This week we are very appreciative to have had a discussion with the Harrisburg Senators’ General Manager, Randy Whitaker. In just his second season with the club, Whitaker and his staff have made successful in-roads in bringing fans back to Metro Bank Park on City Island. The Senators’ final homestand of the season begins on Friday night as they take on the Connecticut Defenders in their penultimate four-game series.
How do the responsibilities of an affiliated minor league GM differ from a major league GM?
Randy Whitaker: Totally…at the major league level, the GM is the primary player personnel guy. At the minor league level, I have very little to do with player matters. My primary focus is running the business of the team – the facility, the sales operations (tickets, marketing, concessions), and the facility staff. Much of my responsibility is focused on sales most of the year.
You previously worked at ABC27 for nearly 20 years…how did you transition to this position?
RW: Pretty easily actually. I didn’t really make the connection at the time, but I ended up just moving from one entertainment entity to another. Both businesses are interested in entertaining people so they will keep coming back. Both want to capture as many people as possible to match them with the business partners/advertisers that provide much of the financial lifeblood.
What are some typical directives/responsibilities received from the parent club? How much of what you do (promotions, logos, etc) are you able to do without being restricted or approved by the Nationals?
RW: We are fairly autonomous from the Nats. They run the player operations and provide us with “the show” (i.e., the players), while we market our brand and facility to make the overall experience – game and non-game – as attractive and entertaining as possible.
Through 40 home dates, your attendance is up 66% from last year. In this tough economic time that’s an eye-opener…is the appeal of high value/low cost in minor league baseball benefiting your attendance? What else do you attribute the positive change to?
RW: We think we greatly improved out “product” over the off season in preparation for 2009. We also have an improved facility that includes a new boardwalk outfield system and added the largest video system in minor league baseball. There is lots of new fun for everyone.
How successful has the addition of the boardwalk and video system been? Besides the addition of suites, what other renovations are we going to see at Metro Bank Park in the next phase of construction?
RW: As I stated above, the renovations have been a tremendous draw. Many people that had not been motivated to come to a Senators game for a while have come out to see what’s new. The second phase, which will start in a few days, will continue that improvement. The main “seating bowl” will be replaced so that we will be able to get our fans off of the outdated seating that has been here since the stadium opened in 1987. Suites will provide a useful and unique environment that will be a great investment for area businesses. We’ll also be adding and upgrading concession stations, family entertainment areas and just the overall general look of the park – all while maintaining the unique island-based environment that we currently enjoy.
The organization has been responsive to fans’ reactions and comments during the 2008 season. This year, I was also very impressed to see you front and center at the entrance gate greeting people as they came in for the games. How important is it to listen to the fans and gain goodwill through your actions?
RW: That is job one! The fans are what it is all about and what drives everything we do at the local level. The team wants to develop players for the majors. We are much more concerned with making sure that our fans are getting an affordable return on their entertainment dollar – especially in this economic environment. The front gate thing started as my way to help get people acquainted with the new facility, but has turned into more of a personal-touch-meet-and-greet every game. I’d miss it more than anything if I had to come off of it. I especially enjoy theme nights when I can dress up and play with the kids.
For the first time since 1988, Harrisburg will be hosting the Eastern League All-Star Game next year on July 14th. How special will it be to showcase the stadium transformation and the loyal fanbase during the two day extravaganza?
RW: The timing couldn’t be better to show off the new house. We’ll base it in such a way that our regular fans will get the primary benefits, but it will be fun to show off the new digs to all the other teams in the EL as well.
As a baseball fan, how great would it be to see Stephen Strasburg come through Harrisburg? As the Senators’ GM, what would it mean to the ballclub?
RW: As a minor league baseball fan, there couldn’t be much better. It would kind of like finding A-Rod in your Christmas stocking at the major league level. From a business standpoint, he would be one of the few guys that has the potential to actually move the attendance meter all by himself…and I would like that too.
After a near disastrous start to the season, the club has really turned things around and has been winning at roughly a .600 clip after the first 40 games. What can you attribute the change to?
RW: The team you see now is more what was expected at the outset. Any team has the potential to rip off a string of wins or losses. Unfortunately our string was bad and early and really dug a deep hole. Too bad we aren’t in the Northern Division or we’d be right in the playoff hunt.
You are an avid minor league fan and have been to over 80 different ballparks. Besides Metro Bank Park, what are some of your favorites and why?
RW: I love the classics. Older is better. I’ve enjoyed places like Williamsport, Vermont, Bluefield WV, Ogden UT and Johnson City TN. It is just kind of nostalgic to sit in an environment like that. You almost feel like you are going back in time to the ‘40s. Of the newer facilities, the Iron Pigs’ stadium is outstanding. Altoona has a tremendous setting and is very well laid out for fans. And then there are the hybrids – those that are older, but have been transformed. Reading has done a great job at keeping an older facility updated and very functional. It helps that they run a very good “show” that brings the entertainment level up as well.
Thanks again to Randy Whitaker for his time and cooperation on the interview. We highly recommend you check out the Senators in one of their remaining 8 home games at Metro Bank Park this season (the remaining schedule with links to buy tickets can be found here).