Redleg Nation is happy to have had the opportunity to spend some time talking with Gary Roller, the second-year General Manager of the Billings Mustangs, the Rookie League affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. He was very open and honest with us about the duties of a minor league GM and his personal thoughts on some of the young future Reds that he’s seen in Billings over the past couple of seasons.
We appreciate the time that Gary spent with us and hope to be able to talk to him again in the future.
Interview with Billings Mustangs GM, Gary Roller, conducted 2/9/07 via telephone.
RN: Redleg Nation (Bill Lack)
GR: Gary Roller
RN: This is Redleg Nation talking with Gary Roller, General Manager of the Billings Mustangs. We appreciate Gary giving us some of his time today. Most people don’t know how minor league teams run, what was your career path to becoming the GM of the Billings Mustangs?
GR: My first step was going to graduate school. I went to graduate school at Idaho State University and obtained a Master’s degree in Sports Management, and after that I came back to Billings, which is my hometown, and was able to obtain an internship with the Mustangs. That turned into becoming the assistant GM, and then, eventually, the general manager. So, in my case, it’s a longevity thing as much as anything. This is my 14th season with the Mustangs and again started as an intern and worked my way to my present position.
RN: If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?
GR: I’m 43.
RN: Is that about an average age for a GM at this level?
GR: They’re getting younger and younger. I don’t have data or stats, but my feeling is you’re seeing it on the major league level with the Theo Epsteins and those sorts of people coming out of the Ivy League. But overall, I think the industry is becoming a little bit younger.
RN: Do the GMs in the minor leagues tend to come from the business side or the scouting side or is it some of both?
GR: I would say in the minor leagues they would come from the business side of things, whether they’ve just finished their MBA or a Sports Management degree or worked their way into a GM position, more than the scouting area. I think the scouts have a tendency to gravitate towards the major leagues and positions in the front office on the major league level, more than the minor league level.
RN: As a GM in the minor league, do you aspire to move up to a bigger club?
GR: I think that’s all in individual preference. I’m not going to say I haven’t thought about it. I think for some it’s more of goal than for others. I wouldn’t say personally it’s a goal for me. It kind of depends on where you are happy. I’m very happy right here, we’re challenged every single day and that’s enough. I can’t speak for everybody else, but I think I’m safe to say that there are people out there who aspire to be at the major league level, whether it be the GM or the Assistant or some high ranking official in the front office of a major league club. But, I think it’s all personal choice.
RN: Are minor league GMs hired by the local team?
GR: It depends on the structure. Overall, I’d say yes. Most minor league teams are owned by a local group and they are in charge of hiring the GM. The minor league teams that are owned by the major league affiliate, I would imagine they do the hiring of the GM. Close to home, being a Reds affiliate, the Reds own the Sarasota club in the Florida State League, because I know they’ve hired Dan (Wolfert, GM of Sarasota Reds) down there. So, it depends on how it’s structured, but for the most part its up to the local group that owns the franchise.
RN: Your managers and coaching staff, does that all come from the big league club?
GR: It does. We have no input or say into that whatsoever.
RN: Do they actually work for the big league club?
GR: They do. They are full time employees by the affiliate and answer to the affiliate 100% and again, we have no input into that. For the most part, we just work with them when they show up every summer.
RN: Can you tell us exactly what the duties are of a minor league GM? Do you cover a number of jobs that might be done by more individuals at a higher level?
GR: At a higher level you are going to have more people and it’s going to be a little more specialized than it is at this level. They’d have different people in different departments handling different tasks, but at our level for instance, we have 2 full time people. Myself and my assistant. And that being said, we’re responsible for everything they do at the higher levels with less people. So we have to do, have to wear more hats then they do at the higher level, that’s not to say that at the higher level they’re not involved in every aspect of the business because they are. Minor league baseball is very “hands on”, it’s small, overall. And therefore, people end up doing things they never envisioned having to do. It’s a real team effort. We do everything they do, and vice versa and at the end of the day, you just find a way to get it done. And everybody pitches in and you check your ego every day when you show up. You’re doing things you never imagined you would have had to do.
RN: Take us through a typical home game day for you.
GR: Typically, when we’re playing that day. On a game day, you hope that all the work was done prior to that game day; obviously some of it isn’t going to be. But it’s more of a management job than anything else on game day. I’ll meet with my assistant to make sure we’re going in the right direction and I’ll eventually meet with our head grounds keeper for updates o nthe playing surface and weather, that type of thing. Then when the coaching staff shows up, I’ll meet wit h the manager and inform him of anything special that we might have going on that might effect their preparation and find out from him if they need anything special or if anything has changed. It really becomes a routine.
Then the gates open an hour prior to game time; there we’re involved with our game day staff, who are all seasonal part time people. Making sure that they’re in the right place, that they have the right information. Then once the gates are open, you might put out a fire here or there, more related to customer service than anything else, but it’s really just overseeing everything. Hoping everything we done prior to the gates opening and everything runs smoothly.
I would say that on a typical game day, unless they’re a wrench thrown into it, it’s more supervision than management, than it is tasks, other than the normal daily business tasks that we need to oversee as well, like writing checks, paying bills, depositing money, those types of daily tasks, it’s really just management.
