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GM brings whole new game to Canada10/30/2009 10:00 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com
Jason Takefman, the new general manager of the Northwest League's Vancouver Canadians, is a unique individual in a unique situation.
The aptly named Canadians are the only affiliated Minor League team left in the entire country, a distinction they earned after the International League's Ottawa Lynx relocated to Lehigh Valley following the 2007 campaign. And making the Canadians' situation even more anomalous is that they are a Class A Short-Season club in a distinctly "big league" city, one that supports NHL and Canadian Football League franchises and soon will host the Winter Olympics.
And as for Takefman? Well, he's just 27 years old, with only four years of Minor League front office experience under his belt.
The Montreal native was promoted to GM earlier this month. Takefman replaces Andrew Seymour, the 2009 Northwest League Executive of the Year, who resigned from the position in order to pursue an opportunity with the Grand Prairie Air Hogs of the independent American Association. Takefman began working for the Canadians in 2006, most recently serving as director of ticket operations. Prior to arriving in Vancouver, his only stint in the sports industry was as an intern with a most unlikely entity -- the Israeli National Hockey Team.
But despite this relative lack of experience, Takefman exudes confidence and is intent on "hitting the ground running" when it comes to his new position.
"I've always aspired to learn as much as possible and to take on as many tasks as I could in as many departments as I could in order to acquire a full understanding of the industry," said Takefman, who speaks quickly and energetically, as though the pace of his speech can't quite keep up with the pace of his thoughts. "[Team president] Andy Dunn is a blue-chip name in baseball, and I just feel lucky he decided to keep me around.
"We're coming off of a big year," he added. "Attendance increased by 20,000, because we had great promotions and an affordable ticket price."
In a cosmopolitan city such as Vancouver, there's no shortage of competition for a family's disposable income. Therefore, it has been Takefman's strategy to put a premium on customer service and face-to-face interaction.
"I love meeting people and hearing how much this team and [Nat Bailey Stadium] means to them," he said. "There are fans who came here with their grandparents and are now bringing their grandkids, or people who have made a point to come to every opener for the past 35 years. ... We want to continue to promote what we have, which is affordable family entertainment.
"All of us here treat people really well and put in a lot of hard work. But it's only stressful if you make it stressful. I think we just look at it as an amazing opportunity."
In it for the long haul
The Canadians' current success is especially gratifying considering the city's recent baseball history. Vancouver fielded a Triple-A Pacific Coast League team for 22 seasons, but that franchise abruptly relocated to Sacramento following the 1999 campaign. The Northwest League club began play the following year, but Class A Short-Season was initially a tough sell in a city accustomed to seeing players who were just one step away from the Major Leagues. Further public relations problems soon arose as a result of the dilapidated facility -- Nat Bailey Stadium first opened its doors in 1951 -- and a generally inattentive out-of-town ownership group.
The situation improved dramatically prior to the 2007 season when a pair of prominent local businessmen -- Jeff Mooney and Jake Kerr -- bought the franchise with the goal of ensuring that it remained in Vancouver. One of their first moves was to hire Andy Dunn as team president. A former Minor League general manager and Major League Baseball sales and marketing director, Dunn had most recently served as the Washington Nationals director of player development. And when it came time to assemble his staff, Dunn stayed true to these roots by emphasizing potential over immediate results.
"When I first came in, it would have been real easy for me to call [experienced executives] back in the States. But for the long-term, that was no good," said Dunn. "We only needed one ugly American around here, and unfortunately that's me. The goal was to develop future baseball people in this community, so we hired kids coming off of internships, and not many of them had more than a year of experience under their belt.
"That's been the most fun part of my job, watching the staff develop," he added. "The people here that are in an everyday role, they just get it. Everyone here works together so closely and the jobs are not compartmentalized, so people just jump in and help wherever they're needed. It's a team of one mentality, and that's something that Jason spearheaded."
It was Dunn's decision to elevate Takefman to the role of general manager, and he claims it was an easy one despite Takefman's relative lack of experience.
