for Spring Training, Mr. Smith goes to The
Interrogation Room to talk about the end of the Foxes/White Sox relationship,
money saving moves for a minor league franchise, lessons learned in
, and how to steal a little publicity away from the folks in
Your first season as the GM of the Foxes was 1983. What were your
expectations coming into the job?
A. I had worked two seasons in the White Sox Minor League and Scouting
Department, so I was coming with a little knowledge of the players in the
system. My main reason for coming to
was to learn the business side of the game. I had no real sales and marketing
experience, so my expectations were to work hard and learn a lot!
Q. What was the interview process like?
A. I had spoken to a couple of members of the Board of Directors about my
interest in the position, and flew to
for an interview. The Executive Committee set up the interview in the
small office at Goodland Field. It was a little crowded for about eight
people, but it went well and I was thrilled to be offered the job and introduced
at the annual meeting the next night.
Q. I found
this column by Bernie Peterson of the Post-Crescent from near the end of the 1985 season. It is about
the hard work of being a minor league GM. Have you been able to carry over
any of the lessons you learned from your time in
current position with the Twins?
A. One of the great benefits of my three years in
was learning the basics of the Business of Baseball. There are great
differences in scale between the Major Leagues and Minor Leagues, but the
principles are similar. The experiences I gained in Sales, Marketing,
Promotions, Finance, Concessions, Team Travel, Stadium Operations,
Groundskeeping, Media Relations and Community Affairs have been incredibly
valuable over the past 24 years in
In any organization, departments have to work together and my
Appleton experiences still help me every day to understand the needs of our
business departments and help us all work together. When we all pull in the same
direction, we reach our goals much faster.
Q. One thing from that article
really grabbed my attention: There
were 14 home rain outs in the 1983
and the 1984 season for the Foxes.
Then, the team bought a tarp for the
'85 season. Was it really a
difficult sell to get a tarp for
A. The total budget of the ballclub in 1983 was very small compared to what it
is today. The City of
had run Goodland Field for decades, and, in order to reduce costs to the city,
the Foxes took over stadium management at the start of 1983.
The cost of a tarp was significant, and you had to make
sure adequate manpower would be available when it had to be put on, and
especially when the sun came out and the tarp had to be removed quickly to avoid
damage to the grass. The tarp purchase was a big event for the club 25 years
ago, but it paid dividends in the 1st year.
Q. A money saving move that the Foxes had
was to get the foul balls
back from the fans and I was
surprised to see how much money that it
actually saved. But, how hard
was it to get those baseballs back from
A. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was common for most minor league clubs to get the
foul balls turned in and put back into the game. Our volunteer Board of
Directors was very good about covering the ballpark and politely asking for the
return of foul balls, and fans had no expectations of keeping them. We
purchased fewer than 100 dozen baseballs in one of the seasons I was there.
The players didn't throw them in the stands and the fans returned the foul
balls. That has all changed now.
Q. The Foxes had a chance to win their
fourth straight Midwest League
Championship in 1985, but they lost
in the first round of the
playoffs when the final game of the series ended early due to fog. How
difficult was it to end the season
A. Having a playoff series end in the fog was a difficult finish to the season
for us. I remember when the fog rolled in, we had a lot of suggestions
from fans and phones calls with suggestions to make to fog lift. We waited a
long time and when the umpires were ready to call the game, our manager, Sal
Rende, tried to provide some hope that it was getting better. Sal grabbed
a fungo bat and hit a ball up in the air. We all lost sight of it immediately,
and I think the umpires called the game and headed for the clubhouse before the
ball hit the ground.
Q. The Foxes got large and complimentary
mentions in The
and Sports Illustrated during your
. As the
Timber Rattlers Media Relations
person now, I have to ask...How did you
Post article came about by accident. Another publication had run a
photo of a groundskeeper working alone after a game, and identified the ballpark
as Goodland Field in
. I got a call from William Gildea, a writer for the Post saying that he
had seen the photo and wanted to write a story about our club. I never
told him the photo was mislabeled and that it was really the
ballpark. He came with his two sons, spent 3 or 4 days in
and wrote a
beautiful story about the Appleton Baseball Club.