RN: So, really kind of the last thing on the list is your “day to day” stadium operations.
GR: Yeah, once the gate opens, most of it is out of your control. You hope that you’ve done everything prior to that so that you don’t have to, in the midst of 2000 people, and do something that should have been done days before. At the higher level, you’re going to have a lot more to do than you do at this level.
A lot of it has to do wit the philosophy of the organization as well. A lot of the other teams are heavily involved in “on-field” promotions. Here, because of our facility being as old as it is, and as small as it is, it really handcuffs us as to what we can do and what we can’t do. Therefore we can run it with a smaller staff and a lot of bigger clubs can’t because we’re not doing a lot of “on-field” promotions.
RN: You’re getting a new ballpark, right?
GR: We are. We’re in the design process right now. It’s to open in June of 2008. We’re looking forward to it, obviously, the community is looking forward to it, and that’s not throwing stones at our current facility, this is just a facility that has outlived its useful life.
RN: What’s the max attendance in your current ballpark?
GR: We can hold about 4,000.
RN: Last year you averaged about 2500?
GR: About 2500, yeah.
RN: That was 3rd in the league. Is that about normal for Billings?
GR: That’s about normal for us. We feel its going to go up a little bit in the new stadium, although the new stadium is not going to be all that much larger than the current stadium and we wanted it that way. The current trend in baseball in both the major and minor leagues in building these new facilities is to build small, because you want to sell them out.
We really wanted to build this new one small as well. Seating capacity wise, fixed seats, it’s going to be smaller than what we have right now, which we think is going to be a positive thing in the end.
The new facility is going to change our approach completely. We’re going to have to get larger as a staff and we’re going to do some of the things the larger clubs are doing because our facility is going to allow us to do things. Our current facility just doesn’t allow us to do anything. That’s why we can run with such a small staff.
RN: So, you were 3rd in the league in attendance last year, yet is sounds like you have teams in your league with bigger stadiums.
GR: Yeah, Ogden is the biggest one; they’ve led the league over the past few years. It used to be us that led the league every year before Ogden got in there. But Ogden’s seating upwards of 5,000 a night.
With our new facility, fixed seating is going to be just under 3,500 a night. But it’s going to have a 360-degree access and we plan to sell “standing room only” tickets. WE feel our attendance is going to go up dramatically, especially in the honeymoon period. Whether we’re going to catch Ogden or not, that I don’t know. Their market is larger than ours; Orem’s market is larger than ours. Only time will tell what’s going to happen. But we feel our attendance is going to increase significantly because of the new stadium.
RN: Of that 2500, how much of that is your season ticket base?
GR: About 1000.
RN: That’s pretty good.
GR: It really is. A lot of that has to do with the configuration of the stadium. All of our reserve seating is only sold on a “season ticket basis” and that’s about 60% of that thousand.
RN: How much is a season ticket for the Mustangs?
GR: This year it’ll be $190 for 38 games.
RN: That’s a really nice, affordable package.
RN: We were talking about promotions earlier and you said you’re kind of limited in the promotions you can run because of the ballpark. In reading about the Mustangs, I read about the “Beer Batter” promotion…tell us about the beer batter promotion.
GR: I think probably a large percentage of the minor league clubs are doing that. There are different ways to do it. The way we do it here is we pick one of our players out, who is in the lineup obviously, and designate him as the “Beer Batter” and every time he comes up, if he gets a hit, for the remainder of that inning, we’ll have a beer special, something like 4 for $10 is what it was a year ago. And that’s been very well received.
I know some teams around the country will turn it around and do it the other way, in fact I’ve seen teams in our league do it, where they will pick a player on the opposing team and if he strikes out, they’ll do something very similar. We’ve tried to turn it around into a positive spin, rather than a negative one, and use our players and create something positive.
RN: Does it create quite a rush to the beer stands?
GR: It does at times. When you really look at it, the beer special, our prices are so inexpensive here, when you discount them a little bit more, you’re not saving that much money in this. But you know how people are, if they feel that they’re getting a deal on something, it’s like Christmas shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, people are at the stores at 5:00 in the morning. They thing they’re getting a great deal.
RN: With a promotion like this, have you had any trouble with the local, drunk driving, that kind of thing? Has there been any negative backlash on it at all?
GR: Fortunately no. We do a pretty good job, I think, of controlling it. Of course, we always reserve the right to cut anybody off that’s had too much. From what we’ve seen, our fans, our people here in Billings don’t abuse that for the most part. That’s not to say that we’re perfect here or that we don’t have fans that once in a while drink a little too much before they come to the ballpark, on top of what they have here. We’ve had to get involved a few times, but for the most part, overall it’s been really well received and nobody has abused it.
RN: Do you have a family oriented fan base?
GR: It really is. I think that’s a definite extension of our community. Our community is still small enough that it’s still very family-oriented. I think in the new ballpark, it’s going to become even more family oriented simply because we can entertain the kids.
