Bus Leagues Q&A: Northwest Arkansas Naturals GM Eric Edelstein

You may not know this, but Bus Leagues has a twitter account: @busleagues. We’ve started a list called Team Tweets where we are gathering all of the official accounts from the hundreds of affiliated and independent teams we cover. One of the cool things about that is that we can get in touch with the people who bring us our local baseball from time to time.

Last week, we found the twitter account of Eric Edelstein, GM of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. The Naturals have only existed for a couple of years as the AA affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, but Eric has been with the franchise since it was called the Wranglers, and was located in Wichita, Kansas. He kindly told us a little about what it’s like to oversee a double-A team.

Your twitter bio says you’re living the dream. How did you arrive at this point?

I can give you the short story, which is that I’m very lucky.

If someone out there has the same dream, is there a standard way to become a GM?

I would say I certainly wasn’t standard, but I don’t think anyone would say there’s a standard way. I did get lucky and caught a few breaks.

I grew up in  Cleveland and did a high school internship with the Cleveland Indians. While I was still in high school, I worked in the PR department and got my foot in the door there. I ended up working for Four Seasons in various ballpark operations. I went to school at Bowling Green for Sport Management and worked for the SID’s office while I was there. I worked for the fieldhouse facilities where the varsity teams practiced, so I did that all through college.

Then I got an internship in Buffalo, NY after college and did that for three months. Then I got hired on by the Bisons, and I’ve been with that company ever since. I had three seasons in Buffalo, then they moved me to their affiliate in Jamestown, NY where there was an opportunity to be a GM when I had just turned 24, to run a three-man office on a short-season team. I jumped at that opportunity, then a year later there was a change at the top in Wichita. They came to me and asked, and admitted that maybe I was a little young and not quite ready for it, but they said “If you’d want to move to Wichita and be the GM, we’ll let you do that.”

So, I went and did that. I was there for three years and I got the call that asked if I’d ever heard of Springdale, Arkansas. They said “we’ve got one more move for you here, so if you’d like to go and start a team and be part of building a stadium and a new team, it’s you.”

So I jumped at it, and here I am. Luck and timing played a big role in it. Knock on wood, I haven’t screwed anything up yet.

I grew up in Wichita. Are you talking about the Wranglers?

Yes.

So the Naturals took that AA spot in the Royals organization, right?

Exactly. It really is the same team with the same owners and many of the same administrators, including myself. We moved the team from Wichita to here.

If you weren’t able to work in baseball, what would you be doing instead?

(Long pause) I honestly don’t even know. (pause) It would have to be in some sport or event.  I think even without baseball, I’d become an event person; planning, hosting and marketing events. Just in general, the most exciting thing, what gets me going is when you walk out into the ballpark on Friday night and the place is just packed. Everyone’s having a good time. The rush of the event is what I get the most joy and excitement out of.

Each minor league team is different. What are some of the things you do in Springdale that make the Naturals feel unique?

The biggest thing we try to do is we try to be a part of the community. What we do inside the ballpark – I don’t want to say it’s standard, because every team is different – but it feels more unique for people who live here because this is their team. We do the fireworks, dollar hotdogs, dollar beers and other things that are fairly standard across minor-league baseball. But what’s different than even Wichita or anywhere else I’ve been is that we try to be a bigger part of the community. We have a summertime street team that goes out, we have an inflatable speed pitch and a second mascot suit that is always out mingling throughout the community. We do free appearances and speaking engagements at rotaries and other civic clubs. We’ve really worked hard – though we have room to grow – but day-to-day we try to be a big part of the community.

You mentioned your mascot. Your team has a nickname that doesn’t easily lend itself to a mascot image. What did you end up using?

Strike the Sasquatch. We came up with the story that Strike has been living in the Ozark mountains for many years – everyone has heard of spying a Sasquatch in the mountains – and he never had a good enough reason to come out of those mountains. When he heard we were building a stadium down here, he came to check it out and decided he wanted to make it home.

I imagine you hire some of the organization’s top employees. How do you know when you have the right person?

We do a lot of hiring from within. Obviously, that’s how I was brought through, being an intern and working my way up. We continue to do that. We have a pretty extensive intern program that we run during the season that brings new talent in. We try to hire that new talent.

If we somehow don’t have the right talent here, we do try to look outside for the right person. There are often people with other teams that have the right experience but haven’t had the chance to catch on.

But we do try very hard to promote from within. My assistant GM here was an intern for me when I worked in Buffalo who came to Wichita as an account rep. When an opportunity arose, he became sales manager, and when we moved here, we made him assistant GM. My business manager started out running our team store here in Northwest Arkansas, and when an opening came up, we hired her. We have a lot of people on staff that I’ve known or worked with in some capacity at some point, and we’ve brought them through the ranks to the current jobs they’re holding.

So, sticking it out with the organization is rewarded.

Absolutely. I promote from within whenever possible.

I grew up a Royals fan, so I know the team has fewer resources to lure MLB free agents with. Double-A is where the top prospects usually end up. Does that make you feel like your job is really important to the future of the franchise?

Yeah, I think it does. The Royals are a tremendous group to work with. Dayton Moore and his entire baseball operations crew are really good people, and they reinforce that when they see you. I think a lot of times in baseball, we get trapped in what we see on Sportscenter; that’s what we know about a given team. The Royals do a good job of not just paying lip service to it, but appreciating their minor-league teams. When they come in, they’re very respectful and grateful for the job we do. It definitely makes it very rewarding.

I do feel a small piece of pride when a guy who comes through here goes up to the big leagues and has real success.

If the Naturals are doing their job right, the best players get better and leave. How do you get fans to buy in when the roster is constantly changing?

It does bring its challenges, there are definitely some people who struggle with that. The key for us – which hasn’t quite happened yet – is for one of those players to make the big leagues and become a regular. I think that’ll make it more palatable and understandable.

Being a college town here, they’re used to players going on to the professional ranks, be it football, basketball or baseball. But they’re used to it happening after the season is over. So there’s a little bit of a challenge in getting people to understand that, but we also have tried to really stress that if the organization is doing its job, the person coming up behind the guy who leaves should be able to perform just as well, or may even be an improvement.

What do you do during the offseason?

It’s all about getting ready for the next season coming up. A large portion of what we accomplish during the season is set up before we throw a pitch. All the sponsors come on board for all those signs in the outfield, and the advertisers that show up in the program and your radio broadcasts… 95% of those are booked by opening day.

Season tickets are a major determinant of how successful we are before anything on the field is decided; getting all those people back on board, setting the schedule and being ready to go. Then my job during the season becomes more about the subtle tweaks that need to be made. If we do a good job making decisions in the offseason, then it’s more about maintenance and running each event as well as we can.

In the minors, employees often have to wear many hats to get the job done. Is that true of the GM as well?

Yeah, pretty much! There’s certainly no ivory tower management here. If there’s a box that needs moved, the tarp needs pulled or phone needs answered, whoever’s available does it. You definitely have to be all in. I don’t think there’s a GM out there who would do it any differently. I definitely have a hand in just about everything going on here. There’s nothing that I’m “too good” to help out with. If a trash can needs emptied, it gets emptied.

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