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The Interrogation Room: Bill Smith, Twins' GM

February 16, 2010
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In minor league baseball most fans follow the advancement of the players to the major leagues. There have been many, many Papermakers, Foxes, and Timber Rattlers players who have moved on to the big leagues.  Appleton Baseball has also seen one of its own move out of the Goodland Field front office up to 'The Show', too.

Bill Smith was the General Manager of the Appleton Foxes from 1983 through 1985.  Currently, he is the General Manager of the Minnesota Twins.  As baseball prepares for Spring Training, Mr. Smith goes to The Interrogation Room to talk about the end of the Foxes/White Sox relationship, money saving moves for a minor league franchise, lessons learned in Appleton , and how to steal a little publicity away from the folks in Clinton , Iowa .

Q. Your first season as the GM of the Foxes was 1983.  What were your expectations coming into the job?

A. I had worked two seasons in the White Sox Minor League and Scouting Department, so I was coming with a little knowledge of the players in the system.  My main reason for coming to Appleton was to learn the business side of the game. I had no real sales and marketing experience, so my expectations were to work hard and learn a lot!

Q. What was the interview process like?

A. I had spoken to a couple of members of the Board of Directors about my interest in the position, and flew to Appleton for an interview.  The Executive Committee set up the interview in the small office at Goodland Field.  It was a little crowded for about eight people, but it went well and I was thrilled to be offered the job and introduced at the annual meeting the next night.

Q. I found this column by Bernie Peterson of the Post-Crescent from near the end of the 1985 season. It is about the hard work of being a minor league GM.  Have you been able to carry over any of the lessons you learned from your time in Appleton to your current position with the Twins?

A. One of the great benefits of my three years in Appleton was learning the basics of the Business of Baseball. There are great differences in scale between the Major Leagues and Minor Leagues, but the principles are similar. The experiences I gained in Sales, Marketing, Promotions, Finance, Concessions, Team Travel, Stadium Operations, Groundskeeping, Media Relations and Community Affairs have been incredibly valuable over the past 24 years in Minnesota .

In any organization, departments have to work together and my Appleton experiences still help me every day to understand the needs of our business departments and help us all work together. When we all pull in the same direction, we reach our goals much faster. 

Q.  One thing from that article really grabbed my attention:  There were 14 home rain outs in the 1983 and the 1984 season for the Foxes. Then, the team bought a tarp for the '85 season.  Was it really a difficult sell to get a tarp for Goodland Field?

A. The total budget of the ballclub in 1983 was very small compared to what it is today.  The City of Appleton had run Goodland Field for decades, and, in order to reduce costs to the city, the Foxes took over stadium management at the start of 1983. 

The cost of a tarp was significant, and you had to make sure adequate manpower would be available when it had to be put on, and especially when the sun came out and the tarp had to be removed quickly to avoid damage to the grass. The tarp purchase was a big event for the club 25 years ago, but it paid dividends in the 1st year.

Q. A money saving move that the Foxes had was to get the foul balls back from the fans and I was surprised to see how much money that it actually saved.  But, how hard was it to get those baseballs back from fans?

A. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was common for most minor league clubs to get the foul balls turned in and put back into the game.  Our volunteer Board of Directors was very good about covering the ballpark and politely asking for the return of foul balls, and fans had no expectations of keeping them.  We purchased fewer than 100 dozen baseballs in one of the seasons I was there.  The players didn't throw them in the stands and the fans returned the foul balls.  That has all changed now.

Q. The Foxes had a chance to win their fourth straight Midwest League Championship in 1985, but they lost to Kenosha in the first round of the
playoffs when the final game of the series ended early due to fog.  How
difficult was it to end the season that way?

A. Having a playoff series end in the fog was a difficult finish to the season for us.  I remember when the fog rolled in, we had a lot of suggestions from fans and phones calls with suggestions to make to fog lift. We waited a long time and when the umpires were ready to call the game, our manager, Sal Rende, tried to provide some hope that it was getting better.  Sal grabbed a fungo bat and hit a ball up in the air. We all lost sight of it immediately, and I think the umpires called the game and headed for the clubhouse before the ball hit the ground.

Q. The Foxes got large and complimentary mentions in The Washington Post and Sports Illustrated during your time in Appleton .  As the Timber Rattlers Media Relations person now, I have to ask...How did you manage that?

A. The Washington Post article came about by accident.  Another publication had run a photo of a groundskeeper working alone after a game, and identified the ballpark as Goodland Field in Appleton .  I got a call from William Gildea, a writer for the Post saying that he had seen the photo and wanted to write a story about our club.  I never told him the photo was mislabeled and that it was really the Clinton ballpark.  He came with his two sons, spent 3 or 4 days in Appleton and wrote a
beautiful story about the Appleton Baseball Club.

