Lee Landers, president of the Appalachian League, is going out on top.
During December's Baseball Winter Meetings, Landers was named King of Baseball in recognition of his lifetime of service to the game. In January, he announced that the 2018 season would be his last. In April, the Appalachian League announced that nine of the 10 teams in the circuit would participate in a Lee Landers bobblehead giveaway. Those bobbleheads, to be distributed on evenings in which Landers is in attendance, feature him bedecked in his King of Baseball finery.
This writer caught up with Landers during a Johnson City Cardinals game on July 20, which featured the distribution of 500 of the bobbleheads. On this balmy Friday evening, the outgoing league president was wearing light-colored slacks and a dark blue polo shirt, an unassuming assemblage which provided no hint that he was, in fact, Rookie-ball royalty.
"It's very humbling, but I'm not giving it back," Landers said of being named King of Baseball. "Especially when you see some of the people that have been honored in the past. The George Kissells and Roland Hemonds. Pat Gillick. Max Schumacher. Just to name a few. For somebody to think I should be nominated, let alone being honored like that, is very, very humbling. When you have the passion for the game that I've had all my life, it really, really means something."
Landers' professional baseball front office career began with the 1959 Fresno Cardinals and included stops in Modesto, California; Twin Falls, Idaho; Little Rock, Arkansas; Tulsa, Oklahoma, New Orleans and Springfield, Illinois.
"I started full-time in 1959, and Bobbi and I were married 59 years ago, too. So it's been great. She's been great," said Landers, who complimented his wife several times over the course of the evening. "Being from Seattle, we've moved all over and she's been right there. Load the kids in the car when they were out of school, and they went wherever I'd been sent that year."
2018 Road Trip
Landers, who lives with Bobbi in Redington Shores, Florida, took over as Appalachian League president in 1996.
"Our facilities have changed and our operators have changed," Landers said. "We had a good share of our clubs that couldn't wait to close after the season and then mid-April. ... It would surprise the same people every time. Like, 'Oh, we better get ready.' We worked to change that. We tried to put the word 'professional' back in it. And I'm so proud of our operators now. They've done a really good job. They take pride in what they do. We try to preach: 'Professionalism, professionalism, professionalism.'"
On July 20th, the Johnson City Cardinals gave away 500 Lee Landers bobbleheads.
Landers surveyed the scene around him at Johnson City's TVA Credit Union Ballpark, a facility that has undergone extensive renovations in recent seasons while being run by a young, motivated front office staff.
"A family of four or five might only have one baseball fan. You can't survive on that baseball fan, so you better have something for everybody," he said. "As you see here tonight, the kids are having a blast. They have inflatables, others are down to play cornhole and having their own little tournaments. They have the left field line [The Perch group area] where young people meet. ... Let's not concentrate on people my age. They're either going to come or they're not going to come. Concentrate on [young fans], and our operators are doing a really good job with that. I'm so proud of them."
Landers takes pride in the Appalachian League's overall health and says that no matter what changes may come to Minor League Baseball writ large, "We can take care of our own house.
"Some of our ballparks are showing their age, and the biggest challenge is keeping them going. ... We've got some quality people operating clubs, like David Hagan in Pulaski with his group, and Boyd Sports here [in Johnson City] and in Greeneville," Landers added. "That just ups the whole league. You're going to have some professional jealousies, people saying 'Well, I remember when.' Yeah, I remember when, too. And there was 200 people in the stands. Now, to keep up with the clubs in the league, you have to do something. And that's not a bad thing. That's a great thing."
One could argue that being honored with a bobblehead is also a great thing.
"I kid about it, 'My head bobbles anyway,'" said Landers. "But to know the thought that went into doing something like that... That's what makes it really special."
Entering the homestretch of his 60th -- and final --season in professional baseball, Landers is grateful for his experience and optimistic about the state of the Minors.
"It is bittersweet. It really is," he said. "Like I say, I'm going to miss the people more than anything. ... We have some very, very talented people working all over in baseball. It's come a long way. I'm so blessed to have all these years done something that I loved, and also had a family that supported me and moved all over the States with me. It takes a special person, and that's my wife Bobbi."