Sunday, January 30, 2005

SABR meeting report, part 1 (Kevin Uhlich)

Yesterday, I went to the annual meeting of the D.C. chapter of SABR (the Society for American Baseball Research). There were three research presentations, three invited speakers and a couple of trivia presentations. The first speaker was Stan Brand, VP of Minor League Baseball. Second was Kevin Uhlich, special assistant to Tony Tavares, who primarily handles team operations. Third was USA Today Sports Weekly senior editor Paul White, who discussed our roster and our farm system. I also met loyal reader Backward K and Colin Mills, who is running the Nats fan club.

All three speakers were great. Brand talked about the economics of minor league ball. He talked about the recent history of the agreement between the Majors and the Minors, and how the current minor league system is made possible by the anti-trust exemption (because it is the reason for the reserve clause, without which you'd have free agency earlier in people's careers, and the economics just wouldn't work for the current system). I'll cover Paul White's talk tonight.

Kevin Uhlich gave an overview of the business side of the team. He started by giving his history with Baseball, which started as a batboy for the Angels when he was 16. After a short detour in radio, he came back to the Angels organization and moved to operations. He moved up the rung, ending up as a VP under Tony Tavares. When Tavares left, he took over as president, and stayed there until a few months after Disney sold the team. While at the helm of the Angels, he was responsible for the large amount of red in the uniform, the rise of the rally monkey and a world series ring, which he sported on his right hand.

He then talked about how Tavares coaxed him to do this, when he was enjoying a year off, and contemplating a job in football. He then talked about everything that the organization has done so far, including hiring, ticket sales and the RFK renovation (among other things).

The RFK renovation is going better than could be expected, given the massively compressed time frame. RFK was actually in reasonable shape... they were expecting, particularly because of our climate, for many things to be wrong, such as the concrete to be all cracked and broken.

The sliding seats had been damaged from years of people shaking the seats at football games, but now work as originally designed, sliding back and forth "like butter". The dugouts have been expanded, they're building bullpens, the sprinklers and drainage system didn't work, the soil needed replacing, the press box needed replacing, there was no office space inside the stadium (thus the trailers), the concession facilities needed $2M of work, ...

They've made a massive amount of progress, and should have no problems getting the thing done in time. The field is already 80% done, despite the weather, thanks to the "field guru" from Chicago, I think he said his name was Roger Bosner (but a web search turned up nothing). They've got drainage and sprinklers done, and will be laying grass the first week of March. Bosner is very confident that their plan for converting the infield for D.C. United will work like a charm, but Uhlich will be skeptical until he sees it work.

He also talked about the "Ring of Stars", the banners celebrating local sports legends. As the Post reported, this has disappeared. The reason is because the ring takes up primo advertising space they need to sell. But, they have got the support of Charlie Brotman (former Senators PA announcer), who is responsible for the Ring of Stars. What they're going to do is find a prominent place in RFK to hang at least some of them, and then they will take them and display them in the new stadium. By the way, Charlie Brotman is confirmed as the P.A. announcer for the exhibition game against the Mets and the home opener, at least.

Uhlich's enthusiasm for embracing franchise, the area and the history of both was perfectly clear, not just in his concern for the Ring of Stars, but in the anecdotes he told about his experiences to date. He is quite fond of the city, particularly its architecture. He likes how nothing is built taller than the monument, so even when you're downtown, you don't feel like you're downtown. But, he doesn't get the diagonal roads (who does?), and was thrown off by having the same address exist in multiple parts of the city. He and the rest of the temporary team (Tavares and Bowden) would love to continue doing the job when new owners come on, but are realistic, and understand that new owners may very well want to install their own guys in those key positions.

For the exhibition game, he confirmed that he had originally wanted to get the Yankees, so they could finish the game that never got finished when the Senators moved to Texas (due to fans rushing the field with one out left, with the Senators up two runs). He was hoping to get Senators that are still around to go take their positions with the appropriate Nats starter.

The guy who was on the mound when the fans rushed the field still has the ball that was in his hand at the time. Uhlich still wants to get him to bring it down and present it to the President, so that ball can be the first pitch, thus bridging the past to the present.

