Frank Novak Guest Post: My Journey in Baseball, Part Two

by
Frank Novak

Part Two

When I arrived in 2003, the ‘hostess city’ of Savannah, GA had amassed a long history of professional baseball, having had affiliated baseball for the better part of 100 seasons. Since 1927,, those games had been at Grayson Stadium. However as the historic stadium aged, so did their fortunes. 

Major League teams, like the Yankees and Indians used to ‘barnstorm’ their way up the coast following spring training in Florida, making exhibition stops at minor league stadiums like Grayson. That practice stopped in the 1960’s. 

Perhaps the final high point of baseball’s long history at Grayson came when the Atlanta Braves, the club of the most local interest, shifted their Double-A Southern League affiliation to Savannah from 1971 up until 1983, when both the Braves, the big league ownership and the Double-A franchise Savannah had enjoyed since the 1930’s uprooted to greener pastures in Greenville, SC. 

1984 ushered in what would become the final act of pro baseball in Savannah with the Cardinals bringing their Low-A affiliate to Savannah and the South Atlantic League. The Cardinals lasted 12 seasons, the latter half of which produced back-to-back championships in 1993 and 1994 but – as the story was recounted- a lot of tumultuous goings off the field, with a female GM who would ‘entertain’ ‘clients’ in her swanky office of the double wide trailer.

True or not, out went the Cardinals and in came the Dodgers in 1996, along with the new ownership and the adoption of the Sand Gnats moniker as the club branded away from the big league affiliate for the first time ever (a practice now commonplace within the minor leagues). 

Great future major leaguers dotted Sand Gnats rosters over the years, even as the big league parent clubs tried (and for the most part succeeded) in leaving for greener pastures almost as quickly as the players they farmed out to the club. 

Eric Gagne was a Sand Gnat during the Dodgers short two-year stay, one season producing another league championship. Off went the bums, as any self-respecting Giants fan would write, and in came the Rangers, who sent players like Edwin Encarnacion, Adrian Beltre, Hank Blalock and Travis Hafner- who years later would become the first big league player I’d ever interview on the phone, to the Sand Gnats. 

After the 2002 season, one season before I showed up, the Rangers pulled out. They too had found greener pastures. Baseball’s professional baseball development contract with the minors guarantees an affiliation, so, left with nobody else after the Rangers departed, Savannah affiliated (not by choice) with Montreal, whose Class-A affiliation had previously been with the club in Clinton, IA, which had an aging ballpark and a minuscule operation. For that particular time, it was safe to say if Clinton didn’t want to affiliate with your club, then you were the last girl left at the dance.

I knew none of this on September 11th, 2003, my first day working in professional baseball. I’m sure it would surprise few that on that two-year anniversary of one of the darkest days in the history of our nation that my career began with a community appearance at a blood bank, accompanied by mascot Gnic the Gnat and several of my new co-workers. Very quickly I was able to glean the impact these minor league teams can have on their respective communities. The Sand Gnats were hardly revered nor very good at connecting with their community (the ownership fluxes, constant affiliation changes, decaying ballpark all while largely not winning will do that), but still, our appearance made the paper and a newscast. Minor league teams have balance sheets that sometimes remind you of a small business, but the game allows them to carry a larger profile, especially if you’ve got a media relations person that does their job well.

Media relations work aligned with my degree from the University of Michigan, although I was hired initially to be the Community Relations Coordinator. I’m not sure that lasted till October. The greener pastures that attracted players and major league affiliates took staff too. The media guy, Jody, quit about two weeks after I started, beaten down by the Sand Gnats, taking a job doing marketing or business development with the local Pepsi bottler, if I recall correctly. Almost immediately, GM Ken Shepard handed me and my $1300 salary monthly the keys to the press box. Sadly as low a wage as it was, it was more than most of our players made. 

The following February, our operations director was in line to be rewarded with a promotion to Assistant General Manager. Instead, she left to take a job with the Albuquerque Isotopes. Fifteen seasons later, she’s still working for the Isotopes and the Sand Gnats are gone, now plying their trade as the New York Mets-affiliated Columbia Fireflies (yes, Tim Tebow is an alum). It seemed that when it came to professional baseball, for anybody, you could do better than Savannah.

The 2004 Sand Gnats were a bad club, not surprising given that the parent club was owned by Major League Baseball. If you recall, the previous owner, Jeffrey Loria, had taken ownership of the Marlins with previous Marlins owner John Henry taking over the Red Sox (wonder who got the better of that deal?). Well it certainly wasn’t the Expos. Loria took everything that wasn’t bolted to the walls to the Marlins- including their spring training facility (shared with the Cardinals) in Jupiter. 