Right now, our stadium doesn’t allow us to do anything more than put baseball on display and that’s what we do. Where in the new ballpark, not only will we have the game of baseball, but we’re going to have a kid’s play area, we’re going to have various inflatables throughout the stadium, we’re going to have group areas, we’re probably going to have a family area. Many of the things you probably see in Dayton and throughout the country, that should really lend itself to creating even more of a family environment than what we do right now.
What we do right now is pretty much just baseball. And you know kids, kids are restless and after about an inning or two innings, they want to go and be active. And in this stadium, we have no other way to entertain them, other than the baseball game.
RN: How do you market your team locally? Newspaper, television?
GR: A little bit of everything. Our budget is so small we can’t spend a lot of money in any one area. What we really rely on is “word of mouth” and our history. We’ve been around since 1948 and have been embraced by this community and always have been. And we try to give back any way we can to this community. Really we don’t have to rely on the conventional means of advertising and marketing.
I think in the new ballpark, we’re going to make a more concerted effort to market not only ourselves, but also the ballpark because it’s going to be an icon. It’s going to be beautiful and it’s going to be “the place to be” in this community. I think we’re going to make more of a concerted effort than we are doing right now.
RN: Let’s move out into some things us “nuts and bolts” fans have always wondered about, some “player issues”. How much influence do the Mustangs have on player promotions (moving to a different level) or is that all decided by the big league club?
GR: We have no input into that whatsoever. That is all done by the player development department of the big league club. We have no say in it, obviously, we’re a part of it because they inform us who is going and who is coming, but other that that, we have no say in what goes on.
Certainly, we have our own thoughts and would love to see certain players stay that they choose to send other places, but in the end they’ve got six clubs to worry about, on top of the Billings Mustangs. We’re not the most important thing to them; they have a lot of other people and clubs to worry about, beyond us.
RN: How does that work? Are there daily scouting reports that come from the coaches and manager at your level that go to the big league club?
GR: Absolutely. Every night after the game our coaching staff is on the computers filling out game reports. Typically they’re down there filling out those reports for between an hour and two hours after the game, submitting them to the big club. And obviously the big club is going to review those reports and make their decisions based on those reports.
The coaching staff is very involved in that and very much responsible for every single player, every single day. They submit a report on every player every day. Whether he played or not. It might be a pitcher throwing a bullpen or a side that day and he’s going to get a report.
I think a lot of that has come from the age of computers and the Internet and how quickly they can do that. Whereas ten years ago, it’s all done by paper and it takes an awfully long time. Now, because of the quickness of computers and the Internet, those guys are expected to do that before they leave here at night. And then the big club takes those and makes the player decisions that they have to make based on those and based on input from the manager.
RN: In your experience, and I’m not talking about any player in particular, will a player that’s drafted fairly high be given more opportunities to succeed than someone that is drafted lower?
GR: I don’t think you’ll ever find that written anywhere, but I don’t think you’re ever going to hear an argument that says otherwise. I think absolutely they’re given every opportunity they can to succeed. A lot of that, unfortunately, is because of the money in the game today. They have a LOT of money invested in these high round draft picks and they’re going to do everything in their power to give that kid the opportunity to succeed or fail.
RN: Does the big league club decide playing time?
GR: Again, I think that depends on the philosophy of the big league club. I can only speak for here. We’ve seen some changes with the big league club over the past couple of years, with the ownership change and the GM change, so the philosophy is going to change depending on the ownership, and who the GM is and who the management is.
Whereas a few years ago, I don’t think our manager was given a lot of freedom in who he played. And we saw the change a year ago and Mr. Krivsky come in, and what we saw in 2006 was Rick Burelson was our manager, and he had a lot of control over who he played.
Obviously some of that comes from the top and they want to see the high round picks play more so than the other kids probably, but I think it’s an individual thing too, depending on the philosophy of the big club.
RN: How much attention do you pay to the rest of the Reds minor league system?
GR: We’re fans like everybody else, and we pay attention to players that we’ve had contact with that were here at some point. We watch those kids through the system and what they’re doing.
As far as from a business standpoint, we don’t watch those other clubs on a daily basis. We’re too busy taking care of our own business to pay a lot of attention to what goes on around the system. Particularly at the higher levels, we know that someone like Joey Votto is never going to be back here. So there is really no reason to pay attention to what’s going on up there. We don’t have a lot of contact with the Louisville’s and the Chattanooga’s, Occasionally, they’re going to call and want a photo of a player or want something that we have, but other than that we don’t have a lot of contact with them.
The contact we do have is with the GCL team, Dayton, and Sarasota because they’re close to us than anybody else. If we do have a player coming in or a player leaving, we will be in touch with them to let them know what’s going on. Flight schedules, etc. Other than that, we’re just watching the players.
RN: Does this mean that there aren’t organizational meetings of all the GMs from the minor league teams get together and compare notes? Some type of organizational discussions?
GR: There is an organizational meeting, but it’s primarily for the Reds. The Reds hold an organizational meeting every fall and they make their plans from those. There isn’t a formal organizational meeting with the affiliates. Though every year at the winter meetings, the Reds hold a reception and invite all the affiliates and so we get to shake hands and say “hi” to everyone else around the organization.