Sports Illustrated was a little better orchestrated. My college roommate and best friend was working fulltime for Sports Illustrated and we spoke often.  Further, at the Winter Meetings in 1984, I met SI's Senior Writer, Steve Wulf, who also happened to have attended my Alma Mater, Hamilton College .  We struck up a friendship, and Steve bought a few shares of stock in the Foxes.  A year later, Sports Illustrated was doing a feature on America 's Best Sports Town and there were three
criteria:  (1) Strong local sports history,  (2) A hometown hero (Rocky Bleier), and (3) A minor league franchise with a great history. Appleton fit the bill and Steve Wulf, then a Foxes' shareholder, recommended Appleton .

Q. The 1986 season was the final year of the affiliation with the Chicago White Sox.  Some of the articles from the time treat this as if it was a fait accompli due to the fact that South Bend would soon be getting an expansion franchise.  Can you share with the readers a little bit about that process?

A. This was a difficult time for the ballclub.  The White Sox had been affiliated with Appleton for 20 years, but South Bend was getting a franchise in the league and the White Sox were also trying to start a regional sports network.  They felt that having an affiliate close by in South Bend would help them sell the network, and also create more fans for games in Chicago .

Fortunately for Appleton, 1983 Foxes manager, John Boles, had moved on to become the Minor League Director for the Kansas City Royals, and he jumped at the chance to bring the Royals to Appleton in 1987.  John was a great manager and had a strong affinity for the Appleton Baseball Club and the Appleton area.  I had left the organization when the new deal was struck with the Royals, but they were a good partner for a few years.

Q. How have things changed in the relationship between major league clubs and their affiliates since 1986?

A. The biggest change is in the facilities.  In the early 1990s, Major League Baseball made strong requests that some of the old facilities had to be upgraded or replaced.  There was concern that some of the smaller programs in the minor league would not be able to meet the standards, and a few have lost their teams. However, the tremendous increase in minor league attendance and exposure is partly due to the great new facilities.  Minor League franchises are much better run now and they have become big business.  I was the only full-time staff member in 1983 and 1984, and we added Larry Dawson as an assistant in 1985.  Minor
League front office staffs are much larger today, and there are tremendous benefits.  The parks have better facilities, better rest rooms and better sightlines.  They have suites, clubs, picnic areas and many other amenities that make a baseball game more enjoyable for all fans. Concessions have gone from hot dogs, brats and popcorn to a full array of cuisine that we never dreamed of 25 years ago.

Relations between the Major League and Minor League clubs have evolved in a few areas.  Geography seems more important in the partnership, as it was when the White Sox wanted to go to South Bend Boston , Baltimore , Cleveland , Texas , Cincinnati and Houston all have affiliates in close proximity to their major league markets.  Atlanta owns most of its teams and has a full-time staff to manage the clubs.  Franchises are much more expensive now, and there is a little more pressure from the minor league affiliate to field a winning team. In the end, it is a partnership where both Major League and Minor League clubs must work together to achieve the ultimate success.

Q.  Milt Drier has done a lot for the Foxes and the Timber Rattlers, yet he prefers to stay in the background.  What can you tell us about your father-in-law's contribution to Appleton baseball?

A. When I started with the White Sox in the spring of 1981, Milt and his family came down to Spring Training in Sarasota .  I learned right away that he had great passion for professional baseball, and over the next two seasons, I got to know Milt well.  When I moved to Appleton after the 1982 season, Milt was elected President of the Foxes and became my day-to-day contact. He served for decades as a volunteer on the Foxes Board of Directors, and was the leader of the group, whether it was
doing work projects at the ball park or attending team and league meetings.

The Board of Directors in the mid-1980s was a hard working all-volunteer group that provided many services to the ballclub.  Many directors assisted in their specialty areas; attorneys handled the legal issues and insurance agents made sure we had adequate coverage.  Two directors handled the souvenir stand, others provided critical work in concessions, ticket selling, ballpark upgrades, plumbing and repairs.

One director took on a promotion honoring our military veterans.  We had a wonderful group that made it fun to be around the ballpark.

No matter what the project was, Milt Drier was involved and he provided tremendous leadership to the club for many years.

Q.  The Twins are getting ready to open Target Field.  It must be an exciting time in the Twin Cities.

After playing indoors on artificial turf for 28 seasons, the Twins are thrilled to be moved back outdoors in a state-of-the-art facility. Target Field is a spectacular ballpark that is built for fans.  There are great amenities, suites and clubs, but all seats throughout the park have great sightlines to the playing field and our fans are excited to
get the season started.  We will have a few challenging days with the weather, just as you do in Appleton , but this will be a wonderful home for our players, sponsors and especially our fans.

Past editions of The Interrogation Room

1/7: Jeff Isom

1/14: Brock Kjeldgaard

1/19: Cody Scarpetta

1/26:  Jim Henderson

2/2: Corey Kemp

2/9: Chris Hook