MLB’s shoestring budget didn’t provide for enough money to reimburse players for travel to and from airports after promotions and demotions- instead they had the minor league club throw an intern or entry level employee $20 to fetch a guy (I did as much of these as possible to fill my gas tank). Their skeleton baseball operations staff combined with more stringent post-9/11 travel restrictions didn’t yield enough visas to give to deserving players in Montreal’s Dominican and Venezuelan academies. This resulted in leaving players south of the border for several seasons, where the shoestring budgets didn’t provide enough resources for proper English or cultural assimilation instruction, the likes of which is provided unilaterally today.

One of those 2004 Sand Gnats who had been emancipated from three seasons in the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues eventually became somebody you’d remember, albeit for being on the unlucky side of history. Armando Galarraga, robbed in 2010 of a perfect game by erstwhile umpire Jim Joyce, was thought of so highly that he landed fifth in a Class-A rotation for a club that would finish 58-80. Must’ve been one hell of a staff, you might imagine. The staff ‘ace’, Clint Everts, a first-round pick, never made it out of Triple-A. Incidentally, Galarraga became the first professional baseball player to ride in my car. That was little more than a footnote, of course, until seven seasons later.

The Sand Gnats front office staff was in a near constant state of being overworked, underpaid, and understaffed. Interns came and went nearly monthly, some being ‘hired’ for little to no stipend after (quite literally) walking up to the entrance to Grayson Stadium to inquire about positions. The team had several inflatable bounce houses that made up a makeshift ‘kids zone’ at the old yard, and these were rented out for birthday parties on the weekend, complete with a visit from Gnic the Gnat (for an extra fee, of course). Somehow, I managed to escape town without ever dressing as the mascot. Which was a plus- the suit smelled like ten-year old sweat. Offseason we cold called schools to attempt to sell them field trips that included a stadium tour, an educational component and a lunch that consisted of a shriveled overdone hot dog in a stale bun combined with a soft drink running through the moldy and rusty carbonation lines of the machine. At fifteen bucks a pop. I coordinated this program and somehow, we sold quite a few schools on this concept. 

The night before the home opener, after spending countless hours perfecting the 2004 Sand Gnats souvenir program, I fell asleep on my keyboard well after midnight. I woke up with a key that came off of my several seasons old laptop stuck to my forehead. Shame that this was before smartphones. That’d have been Instagram-worthy.

The home opener against the Asheville Tourists was a ‘Thirsty Thursday,’ which, besides fireworks was about the only promotion to draw any fans to Grayson Stadium. And from the staff perspective it was a ‘fire drill’ from start to finish. 

A painter was finishing painting billboards on the outfield wall when gates opened. The copier broke several times while I tried to print rosters. The walkie talkie of the intern stationed in center field to operate the ‘manual scoreboard’ died mid-game. In true Sand Gnats fashion it was only a manual scoreboard because the digital numbers stopped working two seasons earlier and the team was too cheap to get a new scoreboard. Some concession stands ran out of food. Many of these issues were standard operating procedure at Grayson Stadium.

Working within the confines of that ballpark and the woebegone operation provided constant fodder. Eventually, during one long homestand the copier broke entirely, leaving me to run off stat packs using a fax machine, which somehow never broke. Another day, an Expos roving instructor named Doug Sisson called the press box during the game to express his displeasure at our music selections. I told him that I don’t call the dugout when I disagree with one of their pitching changes, and then the following day I changed the press box phone number, and sent a press release titled “Sand Gnats change press box phone number” to every team in the South Atlantic League but didn’t render a copy to our locker room. 

Doug Sisson had somehow forgotten that episode when we crossed paths again eight seasons later. He had just gotten hired as minor league field coordinator for the Kansas City Royals and paid a visit to Double-A Northwest Arkansas, where I was in my fifth and final season as their Director of Marketing and PR. He was in our skippers office when I dropped off stat packs one morning. I introduced myself, pretended as though we’d never met, and got the hell out of the managers office. 

The press release regarding the phone number change proved to be something I’d be remembered for as a Sand Gnats media relations person. As former best writer and team historian Marcus, who worked in the press box recounted, ‘they’re all memorable for something.’

The Sand Gnats media relations person the following season, Mike Passanisi, had his own entry. In a harried rush on the evening of the 2005 home opener, no doubt after a fight with the balky copier, Mike ran smack into a beam that was at about forehead level in the middle of the catwalk that went to the press box at Grayson Stadium, a structure that was suspended from the roof. Passanisi, who incidentally now works in media relations for the Giants, ended up spending the night in the hospital getting checked out for a concussion. 