"I tell him that while he may be in his 20s, he looks like he's 45," joked Dunn. "But really, age isn't a factor. Whether someone is 25 or 45, what matters is the skill set, and it's a privilege to watch him work. He's a workhorse, and has the attitude and commitment to get things done. He's going to be successful."
As a result, Dunn is confident that Northwest League baseball will continue to make inroads within a city that has traditionally preferred its sports on ice.
"I'm real proud of where we are, to be a short-season franchise doing well in a town where hockey is king," he said. "We've put ourselves in a situation where we're now one of the big three -- there's the NHL, the CFL and us."
Fighting for attention
Perhaps no one is more knowledgeable about what it takes to promote Minor League Baseball in Vancouver than Rob Fai, who handles media relations for the club and serves as the team's broadcaster. (Fai, along with director of ballpark operations JC Fraser, was also elevated to assistant general manager in the wake of Takefman's promotion.)
"It can be a tough road to hoe at times, because we're not the big dog in town and not every move we make is covered," said Fai, 35, who is in his second stint with the club. "So we have to be very creative and make sure that our [story] pitches are focused and easy to comprehend. The bar is set really high here, and sometimes I'm pulling my hair out trying to figure out how to get coverage."
Nonetheless, the Canadians have been able to get the word out to the extent that Nat Bailey Stadium -- "The Nat" for short -- has gained a reputation as one of the Northwest League's most lively environments.
"The crowd that has been coming out to our games is young and raucous," said Fai. "We have fans in the stands singing songs, and fans who paint signs and bring them to the game. I know the players like it. A lot of them just got out of extended [spring training] and had been used to playing in front of their parents and a couple of instructors. So to walk out of the dugout in front of 5,000 fans who are ready to rock, I think a lot of players migrate to that. I'm proud to be a part of it."
This raucous fan base is also remarkably diverse, which is a reflection of Vancouver's burgeoning immigrant population. Prominent ethnic groups include Chinese, Punjabi, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino and Latin American.
"The Japanese and Koreans, for example, are very comfortable with the game of baseball," said Fai. "But what we've become more astute at doing is inviting all communities to come out for the baseball experience. Are they going to learn what a 6-4-3 double play is? Probably not. But it's an opportunity to enjoy an afternoon in the sun, to learn a little bit about what's happening on the field, to have a couple of beers and a hot dog. That's more what we're pitching -- that each game is an event. And we have 38 events a year."
Many Minor League broadcasters approach their careers in a manner similar to a player, always angling for a promotion to the next level. But Fai has no plans to leave Vancouver anytime soon.
"There are 25 hockey broadcasters in this town, but I'm the one guy that does baseball," he said. "So I've got my niche carved out. Plus, it's hard to create a following and develop passion if every year or two you've got a new broadcaster coming in with a new perspective. I've been amazed at the number of people who have come up to me in this town, where baseball is not king, and said 'Thank you for sticking around and for being part of this community.' My reaction is like 'Are you kidding me? There's no place I'd rather be.'"
Many reasons have been given as to why affiliated baseball has nearly disappeared from Canada, encompassing everything from the cold weather to the weak dollar to the increased hassle of crossing the border in the wake of 9/11. Nonetheless, the Canadians are living proof that America's pastime is still capable of thriving up north.
"I had been in the media for 14 years before I took this job, and when I decided to return to Vancouver people would ask me, 'Why are you going to a short-season team?'" recalled Fai. "But I felt like I had just bought stock in Apple. It's been great to see how far we've come, and to see the way people look at this team as opposed to how they did 10 years ago."
"We're not going to bill ourselves as 'This Is All That's Left,'" said Takefman. "Our job is to let people know that we're the best value in the city, and that once they get in the door they'll have an unbelievably fun time."
Takefman has been successful in conveying this message thus far, and the organization is convinced that he's the right man for the job at the right time.
"Jason is committed to baseball, and not just baseball but baseball in Canada," said Dunn. "I like where we are now as an organization, but there is still plenty of room to grow."