Last week at the International League offices in suburban Columbus, league president Randy Mobley spoke to MLBTR about the opportunities and challenges of Triple-A baseball. This transcript has been edited for length.
What is your background? How did you get into this kind of work?
Grew up loving the game, played through the Division III college level. About halfway through that experience, [I] realized that was going to be the end of it, and started looking at ways to stay involved in the game. This was the late seventies, and schools were just starting to have masters degree programs in sports administration. There were only three of those programs in the entire country. Ohio State was one of the three schools that had a sports management program. So I went to Ohio State for my masters, interned with the [Columbus] Clippers at the time, and they hired me full-time after the internship. The league office at that point was in Grove City, on the south end of town. The president was Harold Cooper, who the [Clippers’] old ballpark was named after. Mr. Cooper hired me as his assistant. He then retired in 1990, and I was fortunate enough to follow him at that point in time.
Who else works here, and what are their roles?
We have two others here. Chris Sprague is my assistant and has the title of League Administrator. Chris has been with us for a little over ten years and handles a lot of the day-to-day activities — monitors rosters for the teams, puts together our league’s record book / media guide, oversees some of our league’s official scorers, things of that nature. And then we have an office manager who’s been with us for about ten years also. So just the three of us.
What’s a basic overview of what you do here?
It would be like a college league office — you know, a Big Ten office, or like the [MLB] commissioner’s office in New York. We have three basic agreements that we’re involved with. First, as a league, you have a constitution and bylaws, so we have rules that govern how the clubs interact with each other, how the league is going to be run. As a member of Minor League Baseball as a whole, we [also] have an agreement that we have to abide by as a league. So there’s that document that governs the relationship between the leagues. And then there’s a third set of rules that governs our relationship with Major League Baseball. So those three relationships — most everything branches out of those. We also are responsible for the umpires. So we’ve got 27 umpires, and whether it be situations on the field, or whether it be their transportation — all those things come through here as well.
So if you’re monitoring compliance with various agreements, what are some examples of the kinds of things you’re monitoring?
One of the elements of that is facilities. So, are [teams] providing the elements that they’re required to for the Major League organization? They are responsible for certain things related to clubhouses. Certain things related to, just an example, batting cages. There are also rules — I’ll use doubleheaders as an example. You cannot play two consecutive [doubleheaders], or three in a seven-day period. So if we have postponements, we’re monitoring where clubs are going to place those makeup games, because we have this obligation to Major League Baseball that they can only come in a certain range. There are rules related to game times when travel is in play. So [if there’s] a night game tonight in Charlotte, and then if Charlotte is coming to Columbus, Columbus can’t play a one o’clock game tomorrow.
It seems like there is still — and maybe this is more the lower levels than the International League — that there are still a lot of differences between stadiums, even among teams in the same league.
At one point, I would agree with you. I can’t speak for the lower classifications. [But] these facility standards I referenced came into play in the early nineties, and those are what really added fuel to the fire of new ballparks around the country. So in the agreement with the Major Leagues, these facility standards went into place, so now all of a sudden, communities throughout the country have got to either upgrade, or you lose your club. I think those have brought everything much closer together. Now, particularly in this league, we’re very fortunate. The oldest ballpark in this league — the oldest “new” ballpark, if you will — is in Buffalo, built in 1988. The ballpark in Pawtucket is older than that, [but] it’s undergone major renovations since then. We’re fortunate here that most of our ballparks are more like Columbus’ is than back in the bush-league days.
What role does the International League play in facilitating affiliation changes?
Very little, actually. That is almost entirely between the team and the Major League affiliate. That’s another area where we’re very fortunate. We went through a long period with no changes at all. We’ve had a few in recent years, with the Nationals coming into existence, and they’ve bounced around a little bit. Baltimore leaving Rochester back when the Twins came in there. The Mets leaving Norfolk. But, as an example, those changes can occur only every two years. We’re on a cycle with Major League Baseball where you have a minimum of two-year agreements. You can extend in periods of two beyond that. This coming fall is one of those periods, but right now, in this league, we only have two teams that are not extended beyond this current expiration date.
What are those teams?
Rochester [Twins] and Toledo [Tigers]. And I think it’s probably just a matter of time at some point this summer that, in all likelihood, they’ll extend their agreements.
What factors lead to a stable affiliate relationship?
That’s a good question, and it’s one that’s frequently asked because, in recent times, it has gotten much more geographically dictated. Detroit, Toledo. Boston, Pawtucket. Cleveland, Columbus. Cincinnati, Louisville. My opinion is always that relationship trumps geography. Geography has become important, but you can be close together — if you don’t get along, it doesn’t work. The best example of relationship trumping geography in this league is Rochester and Minnesota. The New York Mets’ affiliate is in Las Vegas. They would love to be in this league. If they had their druthers, they’d certainly like to see themselves in Rochester. But the relationship between the Twins and the Red Wings is as good as it gets. They just work very, very well together. They respect each other entirely. So that trumps that geography element.
