Burl Yarbrough has a special bond with the Texas League.
After all, he's spent most of his life involved with the Double-A league. The majority of that time has taken place with the Missions while serving as general manager and president the past 29 years. However, the connection began long before a baseball career surfaced.
While growing up in Fort Worth, Yarbrough spent many summer nights at Turnpike Stadium watching the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs.
Recently, the connection became even stronger as Yarbrough was selected into the Texas League Hall of Fame. For the Missions' president, that honor is the icing on the cake.
"For somebody who has spent a lot of time here in San Antonio, being a small part of this historic franchise and then being honored by the Texas League means a lot," said Yarbrough, who was selected with Missions owner Dave Elmore. "This is so special. The Texas League was my first exposure to professional baseball. That's why I wanted to have a career in minor league baseball. I was intrigued by young players trying to make it to the big leagues. When they got older it was always exciting to see what they did."
Excitement has been ongoing the past 29 years.
During Yarbrough's stint, the Missions moved from V.J. Keefe Field on St. Mary's University's campus to Wolff Stadium. The team has won six Texas League championships and has groomed future major leaguers such as Paul Konerko, Eric Karros, Pedro Martinez, Mike Piazza, Felix Hernandez and Chase Headley.
In addition, the Missions have been Double-A affiliates for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres.
Still, the early days of watching players like Bobby Grich, Don Baylor and John Boccabella shine with the Spurs, along with stories of the Fort Worth Cats dominating the Texas League during their day set the tone for the future.
The path to a minor league baseball career began a few years after graduating from UTA with a degree in marketing. He was looking to start a career in sports and interviewed with the Dallas Cowboys. One of the team's vice presidents encouraged him to get a master's degree in sports management.
At the time Yarbrough wasn't interested in returning to school and ended up working two years in sales for a wine distributorship. However, the passion for sports wouldn't go away. Eventually, he followed the Cowboys' executive's recommendation and received his masters from St. Thomas University in Miami. Then, a baseball career surfaced.
Yarbrough's first opportunity came during an internship with the Phoenix Giants. Later that December he went to the 1984 baseball meetings in Houston. When arriving there, he discovered 300 or 400 other people had their sights on getting a job in baseball, too. It was an intimidating situation, but Yarbrough received offers from Phoenix, Double-A Jacksonville and Single-A Florence (S.C.). Although each job had its attractions, Yarbrough felt going the A-ball route would benefit him more in the long run.
He was right.
Being part of a two-man staff put Yarbrough in a multi-task situation, but that enabled him to learn the business inside and out. He put his marketing degree to use, worked concessions, helped in preparing the field and any other job that needed to be done.
Overall, it paid off like Yarbrough hoped as he worked with general manager Dan Rajkowski, and minor league legend Bob Freitas, whose name is on the MiLB award for outstanding minor league operations in Triple-A, Double-A, Single-A and Short Season.
"I wanted to learn it all and that is what I did," Yarbrough said. "I worked for a great guy (Rajkowski). He taught me the business and about having a great work ethic. He taught me everything that needed to be done. I was also fortunate to get to work with Bob Freitas.
"I did it all. I could have gone somewhere with a bigger staff but I made the right decision. I was older because I had worked a couple years before I got my masters. I wanted to move up as quickly as I could and that worked out great for me."
After one season Yarbrough was promoted to general manager. Then things really got hopping. The team moved to Myrtle Beach in 1987 and after that season a bigger opportunity came his way when the Missions offered him the job as general manager.
Although Yarbrough enjoyed Myrtle Beach returning to his home state was a dream come true.
"Bob Freitas highly recommended me and I was very fortunate to get the job," Yarbrough said. "Moving back to Texas was my ultimate goal. My parents had moved to San Antonio and it was a great deal to get this job."
Yarbrough has enjoyed it to the fullest.
The early years were a bit challenging. V.J. Keefe wasn't the best stadium in the Texas League, but Yarbrough and his staff made it work. Attendance improved and eventually the franchise moved to Wolff Stadium in 1994 and things picked up even more.
"V.J. Keefe was in rough shape, but we did the best we could," said Yarbrough, who eventually became president of the franchise. "We started turning things around. About the third year we started talking about a new stadium and eventually it all came together."
During the first season at the Wolff the Missions set a Texas League record in attendance with 411,899. That accomplishment earned the three-time TL Executive of the Year the Bob Freitas Award.
Under Yarbrough's guidance the Missions have led the Texas League in attendance five times.
Through the years the Missions have succeeded with a number of attractions. Give-away promotions draw large crowds. Concerts are popular, along with regular events, such as fireworks after Saturday night home games, Thursday Dollar Night and $2 Tuesdays.
The interactive games between innings also creates excitement. Hospitality has turned into a major part of the growth with suites, patio parties and the picnic in the park.
Overall, the key to success in building attendance is the same as the team playing the game on the field.
"We try to be consistent," the dean of Texas League executives said. "We have done fireworks for 10 years. I think being consistent means a lot. We have a good staff here and a lot of them have been with me a long time. I have a half dozen people who have been here 15 or 20 years with me. That can be unusual in baseball.
"I think that is a tribute to being in a great city with great ownership. It's helped us be successful in how we operate."
Although the Missions are successful, Yarbrough and his staff are constantly looking for ways to improve. When the 2016 season ends on Labor Day, they'll start turning their attention to making 2017 better.
"The great thing about working with Dave Elmore is we have eight ball clubs," Yarbrough said. "We get together several times a year sharing ideas. There are very talented people who work for him. Every now and then we will create something and share with them as well. We're never satisfied. My goal every year is to be better. That is what we always try to do."
The awards and six Texas League championships have brought pleasant memories. However, the biggest reward is still seeing fans enjoying themselves at the Wolff.
"The past few years have been the best we have ever had," Yarbrough said. "We have turned things around and had attendance increases the past three or four years. We have made great improvement in a lot of areas.
"My goal here has always been whether you're a fan or not you're going to have a good time. That's what we sell."
Of course, the passion for the actual game is still intact.
"I like the pace of the game," Yarbrough said. "You can come down and relax. You can actually have a conversation and see what is going on while enjoying the game. I have grandkids now. I am taking them to the games. Whether you are five years old or 85 you can share together.
"I have seen a lot of baseball games. It is amazing because you see something you have never seen before. It happens about a dozen times a year. Every night is different. We can beat a team 12-0 and they can come back and shut us out. As a player you can go 0-4 but you don't have to think about it very long. You get to play the next day as opposed to playing once a week."
The future could be even more exciting.
The Missions are hoping to build a new stadium in downtown San Antonio. However, that would mean moving to Triple-A and parting ways with the Texas League.
That decision depends on what the voters decide.
Whatever happens, Yarbrough will take on the job with the usual enthusiasm.
"We may be in the Texas League two more years, we may be in the Texas League 50 more years," Yarbrough said. "I don't know. It's an exciting time as we're in talks with the city about a new downtown park.
"It makes me smile thinking of the possibility if we get one. We're going to do the best we can wherever we are. We're going to work to improve every year."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.