Jason Smorol's career path should be familiar to anyone who has worked in the grueling world of Minor League Baseball. The Syracuse native logged time in a quartet of New York-Penn League cities -- Watertown, Batavia, Staten Island and Auburn -- but left front-office life behind after the demands of the jobs became too great to reconcile with the demands of raising a family.
But Smorol, unlike most who leave the industry in search of greater domestic stability, is in the nascent stages of a surprising second act. In early October, after nine seasons away from the game, he landed what he calls his "dream job" -- general manager of his hometown Syracuse Chiefs. Dream job or not, re-entering the industry in such a prominent role -- and after such a long absence -- would be a daunting task under any circumstance. And, well, the circumstances in Syracuse are especially daunting.
In 2013, the Chiefs drew only 345,000 fans to NBT Ballpark, the lowest total since the stadium opened in 1997. Upon the conclusion of this dispiriting campaign, the news only got worse as a financial report released by the team's board of directors revealed that the franchise had already lost more than $500,000 in 2013. This was, by far, the most that the International League franchise had ever lost in a single year.
Drastic times call for drastic measures. And at the end of September, the board relieved general manager John Simone of his duties. Simone had served in that role since 1996, taking over for his father, legendary executive Tex Simone, who had been at the helm since 1970. The 2014 season will mark the first time since the 1960s that a Simone hasn't been in charge of the Chiefs, and stepping into that void will be none other than Smorol. Can he turn this ailing franchise around?
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Before being hired by the Chiefs, Smorol's most recent job in baseball had been as general manager of the Auburn Doubledays during the 2003 and 2004 seasons. He left that post to work for Hilti, a global construction firm, at which point his Minor League Baseball days appeared to be in the rear-view mirror. And that's where they were almost certain to stay -- had he not gotten an unlikely call from the Chiefs' board of directors.
"I was on their radar because they knew who I was from my days in Auburn," Smorol said in a telephone interview. "They remembered my name, looked me up on Facebook, found out I was still in Syracuse and gave me a call. Everything happened so fast. They wanted to meet with me, gauge my interest and see if I was still qualified and capable. My answer when they reached out to me was an immediate 'yes,' because the Chiefs had always been my dream job."
At this, he broke out into a laugh.
"See, this is why I don't burn any bridges!"
After hiring Smorol, Chiefs president Bill Dutch used a baseball metaphor to explain the board's decision.
"They talk about five-tool players in baseball. Well, [Smorol's] a five-tool general manager," Dutch told Syracuse.com. "He's got it all."
One of those tools certainly must be optimism. In conversation, Smorol projects an implacable confidence that he's the right man for the job.
"I bring energy, I bring excitement, I bring people skills and an ability to bond with the fans," he said. "I have a commitment to engage with the community and with sponsors, and at the same time I bring a certain expertise in turning things around. In all of my previous stops there were some issues -- Auburn being the previous example -- but I was able to make it quite successful before I left. Yes, that was short-season A-ball, but quite frankly, if you can do it there, you can do it here."
Throughout the conversation, Smorol spoke glowingly of the hospitality extended to him by Tex and John Simone in the midst of a difficult transition and lauded their decades-long commitment to Syracuse Chiefs baseball. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that a change in leadership was needed.
"The general perception around town is that there was a cloud over the Syracuse Chiefs, for whatever reason. And, quite frankly, I went to Auburn [Doubledays] games more than I went to the Chiefs, because that was the ambiance I liked more from a personal standpoint," he said. "My job is to lift that cloud, that perception that it's not fun here. I keep hearing that people don't come to the games. Well, there were still over 300,000 fans who came here last season, and many of them did have a good time with the Chiefs.
"My mentality is to get out more, be more visible in the community and among organizations and groups, be more aggressive with marketing. Build more relationships with TV stations and print media, utilize social media, put up billboards. Just hit the ground running."
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Smorol's enthusiasm for overhauling a moribund franchise is palpable, but with so much to be done, it seems difficult to know where to start.
"You begin at the beginning," he said, sensibly if not tautologically. "Our 30-day plan was to build a foundation, but you've got to have a 60-day plan and then a 90-day plan, working all the way toward Opening Day. The first step was to find out where we are, asking, 'What is our foundation? What is our entire inventory of sponsors, our entire inventory of promotions?' We need to find groups to listen to and talk to, and that's what we've been doing. The next phase is the 60-day plan. Now we're ready to go out and sell the product."
Chiefs baseball is certainly a familiar product to those who live in the Syracuse area. The franchise has competed in the International League continuously since 1961, and the city's professional baseball roots stretch deep into the 19th century.
"[The fans] know what Chiefs baseball was, but we're telling them now that it's going to be different," Smorol said. "All the on-field games are going to be changed, and we're going to bring back a lot more promotions -- bat nights, hat nights, glove nights, more fireworks. And we're going to sneak in the greatest invention in the history of baseball, Dollar Thursdays. We're not going to reinvent the wheel, just tweak it a little bit."
Only time will tell if Smorol's energy and enthusiasm translate to tangible results, but he's certainly backing down from the challenge. Soon after he was hired, he told Syracuse.com that "this stadium is going to have 600,000 people in it during my tenure." That would be a lofty goal for any franchise (only four Minor League teams drew 600,000 or more in 2013), let alone a Chiefs organization that is currently operating below the 350,000 mark.
"You've got to reach for the stars, but I did leave myself some wriggle room," Smorol said of his desire to turn the Chiefs into one of Minor League Baseball's top draws. "It's maybe something that will happen in five or six years. We've got to start living at 400,000, then 450,000, then creep up into the 500s. Why should I not think that and not strive for that? Even if I fall short at 500,000, the Chiefs are going to be just fine."