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Richmond banking on power duo10/16/2009 10:00 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com
Like the Reading Phillies and Lehigh Valley IronPigs before them, Richmond hopes to benefit from the Domino effect.
That would be Chuck Domino, the chief executive manager of the fledgling Richmond Flying Squirrels. The 50-year-old baseball lifer first made an impact as Reading's general manager in 1987, rejuvenating the franchise en route to turning it into one of the premier operations in Minor League Baseball. Two decades later, he helped to bring Triple-A baseball to Lehigh Valley in the form of the hugely successful (albeit unorthodoxly named) IronPigs.
Richmond may be his biggest challenge yet, however. The International League's Richmond Braves departed the city following the 2008 campaign, largely due to dissatisfaction with The Diamond (an aging, out-of-the-way facility). Richmond's professional baseball future immediately became a subject of much intrigue, as several clubs were interested in relocating to what is considered a top market in the country. After a convoluted saga with more twists than Chubby Checker on a roller coaster, the end result was the relocation of the Eastern League's Connecticut Defenders to Richmond.
"I've had my own consulting firm for the last three years, and had been working as an independent contractor for Reading and Lehigh Valley," he explained. "[Defenders owner] Lou DiBella heard about what I do and asked if I'd consider heading up the operation in Richmond, under the Domino consulting flag, for his ownership group. Long story short, I agreed. The last four months have just been a blur, trying to get everything up and running. It's been an interesting journey."
Given that Domino has already achieved great success within Minor League Baseball, a logical question to ask is why he agreed to such a challenging (some would say masochistic) endeavor.
"This is the largest market I've ever been involved in so this is very exciting in that respect, to see what we can accomplish," he said. "This is a challenge and I needed that. I needed to move out of my comfort level, because sometimes you get a little too comfortable in the same environment. I felt that it was time to go out on a limb."
It helps, though, that the situation in Richmond strongly correlates to what he has already experienced with Reading and Lehigh Valley.
"The Diamond is similar in age to [Municipal Memorial Stadium] when I first arrived in Reading in 1987, and a lot of the same type of work needs to be done," he said. "And launching a new brand name is the same type of situation I was involved in with Lehigh Valley. But in that case we had two-and-a-half years to ramp up, here we have six months. The amount of things that need to be done are very similar, it's just that there's a lot less time to do it."
Therefore, it has been absolutely crucial to Domino that he assemble a first-rate front office staff.
"It's of the utmost importance to get top-notch guys, and fortunately that was not a difficult part of doing this," he said. "When you say Richmond, Virginia, people are going to be interested considering what size market it is."
Bringing in the G.E.R.T.
The first "top-notch" guy Domino contacted after accepting DiBella's offer was Todd "Parney" Parnell, known throughout Minor League Baseball for his boisterous personality and seemingly indefatigable work ethic. Domino gave Parnell his first job in Minor League Baseball (with Reading in 1990), and the two men are close friends. (In conversation with Parnell, he alternately refers to Domino as "Chuckie" and "The Dominator.")
Parnell is perhaps best known for his time as general manager of the Eastern League's Altoona Curve. Under his leadership the team gained a reputation for irreverent headline-grabbing promotions (Parnell's "Anything Goes" philosophy reached its zenith in 2006, when he attempted to give away his recently removed gall bladder as part of the Curve's famed "Awful Night" promotion). Most recently, Parnell served as the G.E.R.T. (Guy Everyone Reports To) for Greensons Baseball, which owns both the Myrtle Beach Pelicans and State College Spikes.
"[Domino] gave me a call and said he wanted somebody on the ground [in Richmond] who he trusted. It looked like this might be the last chance for he and I to work together, so that was a key component -- to get back together with Chuckie," said Parnell, whose official job title with Richmond is vice president and chief operating officer. "It was a difficult decision, and right now I'm living down here away from my family, so there's been some heartache with it. But it's been incredibly stimulating. The buzz in the community is off the charts, and the potential we have is something monumental. We're having a blast and our office is full of laughs and creativity. It's our job to set the tone for the people of Richmond."
That tone will no doubt be one of enthusiasm and humor.
"We're going in full force, and I think early on Richmond has not known how to take us. You can tell by the reaction to the name-the-team contest," said Domino. "They're used to how it was the last several decades, when their team was owned by an MLB team [the Atlanta Braves] and their team name was the same as their MLB name. That was their perspective and we've come in, shaking things up, forcing people to think in more offbeat ways. In some cases it may not be something they're quite ready for."