He talked about the rich history of the President throwing out the first pitch, even though, as is fitting to his role, he also sees it as an operational nightmare. He hopes it goes back to being an annual tradition, and is how MLB kicks off the season every year, even if, due to the RFK renovations, they couldn't play the team's first game in Washington.

Also, he talked about how, in 1904, the Washington franchise was the first to wear their nickname on their Jerseys, when they put "Nationals" on it. The first game was on April 14th 1904, meaning that the Nationals will return 101 years to the day of their original premiere.

The TV and radio deals are both close to being announced, even though the radio deal has indeed unraveled a bit. After the talk, he said that they haven't done anything in the way of selecting the radio team... he's got several boxes of tapes that he'll go through, but, while the team will pick the person, they want to give a lot of weight to the desires of the station they end up using.

Of course, Uhlich talked about tickets. Once they merged the Washington Baseball Club and MLB lists, they had 21,000 names on the ticket list. When the Post reporter called and asked if someone messed up, he said they didn't at all, it was a simple case of supply and demand. He reiterated what was reported, that there are 5,000 infield box seats, and there were 10,000 requested. Plus, most people had been on one of the two lists giving them "priority". And, of course, DC has a much, much larger VIP list than most teams (and certainly small market teams).

But, the VIPs didn't get all the best seats. They spread out the VIPs and have seats for the general public in every section, even in the front rows of every section. They've done their best to give the general public a good experience.

But, he said that there are far more good seats in RFK than people may realize. He thinks that RFK is poorly numbered. When people hear they have seats in the 300s, they expect to have nose bleeds, but in RFK they're good seats in the main bowl.

While due to the construction, they can't have an open house, they are being as accommodating as they can be with angry fans. They have taken some people to see their seats, but can only do so on a case by case basis.

Someone complained about not being able to get a refund on their $300 deposit. Uhlich explained their refund policy. If you listed three preferences, and you didn't get one of your preferences, they'll work with you. They'll try to get you into a seat after the 4th, or, if nothing they can do makes you happy, they'll give you the refund. But, if you got a seat in your third preference section, they'd appreciate you honoring the preference.

They can't do much for people unhappy with their seats until they know who is or isn't paying for seats (thus, Feb. 4). Even then, they "Can't promise anyone is going to move, but we're going to do our best".

When they know exactly what seats are gone to full season holders, they can open up ticket sales for mini and partial plans, so they'll probably come the week of February 4th. As for single game ticket sales, they will probably go on sale the second Saturday in March, and Uhlich hopes to have a festival around it.

He talked a bit about the new stadium, and alluded to the politics, but didn't address them or the ownership issue directly, beyond saying that they believe in local ownership, and that, the one ownership group he's met (the Malek group) would make wonderful owners. He likes the Anacostia site and pointing the stadium to have a view of the monuments, and reinforced the recent Post article, which said that nobody in the city or in the organization wants another Camden Cookie Cutter. He wants the new stadium to set a new benchmark for how stadiums get integrated into the area.

The funniest moment was in the Q+A period, one guy told a story about how the Expos would cart in local prisoners to make Olympic Stadium appear to be a more popular place. The prisoners wouldn't be unshackled, and they would, on cue, clang their shackles on the seat in front of them, since they couldn't clap. To that, Uhlich said, "That's not in our marketing plan".

All in all, Uhlich was a charismatic guy who is clearly doing a great job at an impossible task. He cares a lot about fans, and was happy to talk to the Colin Mills afterward about working with the Fan Club. He even said he'd try to help the fan club arrange tickets for the game on April 4.


At 4:49 PM, Blogger Basil said...

Bring in prisoners to make the stadium look more populated? Brilliant!!!

At 8:34 AM, Blogger WFY said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 8:38 AM, Blogger WFY said...

Joe Grzenda was the pitcher on the mound when the Sept. 30, 1971 game was called off. There is more here. He still has the ball.

At 8:43 AM, Blogger John said...

Thanks, Will. I think I said this in the article, but not only does he have the ball that was in his hand when the fans rushed the field, Uhlich would like that ball to be presented to the President, to make it the first pitch at the home opener.

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