HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- "How the heck are ya?!"
This is how a conversation with Huntsville Stars general manager Buck Rogers often begins, a question delivered in a jovial tone and at a staccato clip. And once this preliminary greeting is out of the way, don't be surprised if he launches into a rapid-fire monologue about the latest goings-on at Joe W. Davis Stadium -- the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The seemingly indefatigable Rogers is one of Minor League Baseball's most outsized characters, a man driven by a desire to succeed and a seemingly endless supply of Diet Mountain Dew. Over the past 13 years, he's been responsible for some of the most irreverent and attention-getting promotions in the industry -- offering fans lifetime season tickets in exchange for team tattoos, setting the World Record for most consecutive first pitches prior to a ballgame, and holding a "Car Survivor" contest in which fans vied to win an automobile by living in it.
This is a man who, when at a loss, will take a rare pause and earnestly inquire "WWVD"?
What would Veeck do?
When life gives you lemons
Given that he boasts the same name as an iconic fictional space explorer, it is perhaps fitting that Rogers now works in a city that boasts a proud aerospace history (NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center is located here).
But Huntsville is one of the Southern League's toughest markets. While other Alabama franchises, such as Mobile and Birmingham, play in cities that are drenched in baseball history, Huntsville's citizenry does everything it can to make college football a year-round sport. And Joe W. Davis Stadium is a thoroughly nondescript facility -- while certainly adequate for the purpose, it possesses a no-frills, utilitarian nature and is thoroughly lacking in modern amenities and accoutrements.
In a situation like this, creativity is a survival technique. And creativity is exactly what Rogers and his staff display on a nightly basis.
I attended Thursday's game in Huntsville, which the visiting BayBears won, 7-4. But of more interest to me was the evening's promotion. The Stars partnered with local TV station Fox 54 in order to offer an unbeatable ticket deal -- those who flashed the pitching sign of "5-4" at the box office (five fingers and then four fingers) received a ticket for the absurdly low price of 54 cents. The station advertised the deal heavily over the past several days, and the result was a robust walk-up crowd.
Inside the cramped ticket window, assistant general manager Babs Rogers led a team of four ducat-selling employees. Babs is Buck's wife, and she is possessed of an equally enthusiastic demeanor. Amidst the sounds of rolls of pennies being cracked upon (most fans did not have exact change), Babs directed fans to her corner window.
"I can help someone!" she cried out. "Baby's in a corner, and it's lonely down here!"
When fans informed Babs they wanted the 54-cent ticket deal, she would ask "What's the sign?" Most took that as a cue to flash the appropriate number of fingers, but some responded with a blank stare. (One woman said, "A pitching sign, right?" and proceeded to signal for a curveball).
And some fans weren't aware of the ticket deal. Those who did not mention Fox 54 were summarily charged $8. While a fair price in most situations, in this case that amount sounded exorbitant.
"Cha-ching!" exclaimed Babs after one $8 sale. "Some real money, just in time to send this team out on the road!"
Also adding to the walk-up crowd was the fact that it was "Thirst-Aid Thursday," featuring $2 20-ounce draft beers. Not surprisingly, this special is especially popular among the area's college students (Buck says that Joe W. Davis Stadium on Thursdays is "the hottest singles scene in Huntsville, especially once we reach the fifth inning.") Those truly committed to this unbeatable special could be seen in the stadium wearing commemorative t-shirts, which featured a drawing of a beer keg and the slogan "I'd Tap That."
In short, it was just another night at the Huntsville Stars game. For those keeping score at home, one could purchase a ticket and two beers and still have change left over from a $5.
"Buck Rogers and the Stars couldn't be a better match, and no one else in this town is willing to do the crazy stuff that he does," said Fox 54 sales assistant J.J. Vincent, who was roaming the stadium to take pictures of fans holding a banner bearing the station's logo. "When people say to us 'The Huntsville Stars' we say 'Buck Rogers.' For us, the association really is that strong."
Never stop adapting
Buck, who says he is "50 going on 16," is a strong proponent of creativity amongst the entire staff. He believes that young employees with fresh ideas and boundless enthusiasm are crucial to the success of a franchise, and he has no qualms about doling out difficult tasks to interns so they may learn the ins and outs of the industry in a short amount of time.
Yet Buck's own path to the Minor Leagues was hardly typical. His executive career did not begin until 1997 as an employee of the now-defunct Fayetteville, N.C.-based Cape Fear Crocs of the South Atlantic League. A proud member of the 82nd Airborne, Buck was living on a military base in Fayetteville and began attending Crocs games because of the $1 Military Monday ticket special. He became enamored with the logistics of game operations while watching these contests, to the point in which he began assisting the club's staff as opposed to watching the game. This led to a job.
From Fayetteville, Buck moved on to the Daytona Cubs and the Brevard County Manatees (both Florida State League franchises). He is now in his third season in Huntsville, working tirelessly from his windowless, imminently cluttered office at Joe W. Davis Stadium.
Along the way, Buck developed a 15-point promotional philosophy that he shares with his staff members. While many are straight to the point ("Is it fun?"; "Is it feasible?"; "What will happen if we don't seize the moment?"), others are more esoteric. Take the "8-Ball Syndrome", which Buck illustrates by drawing a numeral "8" on a sheet of paper.
"Sometimes an idea's not going to work, and you're going to get stuck," he said, before turning the "8" on its side so that it resembled an infinity sign. "But if you can be unselfish with your ideas and pass them around and keep on tweaking them to infinity, then eventually you're going to get it right."
And this is the underlying principle of Huntsville Stars baseball -- Rogers and his staff are endlessly tweaking a less-than-ideal situation as they work toward getting it right.
"It's a wild life," said Rogers of working in Minor League Baseball. "Sometimes it feels like we're breaking all the rules, but as long as we're all having fun and putting butts in the seats then I don't really care."