The Reds do a tremendous job of making everyone feel like they’re part of this family. They’ve also started to implement a more formal meeting during the winter meetings, where everybody is in the same place at the same time and hold an hour or two hour meeting where they ask for input, what can we do better to help you guys out and vice versa. They started that a couple of years ago and that is a tremendous help to us. Because they’re busy, we’re busy and we don’t always get to connect with them, whereas in the fall or winter, when it’s not quite so hectic we can actually sit down and talk to them and say, “we had this issue the previous year and we got through it, but how is a better way to handle it?” So, they’ve started that and it’s been a tremendous, tremendous, help to us.
RN: What is the most important thing at your level? Is it just sorting out the new talent or teaching some skills, or teaching these young guys how to be professionals, or winning or a combination of these things?
GR: I think, though I’m kind of speaking out of turn in speaking for the Reds, because here, all we’re doing is providing a venue for them to play. We have absolutely nothing to do with the assignment process, the evaluation process, or even the teaching process, that’s all handled by the Reds. That said, I think the biggest thing at our level, from what we see and what I see is teaching these kids how to be professionals because the game is different than the college game and so they have to handle themselves differently then they did when they were a college player. For the most part, they’re on their own now. And the Reds expect them to be professionals both on and off the field and there is a way that you handle yourself and conduct yourself.
These kids have never played every single day. They’ve never had to treat it as a job before and that is a transition for them. Sometimes it’s good; sometimes it’s not good. Both from a physical side and a mental side. It’s very tiring for them, both physically and mentally and they have to learn how to handle that. They have to learn how to conduct themselves because they’re not only representing the Billings Mustangs on any given season, but they’re, even more importantly, representing the Cincinnati Reds and there is a way to do that. There is a way the Reds expect them to conduct themselves. And that’s a learning process, as is everything. So, I think that is as important, if not more important, than anything they learn their first year.
RN: Is the Pioneer League considered a “hitter’s league”?
GR: You know, it depends on the year. I would say, overall, it’s considered a hitter’s league. But last year we felt the pitchers were more successful in this league than the hitter’s were.
RN: Other than your team.
GR: Yeah, we did hit it pretty well. But I think overall, in fact, we talked about that a number of times last year, we watched the game, we watched the players, we watched the numbers, and we felt the pitching was the strong suit of the league last year. In previous years, I would have always said the hitter’s got the better end of it. So, it kind of depends on the year more than anything else.
RN: When you talk about a player’s stats, and I realize now that we’ve spoken that the player development isn’t really a function of your job, but when you look at numbers for hitters, what do you look at?
GR: We don’t really look at it. I’m looking at it more as a fan. From a business side of it, we don’t have any involvement in it, so it’s really just a waste of our time to sit there and try to evaluate this player versus that player. Or this player’s average vs. his power numbers and so on. We leave that up to the Reds and we worry about other things.
RN: I went into this thinking there was more of an interaction with the management of the team from the Billings side.
GR: No. Not really at all. We’re saddled with who we’re saddled with. And we’re going to play with them.
Don’t take this the wrong way; the Reds are going to do everything in their power to make us as competitive as possible. But like I said earlier, they have other clubs to worry about as well. And they’re more worried about personnel than they are the Billings Mustangs.
RN: What’s the best thing about your job?
GR: Coming to the ballpark every day instead of punching in somewhere else from 9-5.
RN: What’s the worst thing about your job?
GR: I’d have to think about that one. I don’t know that there is a worst thing, other than cleaning up a spill or mopping up the bathroom the occasional time I’ve had to do that. There’s really not a bad part. At this level, our job changes day to day because we are involved in everything and we do do everything.
And I do think that’s part of the best part of my job is that I do get to do something different every single day. I’m not stuck in an office doing the same thing 365 days a year. I have my hands in everything and we get to put our thumbprint on everything we do. And there is a lot of reward in that; there is no question about that.
Again, talking about the players. It’s not having any involvement in who’s assigned here or playing time or those various things. Just getting to meet those players is a tremendous experience for us personally. We virtually get a brand new team every single year. We get a couple of repeats every year, but we’re going to get 30 new kids every year and to be able to be involved in their life, where they go from here, there is tremendous reward in that. And it’s an awful lot of fun. All of these guys come from different backgrounds and all have different lifetime experiences and being a part of that and watching the Reds form that is very interesting.
RN: These ARE young men we’re talking about. There are going to be issues at times, I’m sure, homesickness, women, partying, etc. Is this much of an issue, does it happen very often?
GR: Not very often, I would say occasionally it does and we’ll get involved. I’ll say again, because the players are the property of the Cincinnati Reds, not the Billings Mustangs, the Reds handle it first and foremost. If they need some help from us because we’re the local franchise, obviously we’re going to help or get help where we need to.
We tell them (the players) when they arrive the first day that there are problems here just like there are anywhere else in the country and you need to make good decisions. We are here to help you, and we are here to make this summer both enjoyable and successful for you. We are “hands on” that way.
We find housing for all these guys; we put them in touch with the right people if they need something we can’t give them. We’re basically their parents for three months. And that is very rewarding in itself as well, to be able to help these kids and watch them grow and kind of see where they go.
