"We're going hog-wild over here!"
That's how Kurt Landes, general manager of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, describes the atmosphere at Coca-Cola Park as his club prepares for its inaugural season.
While Landes' propensity for pig puns may be groan-inducing, his enthusiasm and optimism regarding the upcoming season is not. On April 11, the IronPigs will kick off their home schedule with an evening contest against the Richmond Braves. This historic event will serve as the culmination of a grueling 18-month period in which Landes implemented and oversaw virtually every aspect of the nascent franchise's inner workings.
When Landes accepted the general manager position in October 2006, he was the IronPigs' lone employee, and Coca-Cola Park was little more than a hole in the ground. Now he's responsible for a full-time staff of over 40 individuals (and a seasonal staff of 400), all of whom work in a ballpark that is quickly earning a reputation as one of the crown jewels of the Minor Leagues. Finally, after what must have seemed like an interminable wait for both the organization and its emerging fan base, the IronPigs are ready to play ball.
With Opening Day on the horizon, Landes took the time to speak with MiLB.com about the process of building a Minor League team from the ground up.
In the Beginning...
The arrival of the IronPigs marks the first time since 1960 that the Lehigh Valley area (more specifically Allentown, Pa.) has had an affiliated Minor League team. The club is owned by Craig Stein and Joe Finley, each of whom have a successful track record when it comes to Minor League Baseball. Both men own an Eastern League franchise (the Reading Phillies and Trenton Thunder, respectively), while the duo also co-owns the South Atlantic League's Lakewood BlueClaws. The IronPigs -- who competed as the Ottawa Lynx from 1993-2007 -- will play in the International League as the Triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Landes, a 15-year veteran of Minor League Baseball, had most recently served as general manager of the Class A Hagerstown Suns. He has also logged time with the Daytona Cubs, Akron Aeros, Staten Island Yankees and Erie SeaWolves, among others. It goes without saying, however, that his current position has been his most challenging and all-encompassing job yet.
"I had always wanted the opportunity to take a team through the opening of a ballpark, where everything is new," he said. "I went through a ballpark opening with the Akron Aeros when I was director of ticket sales, and after that I decided I wanted to go through it again as a GM. One of the most unique aspects of what we're doing is that virtually everything is new. There is no existing structure of a team here. The community has never even really had Minor League sports before, so we have to be able to make them understand what we are about, and build from within the community."
Landes' task wasn't helped by the fact that previous attempts at bringing a professional baseball franchise to the area had all ended badly.
"There have been several failed efforts in the past with independent leagues," he said. "At one point, a ballpark even got half-built before it was torn back down again. So initially, many fans had the attitude, 'I've heard this all before, and I'll believe it when I see it.' I think we've communicated it well that we're going to be much different than past failed experiments. Once fans grasped what Triple-A baseball is about and who the ownership was, then excitement really started to build.
Finding an All-Star staff
We've all heard the cliché, "It takes a village to raise a child." Similarly, it takes a staff of 40 dedicated full-time employees to raise a Triple-A Minor League Baseball team. So it's not surprising that upon being named GM, Landes' first order of business was to go on a hiring spree.
"I spent a lot of time interviewing and hiring people, trying to find good matches for my philosophy," he recalled.
And that philosophy is?
"In a lot of ways I consider myself an outsider to Triple-A in that I have a Single-A mentality. That means I want total fan participation, and that I'm going to analyze all aspects of the game to make sure the fans are involved. I put a huge focus on game presentation. It may sound cliché, but we're going to approach every game as if it were a Broadway show. In general, we want to promote an attitude of inclusiveness with both our fans and our sponsors."
It took considerable effort, but Landes ultimately assembled a staff that reflects his basic organizational philosophy.
"I look at our front office as 40 different all-stars, from all types of different backgrounds," he said. "Some had a baseball background, and some didn't. But to some degree, I had been preparing for this for the past 15 years. I've had exposure to a lot of backgrounds, and I know what has been successful and what hasn't. In Lehigh Valley, what I was essentially doing was melding together my past experiences."
"The Crown Jewel of Ballparks"
Along with assembling a team of co-workers, another of Landes' immediate priorities was overseeing the construction of Coca-Cola Park. (Ground was first broken in September 2006, and construction officially wrapped up last month.)
"This ballpark is unique in America in that this is Coca-Cola's first naming-rights deal in any sport," he said. "There aren't any other Coca-Cola Ballparks out there, and it's just a classic name. It's classic Americana, and goes hand-in-hand with baseball and apple pie."
As the ballpark took root in its Allentown location, the area's fans displayed their enthusiasm for the project.
"We have a capacity of a little more than 8,000, and we've sold over 4,000 season tickets," he said. "I believe that's the most in the International League. The reaction from both our sponsors and fans has been tremendous."
"One thing that really added validity to this project was that we worked out an agreement to broadcast every home game live on television. That will reach an audience of a million people every night, and it's something no Minor League team has ever done before. But the biggest selling point continues to be the ballpark itself. It cost $50 million to build, and I don't think people realize right away just how significant a number that is. We offer tours of the facility, so people can get a real sense of what we're doing. I constantly am hearing people say, 'I knew it would be nice, but I didn't realize it would be this nice.'"
Going Over the Top
Coordinating a ballpark opening is a time-consuming task in and of itself. But on top of that, Landes and his staff had to establish the franchise's identity as well. The most important aspect of this was determining what this new team would be called. IronPigs was chosen after it received more than 10,000 votes in a month-long "Name the Team" contest.
"This is an area whose roots are very industrial. The name was a twist on pig iron, which used to be produced here," said Landes. "It's not a traditional name, so that made it a risky choice. But we wanted to establish right off the bat that we're a team that's not afraid to go over-the-top. I think IronPigs reflects that."
If merchandise sales are any indication, it's safe to say the name choice was a popular one.
"The sales have been beyond our wildest expectations," said Landes. "Our ownership group also owns the Lakewood BlueClaws and the Trenton Thunder, and they are almost always in the top 10 or 15. We hope to operate on a similar level."
Not everything has gone smoothly in the IronPigs' ongoing attempt to establish themselves as a significant force in the Eastern Pennsylvania sports scene. For example, the club's pig mascot was hastily renamed "Ferrous" (a play on the latin for "Iron") after receiving complaints that the original name of "Porkchop" could be seen as a racial slur.
But such unplanned obstacles have been relatively few and far between for the IronPigs.
"If you had told me 18 months ago that we'd be where we are today, I'd have been just thrilled to reach those heights," said Landes.
"This Is What We Worked For"
Of course, as anyone who is employed in Minor League Baseball will tell you, there's always work to be done. Over the next two weeks, the IronPigs front-office staff will be working feverishly to ensure that everything is in place for a successful 72-game home schedule. For Landes, one of the primary challenges the team faces is making sure they are establishing themselves for the long haul.
"We've got a lot of confidence right now with a brand-new team and a brand-new ballpark, but we don't want to find ourselves stuck in a couple of years after the novelty wears off," he said. "We need to find ways to make sure that the momentum we have right now will carry into year two, three, and beyond."
Year one will begin on April 11 at 7:05 p.m., when the umpire's triumphant yell of "Play ball!" echoes through the stadium. No matter what else is going on that evening, Landes has made plans for that particular moment.
"I'm going to stop what I'm doing and watch that first pitch, just take a deep breath and let it all soak in," he said. "Because seeing that pitch will be a reminder of what we all worked so hard for."
After making this statement, Landes paused.
"And then I'm going to go back to running around all over the place, flipping burgers, pouring beers and helping out with whatever else needs to be done."