Obviously, player transactions are dictated by parent organizations, but what role does the International League have in facilitating them?
We really don’t facilitate the transactions. What we do with that is best described as monitoring. You’re monitoring roster limits. You’re monitoring players placed on the disabled list, making sure their time has expired before they’re activated. Those are simply reported to this office.
I notice, though, that the first place many transactions turn up is on MiLB.com. Is that something that has to do with you, or no?
It’s not. The Major League clubs file their — I’ll call it paperwork, even though it’s done electronically. That goes to the commissioner’s office. And MiLB.com, or MLB Advanced Media, which oversees that, picks all that up.
How do you feel about September callups? How do they affect your league, and the construction of playoff teams in your league?
The effect is obvious. You can have a certain team on the last day of August, [and] on September 1st, you can have an entirely different team. That’s just one of the elements we deal with. Sometimes that’s painful, but it’s just the way it is. So we don’t spend a lot of time worrying about that. Sometimes it’s difficult for fans to accept what they see happening if their team is going into the Governor’s Cup playoffs, and now all of a sudden it’s a different team.
The example I like to use is, way back in the day, when the Mets were in fact in this league, that’s when Dwight Gooden first appeared in the International League. He was a callup to this level to replace guys that had gone to the big leagues. So we simply hope that the Major Leagues replace those guys that are going to the big leagues with the best they have from down below. And usually that’s what happens. For those who are really watching it, there’s an opportunity to see players that you’re likely to see as some of the Triple-A mainstays that next year. Along those lines, I can remember when Russell Branyan came into this league. It was the same way. He made his first appearance in the International League postseason before being back here the following year.
It’s like that pitcher that’s got a no-hitter going into the seventh inning, and now he comes out because of a pitch count. That’s tough for everybody. But that’s where, in our relationship with Major League Baseball, winning at this level and player development butt heads a little bit. And in exchange for that, one of the things we offer fans at this level is, you can be watching that guy in the Triple-A city tonight, and tomorrow he’s on ESPN. You’ve got that immediacy.
Do you feel that the number of September callups teams make is appropriate?
That’s a subject that gets discussed from a lot of angles — on the effect it has on Major League games for clubs that are in contention at the Major League level. If you’ve got two clubs that are coming down the home stretch, [and] one’s playing another team that is in contention and one’s playing teams that are out of the race and they’re playing a lot of guys that have been in the minor leagues all year, is that fair? You hear that every year. The number of players that are taken, sometimes that can be a head-scratcher for us, because you’ll see that happen and they won’t play. What that usually leads to is the justification that, “Well, we want them to get accustomed to what goes on at the Major League level, because we anticipate that they’re going to be here next year.” Okay. I’ve never worked in player development directly, so I don’t totally grasp that factor. But again, they’re [the parent organizations’] players.
What are the challenges of marketing the International League and its teams with so much player movement?
You can’t rely on marketing the players, because the one season you’re anticipating somebody being with your club who’s the Baseball America top prospect in the minor leagues, now all of a sudden he makes the big-league club. Or [his parent organization has] signed a couple of minor-league free agents, and he’s going to start off at Double-A. You can’t risk that. That doesn’t mean you don’t try to promote [him] while he’s there.
So in combination with the ballpark revolution, I’ll call it, our bread and butter now is simply good baseball, in modern, safe facilities where you can take your family at an affordable price. While I don’t think we can ever lose sight of the fact that baseball is our primary reason for being, the entertainment, the overall experience part of it, is more prominent than the individual players.
At the same time, you sometimes do get players who stay with one team for an extended period of time. I think of someone like Mike Hessman …
The hometown heroes. Mike Hessman’s a great example. It’s not this way anymore, but there was a time when the [International League] teams would control a couple roster spots. You would sign your own players, and that allowed you to control, a little bit more, that hometown hero. This wasn’t the case with them, but here in Columbus, they had a couple of guys, Marshall Brant and Steve Balboni, a couple of big home-run-hitter guys that the fans were really able to identify with for [several] years consecutively. So there is a place for that, but that minor-league team can no longer control that. That has to come through the Major League organizations. Their concerns, obviously, are, are they going to want to take a roster spot with that player? Can that player contribute enough? Obviously Mike Hessman could. There’s certainly some of that that still happens.
Is winning important in individual markets?
I think it is. Fans have to believe that when they come out there, that you’ve got a chance to win. So a team that has a .500 record, I think that fulfills most of the fans’ expectations to see a competitive activity. If your team is losing seven or eight out of every ten games, I think that has a significant detrimental effect, especially if it happens over a period of years. Now, if you have a bad year, or a couple bad consecutive years, if you have built up enough equity with the experience you’re providing the fan at the ballpark, I think you get by with that. But oftentimes that’s where we see affiliation changes, where you get into a pattern of seeing, year after year, where your team is getting their brains beat out. On the other extreme, I don’t think you have to win 75% of your games every year to be successful.