Sports Illustrated was a little better
orchestrated. My college roommate and best friend was working fulltime for Sports
Illustrated and we spoke often. Further, at the Winter Meetings in
1984, I met SI's Senior Writer, Steve Wulf, who also happened to have attended
my Alma Mater,
. We struck up a friendship, and Steve bought a few shares of stock in the
Foxes. A year later, Sports Illustrated was doing a feature on
and there were three
criteria: (1) Strong local sports history, (2) A hometown hero
(Rocky Bleier), and (3) A minor league franchise with a great history.
fit the bill and Steve Wulf, then a Foxes' shareholder, recommended
Q. The 1986 season was the final year of
the affiliation with the
White Sox. Some of the articles from the time treat this as if
it was a fait
accompli due to the fact that
would soon be
getting an expansion franchise.
Can you share with the readers a little
bit about that process?
A. This was a difficult time for the ballclub. The White Sox had been
for 20 years, but
was getting a franchise in the league and the White Sox were also trying to
start a regional sports network. They felt that having an affiliate close
would help them sell the network, and also create more fans for games in
Fortunately for Appleton, 1983 Foxes manager, John Boles, had moved on to become
the Minor League Director for the Kansas City Royals, and he jumped at the
chance to bring the Royals to
in 1987. John was a great manager and had a strong affinity for the
Appleton Baseball Club and the
area. I had left the organization when the new deal was struck with the
Royals, but they were a good partner for a few years.
Q. How have things changed in the
relationship between major league
clubs and their affiliates since
A. The biggest change is in the facilities. In the early 1990s, Major
League Baseball made strong requests that some of the old facilities had to be
upgraded or replaced. There was concern that some of the smaller programs
in the minor league would not be able to meet the standards, and a few have lost
their teams. However, the tremendous increase in minor league attendance and
exposure is partly due to the great new facilities. Minor League
franchises are much better run now and they have become big business. I
was the only full-time staff member in 1983 and 1984, and we added Larry Dawson
as an assistant in 1985. Minor
League front office staffs are much larger today, and there are tremendous
benefits. The parks have better facilities, better rest rooms and better
sightlines. They have suites, clubs, picnic areas and many other amenities
that make a baseball game more enjoyable for all fans. Concessions have gone
from hot dogs, brats and popcorn to a full array of cuisine that we never
dreamed of 25 years ago.
Relations between the Major League and Minor League clubs have evolved in a few
areas. Geography seems more important in the partnership, as it was when
the White Sox wanted to go to
all have affiliates in close proximity to their major league markets.
owns most of its teams and has a full-time staff to manage the clubs.
Franchises are much more expensive now, and there is a little more pressure from
the minor league affiliate to field a winning team. In the end, it is a
partnership where both Major League and Minor League clubs must work together to
achieve the ultimate success.
Q. Milt Drier has done a lot for
the Foxes and the Timber Rattlers,
yet he prefers to stay in the
background. What can you tell us about
your father-in-law's contribution to
A. When I started with the White Sox in the spring of 1981, Milt and his family
came down to Spring Training in
. I learned right away that he had great passion for professional
baseball, and over the next two seasons, I got to know Milt well. When I
after the 1982 season, Milt was elected President of the Foxes and became my
day-to-day contact. He served for decades as a volunteer on the Foxes Board of
Directors, and was the leader of the group, whether it was
doing work projects at the ball park or attending team and league meetings.
The Board of Directors in the mid-1980s was a hard working all-volunteer group
that provided many services to the ballclub. Many directors assisted in
their specialty areas; attorneys handled the legal issues and insurance agents
made sure we had adequate coverage. Two directors handled the souvenir
stand, others provided critical work in concessions, ticket selling, ballpark
upgrades, plumbing and repairs.
One director took on a promotion honoring our military
veterans. We had a wonderful group that made it fun to be around the
No matter what the project was, Milt Drier was involved and he provided
tremendous leadership to the club for many years.
Q. The Twins are getting ready to
open Target Field. It must be an
exciting time in the Twin Cities.
After playing indoors on artificial turf for 28 seasons, the Twins are thrilled
to be moved back outdoors in a state-of-the-art facility. Target Field is a
spectacular ballpark that is built for fans. There are great amenities,
suites and clubs, but all seats throughout the park have great sightlines to the
playing field and our fans are excited to
get the season started. We will have a few challenging days with the
weather, just as you do in
, but this will be a wonderful home for our players, sponsors and especially our