We really don’t have that many problems with them. That’s not to say we’ve never had problems, and some of those problems are exactly what you mentioned. And when those problems do occur, we address them with the coaching staff and with the Reds. And hopefully we’re able to handle that and help the kid the best we can.
RN: I’ve been told that, at times, language can be a problem in the minors. Especially with the young Latin players. Does Billings do anything like classes to help these guys with their English?
GR: We don’t here. IF the Reds ever felt like it was a necessity, we would do everything we could to set it up. To be quite honest with you, I don’t know how feasible it would be here simply because of their schedules. They play every single day and keep in mind; it’s completely different than the GCL here. I don’t know if time would allow them to go to formal classes each and every day and half the time we’re on the road anyway and that would be very difficult.
What the Reds do on our end… first let me say that it is an issue, the language barrier is an issue here, we’ll get a number of young Latin players every year who speak little or no English and that is very difficult. What the Reds have done here in the past, and we know they’re going to do it again this year, is they’ll provide one of our coaches as basically a translator. And he’s responsible for translating to those players whatever it is that the coaching staff is trying to get across to them. If we have an issue with one of the players, and need to somehow communicate, speak with them, the coach would be involved as well.
To say it’s easy…no, it’s not easy. But the Reds are doing what they can to help us out in that area. I know down in the GCL, they’re working in the classes and are making tremendous strides in that area.
RN: How do things like “meal money” work in the minor leagues? Do the kids get meal money once a day or is it set up with a place for them to eat in Billings? How does that kind of thing work?
GR: When we’re playing at home, the kids are on their own. They’re responsible for their meals; they’re not provided a per diem when we’re at home. We will provide a spread for them in the clubhouse, pre-game stuff, but that’s nothing extensive. So they’re on their own.
Once we go on the road, they are provided meal money. We give the money to the trainer; the trainer disperses it the first day we get on the bus. And the players are responsible from there on out to eat hopefully as healthy as they can, as much as they can. But that’s part of being a professional, at the college level; I doubt that it’s handled that way. Their meals are probably all set up for them; they eat as a team for the most part. When they get to be a professional, they’re handed money and they are expected to eat properly. Or as properly as they can.
RN: I imagine this can be difficult when they’re on the road.
GR: Very difficult.
RN: Games end late; they don’t have transportation to get somewhere to get something to eat.
GR: Absolutely, it’s difficult. That’s an issue that we struggle with every year with the other clubs in the Pioneer League, depending on where we stay. In our league, the home team designates where the visiting team stays. So, you hope when you go out on the road, first that the hotel is a good hotel, and second of all, that the hotel is somewhat close to where they can eat after the game or at noon, before they go to the ballpark. If not, then it becomes a real issue because we only have one bus and the bus is not going to drive these kids to 50 different restaurants throughout the city. So, it becomes a real issue on the road.
At home, it isn’t that big a deal because we get them all in with families, so they have a place to sleep, they have a place to eat in the morning before they come to the ballpark and then we give them a little bit before the game and they can always eat at our concession stand before the game. So it’s not that big a deal. On the road, it certainly is an issue at times.
RN: The players that I’ve talked with loved playing in Dayton, in front of the big crowds, and the ones that I talked to that were playing in the GCL really didn’t care for the grind of the GCL, where it’s basically an 8-5 job 6 days a week. How do your guys feel about playing in Billings?
GR: I would say for the most part, they would say they like it. If they had a negative, it would be the stadium itself. Again, the stadium is very old. It’s not comfortable, it’s very cramped, it’s very hot. All of the things that are going to make it a bit of a grind on a daily basis. But I would say Billings, the way they’re received here, the way they’re treated here by not only us, but by the fans themselves, I would say their experience at Billings would be very, very positive. I think they like playing in the league, it’s a very competitive league. Much more so than anyone will ever give it credit for until you actually watch it. They won’t like the bus trips for the most part…
RN: What’s the longest bus trip?
GR: About 13 hours to Orem.
RN: That’s a long trip.
GR: But they only go down there once a year.
RN: They move up a league, into the Midwest League, they’re looking at the same length of trips.
GR: Yes, for the most part. In our league, because of the new facilities coming into our league, Ogden is virtually brand new, Orem is brand new, Great Falls is going through a renovation, Missoula is virtually brand new. We’ll be brand new in a year. Idaho Falls will be brand new this year; Casper was brand new five years ago. The league is getting bigger and better every day with the new facilities. And with new facilities come new clubhouses and new player amenities. It makes it that much more comfortable for these players. I think each year, with the coming of a new facility; it makes it that much better for the players and the staffs. You can’t forget about the staffs, those are the guys you hear from. If all is not well for those guys, believe me, you’re going to hear about it. So, it gets better for those guys as well.
RN: Let me ask you about some specific players and tell me your impressions of them from what you’ve seen while they were there.
Jay Bruce, you had him for a short amount of time in ’05.
GR: Jay Bruce is the real thing. Both from a player’s standpoint and as a human being. He is a tremendous kid. He did everything that we asked him to do, which isn’t a whole lot. I know he did everything the Reds asked him to do. Worked very, very hard. Was very approachable. He’s going to get there. There’s no question. From a talent standpoint, unless he gets hurt for some reason, or something unforeseen happens, he’s going to be there, probably in a very short period of time.