The aforementioned name-the-team contest did indeed generate a lot of controversy, as many in Richmond felt that the choices -- Hush Puppies, Rock Hoppers, Rhinos and Flatheads in addition to Flying Squirrels -- lacked both seriousness and a local connection.
"Look what has happened in Lehigh Valley," said Domino. "IronPigs was not a popular choice at the time, but now you go to the stadium and see grown men and women with pig snouts around their head. ... It's important for us to have a kid-friendly logo, something that has staying power generation after generation. Because what this really is all about is fun. We get a lot of comments along the lines of 'All we hear about is fun, fun, fun, but we don't hear about what the team is going to be like.' But that's not a part of our business, and a lot of people don't understand that. ... The [Major League affiliate San Francisco] Giants, they're in the baseball business. But we're in the entertainment business, the food and beverage business, the landscaping business. We're not in the baseball business per se. We can't control what the Giants do with their roster. They've done well lately and we hope that continues, but we can't count on that. We've got to get people into the stadium regardless."
Parnell elaborated even further on this crucial point.
"Whether we win 12-2 or lose 12-2, the fans are going to go home happy because the food was so good or because the kids had a great time on the inflatables or because they got a ball that was tossed into the stands or met some of the players pregame or enjoyed a concert on our music stage. ... We're going to be a memory-making place."
Diamond in the rough
It's easy to overlook as the club prepares for Opening Day at a breakneck pace, but a new stadium remains absolutely vital to Richmond's baseball future. While the Flying Squirrels have announced a bevy of improvements that they will be making to The Diamond, the 25-year-old facility is not looked upon as a long-term option. The team has committed to just two seasons there (along with three one-year club options), and it is possible that another relocation could occur if the stadium issue is not resolved within this time span.
"Once we've got our feet underneath us, the stadium issue is going to heat up again in a hurry," said Domino. "We need to enter the discussion with no preconceived notions about where it should be, listen to every point of view, and come to our own conclusions. ... We're not going in with any favorite sites in mind, we just plan on hearing everyone's ideas and seeing where that leads.
"We need to build public momentum with our actions, not just our words, and that means getting the right team in place. Enough people have said 'Maybe you'll do too good a job [in The Diamond] and lose leverage,' but we can't operate that way. We see it the other way, like 'Look what we've been able to do in The Diamond, just imagine what we could do in a new facility.' That's going to be our attitude."
This approach is borne out by the lofty attendance goals that Domino has set for the Flying Squirrels.
"We are aiming for an official season attendance of 350,000, an average of 5,000 a game," he said. "We want to sell at least 1,500 season tickets as part of that 5,000, and that's about it. Ticket sales are the trunk of the tree. After we achieve that goal, advertisers will want to work with us because they know we'll be putting their message in front of people. Once you've got those 350,000 people, the bottom line takes care of itself."
With great power comes great responsibility
But for now, one of the primary tasks for Domino and Parnell is acquainting themselves with the people and places of Richmond.
"Either consciously or subconsciously, I'm always learning something new," said Domino. "Everyone we've met, whether they know we're 'the baseball guys' or not, have been super-friendly. You read some of the negative comments about the team name and think to yourself, 'Those people sound mean,' but we haven't met those people yet. ... I'm sure we'll win them over, especially because in my mind nobody is better at winning people over than Todd Parnell."
Parnell concurred, noting that he spends a large part of his day getting to know people and "pressing the flesh."
"When I go to restaurants or bars -- which I do -- we've had bunches and bunches of people say 'You're the baseball guys, thank you for bringing baseball back to Richmond, thank you for trying your best to make this work,'" he said.
And the sincerity of that sentiment brings with it no small amount of pressure, especially considering how much work needs to be done before Opening Day.
"We've got to work 25 hours a day until the opener, and it's hard sometimes to overcome that, that feeling of being overwhelmed," said Parnell. "This is already such a big story, we can't get away from it, ever. And that's OK, this is far better than me just going home because no one wants to talk to us. Throughout our career, we've had a magic wand wherever we've been, getting people stirred up and passionate about their team. And this happens to be one doggone large city.
"Every single day we're making history. When we're gone, I want people to be say 'Those were the people that brought baseball back to Richmond.' That's going to be us, and that's a powerful thing. It makes me feel a huge responsibility to the fans. We need to do an A+ job, just the best job ever."