At the end of February, Tom Kayser will conclude his 25-year run as president of the Texas League. It's been an eventful quarter century, to say the least.
"It's so completely different now, it really is," Kayser said from his San Antonio office on Tuesday afternoon. "It's like traveling by train and traveling in a supersonic jet. You can hardly compare it."
When Kayser assumed the presidency in 1992, most of the league's eight ballparks had been built in the 1960s or earlier. None are still in use within the league; the current oldest, San Antonio's Wolff Stadium, was built in 1994.
"We weren't exactly mom and pop, but we sure were small in terms of how we operated," he said. "And then you look at where we are today, where every one of our operations can be compared to the Major Leagues in anything but size.... And I still don't understand half of the stuff that goes on with the internet and social media. I don't think there's anybody from 1992 who could have predicted where we'd be in 25 years."
By the time he made it to the Texas League, Kayser was a baseball industry veteran. His first job was with the Eastern League's Berkshire Brewers in 1976, and he went from there to a general manager position with the Holyoke Millers (also in the Eastern League). In 1980, still shy of his 30th birthday, Kayser bought the Millers for $35,000.
"I only owned the team for two years but doubled my money, so I thought that was pretty good," he said. "Back then, you could draw 1,000 a night and make a nice living. But if you only draw 1,000 now, you're neck-deep in debt."
Over the next decade, Kayser lived a peripatetic existence as he undertook a wide variety of sports industry jobs. They included an assistant Minor League director position with the Pittsburgh Pirates, assistant scouting director with the Cincinnati Reds, director of baseball operations for the Pacific Coast League's Calgary Cannons, consulting for the Senior League Sun City Rays and general manager for the Rockford Lightning of the Continental Basketball Association.
"In my mind, the goal was to be a farm director and then, if I was lucky, a [Major League] general manager," Kayser said. "But then I heard [previous Texas League president] Carl Sawatski had died, so I called up my friend [Arkansas Travelers owner] Bill Valentine and asked if that was something I should be interested in."
Valentine's response was two words: "Hell, yes." Kayser applied for -- and got -- the job, thanks largely to connections he made with individuals who'd come to be involved with the Texas League.
"It was a lucky happenstance," he said. "Right place, right time."
Amid the bevy of changes that have occurred in the Texas League over the last 25 years, Kayser cites the opening of Round Rock's Dell Diamond in 2000 as the single most important development. (The Round Rock Express, now in the PCL, played in the Texas League through 2004.)
"[Dell Diamond] was the first to have a really modern design, with 360-degree access and suites that were much better than anyone else had at the time," Kayser said. "I've said many times before that Round Rock showed people what was possible and it was the genesis of the development within this league and, I'm sure, more than a few ballparks outside of the league."
As president, it's always been Kayser's job to spur such developments.
"Over the years, information has come to me that might not come to the clubs. It's important to me to know where that info needs to go to be put to its best use," he said. "One time, I was sitting in my office and I got a phone call from the chamber of commerce in Springdale, Arkansas. I had never heard of Springdale, much less knew where it was. I got off the phone thinking it's not going to work, but then I began investigating and my eyes started growing bigger. I got the info to the Rich family, because they owned the Wichita Wranglers and if something came up they'd want to know about it. Less than a year later, a stadium was underway."
That stadium was Arvest Ballpark, home of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, who relocated from Wichita prior to the 2008 season.
"I'm proud of those kind of things," Kayser said. "Not earthshaking, world-beating innovations. You just need to know who needs what."
On the day-to-day level, the job of league president involves a litany of routine matters.
"The most common thing is onfield issues, like taking calls from farm directors when things are not going as well as they would like. Team hotels, clubhouse things," Kayser said. "It's almost unremarkable, these calls are so common.... And there are schedule complaints annually. But, c'mon, I've yet to meet anybody who likes the schedule they've got. It's a universal thing: everyone hates their schedule. I don't want to hear about it."
On a more enjoyable note, Kayser has taken on the role of league historian.
"The first Texas League formed in 1887 and started playing games in 1888," he said. "And while there's no straight line of continuity, it's all the Texas League.... I'm always looking for interesting things to acquire for the archives, and this did lead to a couple of books. Once, I had an owner look at me like I'd lost my mind because prior to a ballgame I'd spent six hours in the library looking at microfilm. Because after having been to a city three or four times, what do you do to occupy your time during the day? I'm so proud to find missing pieces of league history."
Given his love of history, Kayser takes particular pride in the fact that, when he steps down next month, he'll have been the Texas League's longest-tenured president.
"I can't say I did the job better, but at least they kept me around long enough to set the record," he said. "I just felt it was time, with newer innovations coming along and dealing with folks who might not have been alive when I started in baseball.... I didn't want to become the curmudgeon who says, 'Well, in my day...'"
On March 1, Tim Purpura will take the reins as Texas League president, the latest step in a career that's included stints as Houston Astros general manager, Minor League Baseball executive vice president and Texas Rangers senior director of player development. Kayser said that, in his view, the most pressing issue Purpura will face involves the long-term future of the San Antonio Missions. Should a Triple-A ballpark be built in San Antonio, the Missions would have to relocate.
"Outside of San Antonio, it's about keeping your finger on the pulse of what develops," Kayser said, "and staying after clubs, making sure that the ballparks we have are maintained. He'll put his own stamp on the league. It's easy to do good things when you're working with good people, and Tim will be working with a ton of good people."
And this, perhaps more than anything, is why Kayser enjoyed such a long run as president.
"This job is a lot more fun when everybody is pulling in the same direction, and almost uniformly, I've had people pulling in the same direction," he added.