RN: I had the privilege of watching him last season in Dayton and the ball just seems to rocket off his bat.
GR: He is a special player.
RN: What about Travis Wood?
GR: Travis is kind of the same way, except Travis for us, the year or half year he was here, is a lot more reserved than Jay is. He appeared to me to be a lot more private individual than Jay was, wasn’t nearly as outgoing. Not to say that he wouldn’t talk to you, just wasn’t as outgoing as Jay was. But again, from a talent standpoint, I think the Reds expect big things from him as he progresses. Hopefully he doesn’t run into an injury or something that will delay his progress. I would guess if all goes well, he’ll progress through the system very quickly as well.
RN: OK, your team from last year, which seemed to be a pretty special group of kids.
GR: It really was.
RN: You won both halves of the division title, right?
RN: The offense finished with 4 guys with over a .900 OPS. Tell me about Daniel Dorn.
GR: He was kind of the unsung hero; I guess you would call him. He wasn’t a very high draft pick.
RN: 32nd round.
GR: Which in baseball circles is not high by any means. And I think at the end of the year, by the end of the year, there were people around here saying that he was their best player. And he could very well have been. I don’t know because we had so many very good players. He was a big, big surprise for the Reds, I think. But he didn’t surprise Burleson.
Burleson is from the LA area and watched he and Turner play quite often at Fullerton and he told me when he first got up here because Fullerton was playing in the World Series that it was going to take awhile to get Turner and Dorn signed, he told me virtually every day, “Gary, we’re going to get better when Dorn and Turner get here, believe me.” And we did, when those guys showed up, we got that much better. And like I said, Dorn was a pleasant surprise for the Reds, not so much for Burleson. Burleson knew what he was capable of doing and what he was going to do eventually. But certainly for the Reds.
RN: Turner is another one I wanted to ask you about. Big time power numbers for a second baseman.
GR: Oh yeah, tremendous power. And he’s not a big guy at all, as most second baseman are not. But he just tremendous power numbers for us. By the end of the season, because of injuries, he was playing all over the place. He played second base, he played the outfield, he played third a couple of times, played short a couple of times. So he was kind of that utility guy that everybody seems to need in this day and age. He’s kind of a throwback. I think he was probably Burleson’s favorite guy because him of himself when he played years ago. He was just gritty, tough as nails, and he worked as hard as anybody on that team did. Burleson really took a liking to him and I think saw a lot of himself in Turner.
RN: What about Logan Parker?
GR: Logan had a great year for us. I think they had some expectations for him, I really do. Whether he met them or not, I don’t know that. But for us, just watching him, he had a tremendous year. Both offensively and defensively, defensively he was very good. Offensively, he had good power numbers and did some things for us that obviously helped us out in the end. But I think he had some expectations also. And whether he met them or not, I don’t know. He’s another guy that’s a fairly quiet guy. You didn’t hear a lot from him, he just kind of went out and did his job. But you didn’t really hear a whole lot from him, as most of the team was.
I’ve always said, every year that we’ve had Burleson, the team itself is an extension of Burleson’s personality. He’s very business-like, he’s very “black and white”, he’s fairly quiet for the most part, and works his tail off. And that’s what every club we’ve had here, under him, does. This team was really no different, they were a lot of good players, obviously, a lot of high round picks here, but they played as a team. And they played as hard as any team we’ve ever seen.
RN: What about Chris Valaika?
GR: Chris, even though he was a very high round pick, was a tremendous surprise for the Reds, particularly offensively. I don’t think they expected a SS to put up the numbers that he did and did what he did. And I’m not so sure, even defensively; they knew what they were getting in him. Defensively, he was tremendous. He made some players that were absolutely “Sportscenter-seqe”. Just tremendous, tremendous plays. And I think for us, the biggest thing we’ll remember about Chris is Chris as a person. He’s a tremendous kid. He’s very polite; he’s very well mannered. He would always stop by and say “hi”. If we needed anything from a player, we would always go to him, and he would accommodate us without questions, without any gripes or moans, or anything like that. I think we’ll remember him for that as much as we will the 32 game hitting streak to be honest with you. He’s a very likeable person, very engaging, beyond baseball, whenever that’s over; Chris is going to be very successful in whatever he does.
RN: Let’s talk about Drew Stubbs. He seemed to struggle a little bit.
GR: He did.
RN: Any theories as to why?
GR: Talking to the coaching staff, defensively, they felt he could have played at a higher level even last year. He runs like the wind. He has tremendous instincts out in the outfield. He gets to everything. So, I think they felt defensively, he could have started higher than here. Offensively, they knew they were going to be challenged with him. They felt at Texas, a lot of his success came from the aluminum bat and they felt when he got here and you put the wood bat in his hand, he was going to struggle a little bit and he did. They were talking to him and they worked on some things in the fall and he made some strides in the Instructional League in the fall. They expect big things out of him, eventually. Whether that is going to be this year or next year, who knows? But they’re going to expect him to toe the line offensively at some point. I think it was an adjustment period for him offensively; defensively he was fine and one of the better players in the league defensively. But offensively, they found they could pound him inside with the hard stuff, and he struggled with it. And I think they worked on that all summer and I know they worked on that in the fall and hopefully he’s going to get that part ironed out because again, he’s a very quiet kid. He didn’t say much. But he’s a very nice kid, he’s very polite, very well mannered, he’s a professional. But you didn’t really know he was there.
