June 2013

So you say you want to work in baseball…

Derrick Hall started out in this business the same way everyone else did – at the bottom.

He was young, eager and willing to do anything, and he did in 1992, throwing himself into his work as an intern with the Class A Vero Beach Dodgers. He stocked shelves. He gave away free car washes to lucky fans who bought the right stamped program. He hammed it up in the stands as a Monty Hall-type entertainer.

He also learned how to deal with people.

“I knew every one of my season ticket holders by name,” Hall recalled. “I knew which ones liked Bud Light and which ones liked frozen lemonade.”

Today, he’s still on a first-name basis with season ticket holders. Sponsors, too. And every front office employee, top to bottom. It’s all part of his job as the president and CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks, an organization widely regarded as boasting one of the industry’s healthiest work environments.

Hall, addressing a roomful of job seekers on Wednesday in Houston, ticked off his list of criteria when he’s looking to fill a position.

“You have passion,” he said.

And?

“You truly love the game of baseball. You’re a fit for the right reason. And you want to make a career of it.”

It sounds simple, yes. That’s because it is. Hall understands what it takes to work in baseball. He’s been doing it for most of his adult life, as have most industry executives. They do it because they love it.

Sustainability in this game requires skill and know-how, sure, but a genuine appreciation for the game is another vital element. It takes almost no time for the novelty of “Neat, I’m working in baseball” to wear off. A few 80-hour workweeks and modest wages are usually all that’s needed to weed out those who say “Heck, why not, I’ll give it a try, might be fun” and those who will do anything it takes to work in baseball, because it’s all they’ve ever wanted to do, and because they’ll go to whatever lengths necessary just to get the proverbial foot in the door.

I think it’s safe to say if you travel to a far-away place on your own dime in order to get 10 minutes of face-to-face time with a baseball executive without any guarantees that it will lead to future employment, you fall into the latter category.

That’s why if I was in a position to hire someone, I’d begin my search at a baseball-sponsored job fair.

There are currently two — the PBEO job fair at the Winter Meetings, and the Job Seeker Trade Fair at the Diversity Business Summit. PBEO (Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities) has been around for a couple decades at the very minimum, while the Diversity Business Summit is newer, just having hosted its second-ever event in Houston on Wednesday at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Both offer opportunities for job seekers to meet with teams in person. In essence, their resumes fly to the top of the digital stack, and even if there’s not a match, the chance to network and lay groundwork for possible future employment can prove invaluable. From a team standpoint, it’s a good way to jump right over the people who may not be serious about it and get right to those who say they want to work in baseball and mean it.

I’m admittedly a little biased. I got my first baseball job after attending the PBEO job fair at the Winter Meetings in Los Angeles in 1995. I bought a plane ticket, booked a hotel, grabbed a stack of resumes (and my mom) and headed west, where I had no idea what was ahead of me. All I knew was that it was what I needed to do if I was going to make a serious go of this baseball thing.

(This was before the Internet, so I had to actually call a number to sign up for the job fair. No, seriously — I talked to someone very helpful named Anne, who explained that I would need to write the phone number to my hotel on my resumes when I got there, so that perspective employers could call my room if they needed to find me, especially if they had a job offer. Really, this is how we did in the stone ages, when # meant “pound” and “apps” was short for appetizers.)

The experience was excruciating. Three days of anxiety, sweat and nervous nail-biting, while competing with 500 other job fair attendees trying to nab the same low-paying (or no-paying) mostly Minor League jobs. There was one Major League opening, with the Dodgers, but you needed to know how to speak Japanese. (Nomo-mania and all.)

I don’t remember how many teams I interviewed with, but it was somewhere in the neighborhood of more than two and less than five. Salary-wise, I figured I could make it work if I didn’t do anything frivolous, like eat. One interviewer from a New York-Penn League team asked, “How do you feel about cleaning bathrooms?” Another said they couldn’t pay me. It wasn’t an internship, like for class credit. They were just not offering money. I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.