With that in mind, how do you feel rosters should be balanced in terms of Triple-A veterans versus prospects?
It’s always fun when you can see those young prospects, but I think the baseball fan has changed in the last few decades, in that I don’t think there are as many diehard fans that follow it on a day-to-day basis — you know, that read the box scores. I think we have more casual fans, because I think there are people that would consider themselves fans that are fans of the activity, fans of going to the ballpark. They enjoy the atmosphere that we’re creating. But even as fans of that type, I don’t know that they’re necessarily honed in too closely on who the prospects are or who the veterans are.
Has the value of Triple-A franchises increased parallel to the value of MLB franchises in recent years?
Yeah, it’s been very positive, and a lot of it goes back to the facilities, and the increased attendance that has come along with that. To give you an example, Columbus had Triple-A baseball, and then after the 1970 season, because of the deteriorating ballpark, baseball left Columbus. When Mr. Cooper and his colleagues brought baseball back in 1977, they paid $50K for the franchise.
In 1993, we had the expansion that took Major League Baseball from 26 to 28 teams. Triple-A baseball also expanded. We charged $5MM for expansion franchises. Five years later, [with] the second expansion in 1998, the franchise fee was $7.5MM. The most recent Triple-A franchise now sold for above $30MM. That doesn’t mean they would all go for that — that’s at the high end. [But] those values have obviously increased significantly.
With that comes a different type of ownership. There’s good and bad to all this. You have people that have gotten in the game [as owners] in recent years as franchise values increased where they believe it has become a good investment. Buy it, sell it. From a stability standpoint, from a league-president standpoint, that’s not always great. On the other hand, those folks probably have more zeroes in their bank accounts than owners did previously, so they can do some different things with that. It’s just very different than it was. In the eighties and before, you could probably classify some of our operations as mom-and-pop operations. It was the bush leagues. But we have long since elevated ourselves, and it’s hard to call anything in the minor leagues anymore bush leagues.
The Triple-A All-Star Game is in Charlotte this year. How do the International League, the PCL and the host city divide responsibility for making sure that goes well?
The host league takes a forefront position. We have a document that was developed by the two leagues. When that first [Triple-A All-Star] game was played in 1988 in Buffalo, the two leagues had gotten together — we have a joint marketing committee consisting of members from both leagues — and developed a document that has evolved over the years. And that sets out the guidelines as to how that game is going to be operated. What events you’re going to have. It limits clubs on how much you can charge for events, and so forth. We have rotated that back and forth over the years. Each league, when it’s their year, will nominate a team [from] the other league — you know, “Here’s where we think it should be,” and in most cases the other league is rubber-stamping that, and that becomes the selectee. We’ve certainly tried to take advantage of new ballparks over the years and highlighting those. I’ll be going to Charlotte here in about ten days for another All-Star Game meeting, just to get brought up to speed on where things are at this point.
How much traveling do you do for this job?
Somebody who travels for a living wouldn’t think that what I do is a lot. It probably averages about a week a month. I’ll go to Charlotte, and then drive up to Durham, where I’m going to — their former manager, Charlie Montoyo, is one of our [International League] Hall Of Fame inductees this year, so we’ll be having that ceremony on the 19th. Last year, I did a lot of traveling the first month [or] five weeks of the season because we were implementing the pitch clocks, so I went to most of the ballparks and actually sat during the game with the person operating those clocks, trying to make sure they were on the right track. But I don’t try to get to every stadium every season. I’ll try to get to about half and then make sure I get to the other half the next year.
How did the implementation of pitch clocks go?
It went very well. It’s an interesting story. During the 2014 season, we found that in ten seasons, our game times had increased 20 minutes. They had gone up every year. There was no indication that it was going to stop unless we did something. So during the 2014 season, we developed what we called the “Move It Along” plan, and this was going to involve limiting the amount of time between innings. Oftentimes, between innings, pitchers weren’t coming out of the dugout for a minute or a minute and a half even to begin their warmups. Part of that is because teams were taking a long time with promotions. We had this all prepared and adopted by our directors at the 2014 Winter Meetings. Later in those same meetings — Sandy Alderson with the Mets chairs the official playing rules committee, and invited me to a meeting. That fall, MLB had been testing these clocks in the Arizona Fall League, and they had decided they wanted to put those in all Triple-A and Double-A ballparks for the 2015 season. So we were able to marry elements of our “Move It Along” plan with the implementation of these clocks. We cut 16 minutes off of the average game time, and it was simply being more efficient. It didn’t affect the game.
Thanks to Wilbur Miller for his advice on the questions for this interview.