RN: I would think that #1 draft pick thing kind of weighs heavily on you, then you begin to struggle a little bit and it becomes cyclical.
GR: Yeah, it does and I think you could see that at times with him that he was pressing and pushing. As much as they tried to tell him, “you know what, there is no pressure on you, Drew, just play the game the way you’ve always played the game and the numbers will take care of themselves”. As a human being, you can’t help but feel some of that pressure. And he pressed a little bit. Midway through the year, he got nicked a little bit, had a couple of injuries he had to deal with, then he had more of a major injury toward the end of the year that he had to deal with. All that thrown in there, he still, I would say and I think they (the Reds) would say, he had a successful year. Just when you put the label on someone as the #1 pick, you think that they’re Superman and you expect very high numbers out of some of these guys and they’re human like you and I are. And they have to go through everything like you and I do. On top of that the pressure of being the #1 pick. Sometimes it doesn’t always pan out, but I think Drew felt he had a successful year. Yeah, he would have liked his numbers to have been better. I know the Reds would have liked his numbers to have been better. But I think they’re very happy with him.
RN: As well as these guys performed offensively, were you surprised that nobody moved up?
GR: Maybe a little bit. Going into the year, they’re pretty honest and upfront with us, saying that we feel this is what you can expect, if everything goes right. If you throw some injuries in there and some other variables, things can change. But they told us going into the year that we’re going to do everything in our power to keep everybody there. Our philosophy now is we want these kids to stay together as a team, progress for the most part as a team, and learn how to win as a team. Because that’s very important to them. So, to say I was surprised that they all stayed here, no. Not in the least. I wasn’t surprised at all.
In fact, I was a little surprised when they took Sean Watson and moved him to Dayton. They did that because of some pitching issues at Dayton, and felt they needed some help there. And really I don’t think their plans were to send him there originally. I think they wanted him to stay here all year as well, but they kind of had their hands forced by some things at Dayton and felt he was the one that could probably help them in Dayton more than anyone else.
RN: Let’s talk about pitchers for a minute. What pitch count limits do they have on your pitchers now?
GR: Last year they had a 75-pitch limit.
RN: Let me throw some names at you and you can tell me, again, just your impressions, and if you see them as starters or relievers as they move up in the system. Jordan Smith.
GR: I’m trying to remember and give you not only my feelings, but also what they told us about the players. I think they project Jordan as a starter in his career. Jordan had a great year for us there is no question about that. Just look at his numbers. I think his biggest asset was his competitiveness. He competed. I wouldn’t say he had the greatest stuff we’ve ever seen here, far from it. But he competed as well as anybody we’ve ever seen here and would not give in. He would just find a way to get it done.
RN: Travis Webb
GR: I think Travis is projected as a starter. I think they see him as a starter. I think they have tremendous expectations for him.
RN: His strikeout numbers were impressive.
GR: Yeah, he’s a consummate big tall left-handed pitcher that everybody looks for. Has a lot of strength. He’s a strong, strong kid. Has electric stuff at times. The thing that I think we saw with Travis and I think they saw as well was his lack of aggressiveness. He’s not a very aggressive person and he really wasn’t a very aggressive pitcher. He kind of nibbled at times, instead of just going out and going after a lot of people. And his walks hurt him a little bit at times, because I think he nibbled a little too much. I don’t think Travis had a tremendous amount of confidence in his stuff, particularly when he got here. I think that developed over the year and I think it’s going to continue to develop. They think he has tremendous upside and tremendous potential. He’s going to realize that, baring any injuries.
RN: What about Jamie Arneson?
GR: He was kind of in the same mold as Travis, except he’s younger than Travis. He was not very aggressive; here again is that tall lefthander with very good stuff at times. He has a tremendous curveball and at times, fell in love with the curveball a little too much. But has tremendous potential and upside too. He’s a big strong kid; I think he’ll be more aggressive as he matures a little bit.RN: So, it’s a tremendous adjustment for some of these kids?
RN: Is being away from home a big adjustment for some of these guys?
GR: I think that’s an understatement. And people here, and everywhere, but maybe particularly here since it is their first year away from home and away from the college atmosphere, people don’t see that, people don’t understand that. They think that these guys are great players, which they are, and nothing else goes into it except the 9 innings on the field. They don’t understand what these guys are going through and the adjustments they have to make from a lifetime standpoint.
RN: Yeah, there are 21 more hours in the day, other than the baseball game.