I landed a job with the Double-A Canton-Akron Indians, was handed a semi-cool title and a salary that basically took care of the rent and a biweekly six-pack of Milwaukee’s Best. I pulled tarp. I cleaned the stadium after rainy nights. I sold concessions when workers didn’t show. It was a tough year. Let’s just say the work environment was very much the opposite of what Derrick Hall has going at the Diamondbacks. But it was exactly where I needed to be to get to where I wanted to go. The Indians job was a start. The job fair was my springboard.

That’s not to say job fairs are the only way to go. A former colleague at the Astros still has the hand-written rejection letter Drayton McLane sent him 12 or 13 years ago. A soon-to-be graduate at Texas A&M University, Clint just wanted in and was willing to take on just about any task to get there. McLane — not his secretary, not his public relations staff, but actually Drayton himself — kindly explained they didn’t have any positions available, but encouraged him to stay determined and keep charging.

Clint finally got one foot in the door working in the tour department. He eventually landed an internship in marketing, and a couple of years later was promoted to Director of Marketing.

That’s how it was in the Astros’ front office for a long time. College students did internships and internships sometimes turned into full-time employment. At one point, about half the workers on the business side of the operation had started out as interns.

This isn’t unique to just Houston. Every team has similar stories. Most executives, both high-ranking and the middle of the pack, started out by doing the grunt work dumped on them by their bosses. They stayed because they couldn’t imagine ever doing anything else.

In this game, that’s not just the right attitude. It’s the only one that works.

Follow Alyson Footer on Twitter

Osama bin Laden: He gone!!!!

The text came in on May 2, 2011, as I was watching President Obama confirm what the wire reports had already told us: Osama bin Laden had been killed by a heroic Navy SEAL Team 6. The country celebrated, with impromptu “USA! USA!” chants popping up in ballparks stretching from California to New York.

Then I received a text from an Astros player who was relatively new to Twitter.

“Can I tweet, ‘Bin Laden. HE GONE!!!!!'” he asked.

I laughed and assured him that it was fine, that it was a very American thing to be happy about this news, and that while normally it wouldn’t be a good idea to celebrate death on Twitter, for this, it was entirely patriotic and very appropriate.

While I found our exchange amusing, I also was glad that he took the extra measure to check in. He wanted to make sure he wasn’t about to say something that would reflect poorly on him and subsequently, on the organization, and I appreciated it. At that time, we had already constructed a code of ethics regarding social media, a four-page explanation that was included in the Minor League handbook. But we were still in the process of educating players on the Major League level as to what was expected of them if they chose to be active on Facebook and Twitter.

During my time overseeing the social media side of the Astros’ operation from 2009 to 2012, I encouraged players to embrace social media but made sure they understood they needed to be smart about it. The upside of Twitter is that it’s a great way to interact directly with the fans, which in turn can reflect favorably on a player’s marketability. But it can also be dangerous, since there’s no filter between the players and the public.

Twitter is based largely on knee-jerk reactions, which can spell trouble, especially for a professional athlete in the public spotlight. Basically, it’s a free-for-all, where a brief short-tempered moment can turn into public controversy, creating unnecessary headaches for the players and the organizations that employ them.

This was recently brought to light by an unfortunate lapse in judgment by Ian Stewart, an infielder in the Cubs’ organization who is currently playing for the club’s Triple-A team in Iowa. Through a series of tweets, mostly coming from exchanges with inquisitive followers, Stewart unleashed a lot of anger directed in large part toward Cubs manager Dale Sveum.

To state the obvious, the Cubs weren’t happy. Citing a “loyalty clause” in Stewart’s contract, the infielder has been suspended without pay. Terms of the suspension will be announced at a later time, after the Cubs get through the legalities of the process.

It goes without saying (and Stewart actually did say it later, through a string of repentant tweets) that he’d like to have those 15 minutes back. Surely, he’d have gone about things differently and just vented to a buddy over a beer, or called his mom, or simply seethed inwardly, unnoticed. You know, the way we used to complain about our problems during the stone ages of the early 2000s, before social media.