In the end, despite the Expos shoestring budgets and existence as a ward of the league, even they demanded better of the Sand Gnats and Grayson Stadium, which almost across the board fell below professional baseball standards for even the Class-A level. Lighting was poor, the locker rooms substandard and subject to flooding during heavy rains which are fairly common in that section of the country, and the drainage systems were inadequate. This created poor conditions in the infield and occasionally uneven divots in the outfield. 

These deficiencies which the city, who owned and maintained the stadium, was not keen on remediating had an indirect effect on my tenure there. Our third baseman Kory Casto, a converted outfielder who the Expos elected to shift back to the hot corner (where he hadn’t played since early college), took a ball off a funky hop to the face and fractured his orbital eye socket in early May. Casto, who was a middle of the order bat for us, had some hiccups with the position switch, but in the eyes of the Montreal Expos, the blame for his injury lay on the feet of the city and the Sand Gnats management. 

Mike Kasino was the Sand Gnats managing general partner. We didn’t see him everyday, but he had a semi-active role in day-to-day operations and an even more active role in communications with the Expos. One of his quirks was he would always pick up small community papers, the freebie-type papers you pick up at the supermarket or community center. He’d scan their event listings and- if he failed to see Sand Gnats games listed- he’d take them, come down to the ‘master bedroom’ of the double wide trailer I shared with five others as my ‘office,’ plop it on top of my laptop and sternly say, “why aren’t we in here?” If I was away from my desk, he’d leave a note. Expletives sometimes included. 

Apparently the only other thing Mike Kasino cared about besides ‘the local fishrags’ as he called them was maintaining some semblance of a working relationship with the Equally woebegone Expos. After the Casto injury, he fired our GM Ken Shepard and replaced him with a Media Relations Director from a Double-A Eastern League club in Manchester, NH. The new GM was woefully unqualified for the position, but he wanted to put his stamp on the organization. And as the media guy for our team, I was the first person he focused in on. He got rid of two staffers before the South Atlantic League All-Star Break in June. I was the first casualty. They gave me three days severance.

The 2004 season had its happy ending, at least for me. While I’d been employed by the Sand Gnats, I’d gotten to know a girl who was working for an upstart magazine called At The Yard. The basic idea was ‘Sports Illustrated’ for Minor League Baseball. In depth features and human interest – not just stay focused content like Baseball America. The magazine was also offered at a great price- $1-2 am issue. It was a great product, just miles ahead of its time. In fact, much of the content streams Minor League Baseball uses on its own website today drew influence from the magazine. 

At the time, At The Yard, whose parent company (eventually sold to Fanatics) operated the online shop for Minor League Baseball, was trying to figure out how to grow. My conversations with that girl ended up in me pitching her owner on essentially a business development role that involved some writing as well. They offered me a position in their office- which was located in Connecticut. So, not even a month after my dismissal from the Sand Gnats I was in the car again, watching fireworks while driving across the George Washington Bridge into New York City en route to the Nutmeg State.

My first work assignment for At The Yard was to go assist the staff with retail operations at the All-Star Game FanFest. Getting the opportunity to attend a Home Run Derby and an All-Star Game was an incredible experience. It was this twist on the long, winding road that led me to cross paths with Chris Hook, the former Giants reliever whom I’d heckled nearly ten years earlier. And, in case you are wondering, of course I told him that story.

What I found over nearly a decade of working in professional baseball regarding guys like Hooky (a veritable journeyman as a player) is that they are happy to be remembered. He was one of several ex-Giants I encountered over the years. Joel Chimelis, Savannah’s hitting coach in 2004, crossed union lines as a ‘replacement player’ for the Giants in spring 1995 during the strike. I met former Giants utility player Steve Scarsone while he was managing the Double-A Midland RockHounds in 2011 and 2012. Although he was managing the visiting club, I made a point to tell him I watched him play and remembered him, and he was most gracious. Ditto for former Giants starter Trevor Wilson, who I also made sure I greeted in our visiting locker room when he was Pitching Coach for the Arkansas Travelers. I wish I’d kept a scorecard from a Giants magazine that’d I’d written his name into. 

All three of those guys plus Hooky, who is now the Pitching Coach for the Brewers, remain in baseball. They all felt that they had something to give the game, and there has been a spot for them. After Savannah, the same was true for me. I was fortunate that as dubious a first stop as it was, it was just the first step on my journey. Nobody likes to be fired, let alone from possibly one of the worst operations in pro baseball. It made me a survivor, a fighter, a guy with a chip on his shoulder that in many respects I still carry outside the world of professional baseball. And with great friends, greater adventures, and a championship ring on the horizon, for me, the best was by far yet to come.