GR: Exactly. And you’re away from home for the first time. You have to manage your day. On top of that, they’re asking you to be at the field for 8 hours a day and how you handle that. Particularly if you’re injured, particularly if you’re not playing a lot, because all of these guys are the best of the best where they came from. They’ve always been touted as the great player, they’ve always been handed everything, and, to be honest, they’ve never really had to work at it, because their talent is so much better than everybody else’s. And now, all of a sudden, they’re on par with everybody else, it not under par. The guy in the locker next to them could be better than he is and how does he deal with that mentally? Because the guy next to him might be getting more playing time than he is and he’s not used to that. He might be injured and he’s not used to that, so how does he deal with that? On top of everything else. There really is a lot that goes into it.
RN: Sean Watson looked really good at Billings, but then came up to Dayton and really struggled.
GR: Yeah, and I think therein lies the difference in levels. Because what you’re dealing with in the Midwest League are players who have previous professional experience. For the most part, the kids in this league are all high school kids or college kids; very few kids in this league have professional experience maybe outside of a year. So, when he went to Dayton, he obviously moved up a level, not only in the minor leagues, but also in the level of competition. So, those players in the Midwest League are obviously more seasoned, they’ve seen stuff like Sean’s before, they adjust quicker than players in this league do, so he struggled. Did that surprise us? No. Not at all.
RN: He was a 2nd round pick and he started 4 games for you. But he was a reliever at Tennessee, wasn’t he?
GR: Right, but to be honest, I don’t know what their projection for him is, if they eventually see him as a starter. I think, in the time that he was here, what they tried to do with him was stretch him out here and strengthen his arm by allowing him to throw more pitches and pitch more innings. They were very, very careful with him here, as I’m sure they were at Dayton as well, because he’d logged some innings at Tennessee and they were very careful with him, particularly early on. They watched him very, very closely, and don’t overextend him too much, as they do with everybody. He wasn’t an individual case there, as far as that goes. They’re very careful with everybody, but even more so with him. But he’s going to be successful, his stuff here was tremendous. Tremendous, tremendous stuff and you could tell that he had pitched at the highest collegiate level. He knew how to pitch; he knew how to adjust to the individual hitters from one at bat to the next. And I think that all played into their moving him to Dayton opposed to one of the other kids that just wasn’t ready to go there. And perhaps be able to handle that he wasn’t going to dominate. Maybe they felt that Sean would be able to mentally handle that better than some of these other kids would.
RN: Almost all of the guys we’ve been talking about were at least 21 years old. Is that old for the Pioneer League?
GR: Anymore, no, since they’ve lifted the age restrictions here. We’re still a little bit older than the majority of the teams but everybody is getting a little bit older as the years go by. For us, it was just another year for us. We’re always one of the oldest teams, but that’s because of the Reds drafting philosophy. They typically draft college seniors and those college seniors are obviously older than the other kids. And those are the kids that we get every year. So, that was not unusual for us to be that old.
RN: Anybody from last year’s team that you think may surprise this year in Dayton? Or a player that you think might jump right over Dayton and go to Sarasota?
GR: Boy, that’s hard to tell because there is so much that goes into that. Where they’re going to start and where they’re going to end up because it’s contingent upon other players, what other minor league club’s needs are. I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised. I really do. From what we’ve heard last fall and during the off-season, the majority of our team is going to end up in Dayton and I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised to watch these kids. And now they’re going to be under the careful watch of Donnie Scott, who is always going to get the most out of them. He goes about it in a different way than Burleson does, but nonetheless, he gets the most out of these kids. And they’re going to play hard, they’re going to have a lot of fun. And I think the fans in Dayton are going to enjoy watching these kids play.
Hopefully, for their sake, they’re going to get the majority of these players and not too many of them are going to skip over Dayton. Perhaps one or two of them will. By I think for the most part, Dayton is going to get the team we had a year ago. We think we’re going to get a couple of kids back from that team; Dayton is not going to get them all. But they’re going to get the nucleus of them, which is probably the important part. I think the Dayton fans are really going to enjoy watching them play. There are some tremendous players in that bunch.
RN: Anybody that you think might be “under the radar”, that people won’t know their name, but this guy is going to surprise people?
GR: Off the top of my head, no. I think because of the year we had as a team last year, and the year they had as individuals, they’re not going to be able to fly under the radar. Obviously, a Valaika, if he’s up there is not going to be able to fly under the radar. Turner is not. I would say if Dorn had not had the year he had, it would be him. I think he’s going to be a good professional. Very good professional. But because of the year he had, people know who he is.
The pitchers that we had, people know who those guys are. So, unless it’s one of the kids that didn’t pitch a ton, maybe an Arneson if he’s up there, even though Travis’ numbers were very good, we talked about him, I think he could be a tremendous surprise. I really don’t see anybody that’s going to fly under the radar.
RN: I want to thank you very much for your time. I hope we can keep in touch and good luck with the Billings Mustangs in 2007.
I’ve been a Reds fan since the late ’60’s, with my luck of being able to attend plenty of games at Riverfront during the BRM era. I was sitting in the Green Seats in the OF when Pete came home in ’84 and was in the Red seats when Glenn Braggs reached over the fence in ’90 to beat the Pirates. I have had many favorites from Jim Maloney to Johnny Bench, Barry Larkin, Adam Dunn, and Jay Bruce.