What happened to Stewart should serve as a cautionary tale to all players. There are a few fights you cannot win, one of which is taking on your organization through social media, especially when you have accomplished little, if anything, in the big leagues. (The other is criticizing the fans, especially about low attendance, but that’s a topic for another day).

During my time with the Astros, I had a chance to speak to a few of the Minor League affiliates during my yearly trips to check out the organization’s top prospects. We also held media training sessions during Spring Training with eight to 10 of the young players in Major League camp who were expected to have a presence in Houston at some point within a year or so. My message: please, please please…think before you tweet.

“Before you tweet something, imagine one of the beat writers standing in front of you with a flip cam pointed at your face and a tape recorder running,” I’d say. “Now, say the tweet out loud. Are you comfortable with this being on the record?”

Tweets are most definitely suitable for public, and media, consumption. If reporters see something newsworthy on Twitter, it’s considered very much on the record and if it’s juicy enough, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll run with it. This is the world we live in today. Players may not like it, but they have to adjust to it. Some have done this better than others.

Prior to Spring Training in 2012, we designed large signs, in English and Spanish, to hang in the clubhouses at all of the Minor League affiliates, plus in the Major League clubhouses in Houston and Kissimmee. Titled “The Dos and Don’ts of Twitter” (with focus more on the don’ts), we explained the rules in an orderly, colorful fashion, using eye-catching graphics to illustrate what’s good and what’s bad. Some sections included smiley faces and a cartoon drawing of a “thumbs up” to show what is acceptable, while frowning faces and thumbs down were used in the “don’t do this” areas.

Major League Baseball had sent out its own memo to the players explaining what was acceptable and what wasn’t regarding social media, but we wanted to spell out the expectations of players on something that could serve as a daily reminder without any effort, other than looking at it hanging on the wall. Most importantly, we just wanted the players to read it.

Included in the “what not to do on Twitter” section: don’t call out teammates or air private disagreements with coaches/managers/front office. Don’t tweet after drinking alcohol and don’t use profanity/sexual innuendos.

Also, don’t comment on signings or trades before the transactions are officially announced by the team. During our Spring Training talks with the Minor Leaguers, we explained that for every promotion, someone on the Major League team was getting traded, or released, or demoted. Informing the Minor League player that he was going to the big leagues was just one step in the process, and likely, the first step.

So while you’re on Twitter celebrating your buddy making it to “the show,” we explained, there’s someone in the Major League clubhouse who’s about to lose his job. It’s usually in that order.

“Until you see it on my Twitter, it hasn’t happened,” I’d say. “I don’t care if a full 24 hours goes by between when it leaks out and when it’s confirmed. It’s unofficial until we say it’s not.”

On the list of “what to do on Twitter,” we encouraged players to show gratitude to the fans, to thank them for their support, and be humble. Talk about working hard and trying to improve. Speak of their teammates in a supportive manner, and talk about community events they’ve participated in.

In the middle of the poster, in a shaded box, was this:

BEFORE TWEETING, ASK YOURSELF:

* Is this something I want my parents/wife/girlfriend/relatives to know about me?

* Will this create conflict with my teammates/organization?

* Is this something I would be OK seeing quoted in a newspaper/online news site?

Finally, we gave examples of good tweets and bad tweets by professional athletes.

@JustinVerlander: My 2012 resolutions: Help Tigers get to World Series, meet more veterans, learn Spanish.

Good tweet.

@OakcliffBully (Kenyon Martin): All the haters should catch full blown aids and die! do the world a favor! and rid us of you all!

Clearly, a bad tweet.

Our intent wasn’t to stifle players or take away their freedom of speech. I wanted them to be themselves, to have opinions, to show their personalities and embrace the opportunity for a healthy give-and-take with the fanbase. But they also needed to understand that while they are representing Major League Baseball and the teams that are paying them, they are held to a higher standard.

There have been hiccups over time, sure. And it’s possible that another Ian Stewart situation will happen again. For the most part, though, I’ve been impressed by how ballplayers handle social media, especially during times of adversity when fans can vent their frustrations directly to a players’ Twitter account. These guys show amazing restraint, and I commend them.

Follow Alyson Footer on Twitter

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