"Running a baseball operation is like a puzzle, in that there are so many different pieces that have to come together to make it work."
So says Cedar Rapids Kernels general manager Jack Roeder, who certainly knows of what he speaks. The veteran executive is on the verge of a well-deserved retirement, after 20 years at the helm of the Kernels and 30 within professional baseball.
"And I don't think there's a piece of that puzzle that's more important than community involvement," Roeder said. "I've always said that the players come and the players go, but if our message is the same and what we're doing in the community is good, then we're a significant leg up when it comes to being successful."
Indeed. For a Minor League Baseball team, an emphasis on community relations and philanthropic endeavors is crucial. Such efforts solidify the team's importance in the market in which it operates, establishing the club as far more than a frivolous summertime diversion. A Minor League Baseball team can and should be a gathering place for the community and a vehicle for social betterment.
Not only is this an example of doing the right thing -- it's also good for business.
Finding good within the bad
In summer 2008, the Cedar Rapids area was devastated by extensive flooding. As traumatic as the experience was, it also provided a stark example of how important a Minor League Baseball team can be to the community.
"Our ballpark wasn't in the flood plain, so to an extent, we were able to serve as a command center for the city," said Roeder. "We had the National Guard staying here at night, sleeping on cots in the concourse, and city meetings were being held in the suites and the conference room."
The Minor League Baseball head office, based out of St. Petersburg, Fla., soon donated $25,000 to the Cedar Rapids Boys and Girls Club. Sparked by this generosity, the club went on to raise additional monies through the Baseball Tomorrow Fund, Perfect Game USA and the team's own Kernels Foundation.
"I think the best thing that came out of it was the League of Dreams, formed for at-risk kids in the community," said Roeder. "It included 76 kids from five different schools playing a 15-game schedule, and everything was paid for. ... That's 76 kids doing something positive, and there were a lot of people who made that a reality, stepped up to the plate and made it happen."
In addition to extraordinary situations such as the 2008 flood, baseball's day-to-day nature allows for many opportunities for community involvement. Roeder remarks that "while sometimes we're writing the checks ourselves, in other cases, we're just the vehicle.
"People are more apt to identify with and support organizations that are involved with something positive, and the same holds true for our sponsors," he added. "One example of that is our partnership with Aegon Insurance. They got involved in the 'K's For Kids First' campaign, donating $5 for every strikeout to a law center that gives kids a voice in divorce and custody conflicts."
Roeder says his proudest accomplishment during his 20-year tenure as Kernels GM is that the club has generated more than $2 million for the community. Yet many initiatives are hard to measure in terms of dollars and cents.
"Our Summer Reading program is a classic example of something we've done in which there's no money changing hands," he said. "We've had 25,000 students participate in the program over the years, and some are now getting to the age where they're going to start raising their own families. The Kernels have long been part of their summertime entertainment."
The more you give, the more you receive
It can be difficult to monetarily assess the worth of a team's charitable activities, but that hasn't stopped the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Following each of the past two seasons, the club has issued a detailed press release categorizing and quantifying their contributions.
As the release explains, 2010 "saw the team, in tandem with its marketing partners and fans, raise $744,721.99 worth of contributions to local charities, schools and community organizations. The sum includes many different types of contributions including cash, tickets and services."
"We do this because we wanted to make public the extent of our involvement," said Blue Rocks general manager Chris Kemple. "This helps to brand and market ourselves as an integral part of the community, and it's important that people know what we're doing."
And the more people know what the team is doing, the more likely they are to attend a game.
"In everything we do, we're always asking how it will help sell tickets," said Kemple.
And in at first what may seem like a paradox, one way to sell tickets is to give them away. The Blue Rocks gave away nearly 67,000 tickets in 2010, noting they can accommodate most donation requests.
"We're always aggressive in that respect," said Kemple. "A lot of it comes from our reading program, which involves a couple hundred schools. ... Many of the tickets are for slower times of the year, such as games in April and May during the week. If those tickets are used, it can lead to added food and beverage and merchandise sales, but the greater hope is that it's the families' first time ever at a Blue Rocks game. Hopefully they'll have such a great time that they'll come back to the ballpark later in the summer."
And throughout the season, teams are able to utilize the players themselves as part of their community outreach efforts.
"We've designed programs where they can visit hospitals and Little Leagues," said Kemple. "Fortunately for us, the [MLB parent club] Royals make it easy by requiring the players to commit to so many hours per month. Every team has players who enjoy doing it, and knowing the MLB club is behind the effort makes it that much easier."
Learning from the best
As with virtually all other aspects of Minor League Baseball, clubs can expand and improve their community outreach efforts by borrowing ideas from their peers throughout the industry.
"The offseason affords the opportunity for teams to get together and share new ideas," said Roeder. "That willingness to share is one of the best resources we have."
"Through the [Minor League Baseball] Promotional Seminar and the Winter Meetings, we've come away with a number of good ideas," said Kemple. "It's very helpful, because no one organization is going to be able to think of everything."
An excellent resource in this regard is the new blog Club Philanthropy, with its mission statement of "Charity Begins at Home [Plate]." Information can be found on the seemingly endless ways in which teams can focus their charitable efforts, from the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers' planting of a community garden beyond the left-field fence to the Greensboro Grasshoppers' recent pledge to donate $100,000 to charity if their club makes the playoffs in 2011.
Such endeavors, taking place nationwide in the 160 communities in which Minor League teams reside, are undeniably important.
"Over the past three years the economy has taken a dip, but Minor League Baseball has been able to hold its own," said Roeder. "I think that's a reflection of the role we play within our communities."