Updated: May 21, 2020
Down On The Farm is a regular series where we take a closer look at the Cubs minor league system. In each article, we sit down with a member of the minor league staff to learn more about operations, teams, and the behind the scenes effort it takes to maintain an undervalued pillar of the game of baseball. Today, we look at the inner workings of the front office of the Cubs Class A short season affiliate, the Eugene Emeralds.
In late April, I was fortunate to speak with Eugene Emeralds Assistant GM and Home Radio Announcer, Matt Dompe. Matt gave me some tremendous perspective on what it's like to work in minor league baseball, as well as explain the differences between the minors and the majors. Part 1 of my conversation with Matt is here. Brooke also expands on the Emeralds' awesome Promotions Games here.
The Emeralds are based out of Eugene, Oregon, and have been the Chicago Cubs Class A short season minor league affiliate since 2015. The Ems have played at PK Park, in a partnership with the University of Oregon Ducks, since 2010. They play in the Northwest League, a short season league that runs from June until early September. It's an eight team league, with two other Oregon teams, one from Idaho, three from Washington, and one in Vancouver. The closest major league team is the Seattle Mariners, a five hour drive away. They don't play in a die-hard sport fans environment, even though they have an immediate geographical monopoly on baseball.
Given my background in fantasy baseball and being an armchair GM, I had to ask: "If I wanted to work for the Cubs front office, could I work my way up through the minor leagues? Matt explains, “Having some skillsets in sales is a good way to get into the minor leagues, but as far as moving from A to AA to AAA, not so much. You are better off being in the mailroom in Chicago then being an Assistant GM in Eugene. It's better to be working there as a grunt than in the lower minor leagues. There's not really a lot of direct interaction from anyone in the major leagues. Jason McLeod might come through and shake your hand or you'll share a beer with him. They aren't grooming talent down here.”
This sets the tone for the difference in operations between a minor league affiliate and a major league team. After speaking with Matt and other minor league executives, I came to realize that their jobs don't involve player development at all. Their jobs are to support the minor league players by selling tickets and maintain a good field for the players to play on, and reasonable space for the coaching staff to work out of. The minor league front office isn't making trades or working with the players. They are the proverbial man behind the curtain, making sure everything runs smoothly so that the players can develop with their coaching staff.
How does a minor league franchise become an affiliate of a big league team?
I've previously written about my local minor league team, the Kane County Cougars. One thing I never understood is how the Cougars have had so many big league affiliates over the years. In 30 years of existence, the Cougars have had partnerships with the Marlins (10 years), Oakland A's (8 years), Diamondbacks (6 years), Cubs (2 years), Royals (2 years), and Orioles (2 years). When the Cubs partnered with them in 2013, I thought it would be a long term partnership. The Cougars are close to Chicago, so it just made sense. But it only lasted 2 years. How does that all work?
Minor league teams typically sign 2 or 4 year contracts with major league teams to be their affiliates. Teams can and will jump around from affiliate to affiliate when contracts expire. Matt described it like NBA free agency, where NBA teams and basketball players cannot discuss contracts until free agency day. Major League teams cannot talk with minor league teams before contracts are up. But then once the contracts expire, it becomes a fast paced game of musical chairs for the minor league teams to sign with the big league teams. Since most minor league teams are part of a national association, no team gets left out in the end. It becomes a race for the major league teams to fill their needs as best possible, and for the minor league teams to sell themselves as being good options. For example, the South Bend Cubs owner is a huge Cubs fan, and pumped a ton of money into his team to sell it as a replacement for Kane County, and it worked.
Big league teams will weigh things like how well the minor league team takes care of its players, the team's physical location, what kind of travel is involved for the minor league team, how modern the facilities are, how close airports are, among many other factors. Usually it makes more sense for an MLB's AAA affiliate to be closer to the big league ballpark. That way, they can grab pitchers for spot innings when the team is playing double headers, stretches of games without off days, injury fill ins, and so on. It's not so much an issue with the Emeralds being in Oregon and the Cubs being in Chicago since Eugene is an A class team.
Differences between the minors and the majors:
Going into this interview, I was expecting a top front office executive like Matt to be a bit of an insider when it comes to player transactions. Surely there is knowledge from Theo Epstein's office that gets passed down to the minor league affiliates so they can work cohesively, but that isn't the case. There are two people who need to know about player transactions- a media person, and the radio announcer. Since Matt is the radio announcer, he needs to know the roster in order to have material for his broadcast. Many times, the Emeralds were unaware of moves until the same day they happened. The trainer is also someone who would learn about transactions earlier, as the big league office checks in with him on status.
My favorite quote from the interview was about Matt trying to keep up with roster moves: “Honestly, there have been times I'm walking into the front office, which is only a few hundred feet away from the entrance to the ballpark. A cab will pull out and a guy gets out with a Cubs bag. I'll say "Hey, you a new player?" and the guy says "Oh yeah, just on my way to the locker room." We had no idea a new guy was coming and I didn't know his name.” While a bit funny, it also fittingly displays the difference between minor league and major league operations. The minor league front office doesn't know much about the transactions because it's not their job to work with player development. The big league club will hire the coaching and training staff, then assign them to minor league affiliate. The minor league front office just manages the ballpark for the team.
In terms of operations, there's a bit more bleed over from the big squad to the little Ems. The Emeralds will often check in with the Cubs with regards to scheduling and promotions to make sure everything is up to the Cubs standard. It's not quite as specific as say a fast food restaurant needing to maintain a uniform standard set down by corporate. Rather, the minor league teams have freedom to operate in ways that are unique to their communities, and check in with the Cubs to make sure it's okay. One example Matt brought up was Eugene wanting to have a themed Pride Night, which included special rainbow jerseys for the players. They were to be the first affiliated minor league team to have that kind of promotion. The Ems sought and got approval from the Cubs before hosting it, because it can be a charged issue in certain communities. The Cubs were totally supportive of it.
While I won't work my up to being a General Manager by starting at my local Kane County Cougar, I'm encouraged that if I love baseball and have a sales background, there will be a decent job out there for me.
Matt praised the Cubs front office several times, calling them very supportive. The Cubs do a better job than most of taking care of the minor league affiliates. Some examples:
• MLB.TV: The Cubs provided several big screen TVs with MLB.TV subscriptions so that the farmhand players could take in more baseball, specifically Cubs games. This encourages them to be a part of the bigger picture.
• Hotels for players on longer trips. Rather than rushing the team back to Eugene after a series, the Cubs will often get the guys hotel rooms so they can rest after a late night and head back refreshed the next morning.
• A second bus for longer road trips, so that the team has room to spread out during their hours on the road. As some of their bus rides can be over 5 hours, this can be a big deal. Can you imagine being crammed into a school bus for a half day, then trying to play baseball?
• Encouraging the minor league affiliates to be a part of their communities, to help establish those values for the players. The Cubs want the entire organization to be a strong part of their community. It's a strong value from Tom Ricketts all the way to the bottom.
Minor League Contraction:
On the day of our interview, there was an elephant in the room. News was breaking about 40+ minor league teams being folded as part of an overall reduction to the entire minor league system. Matt referenced a huge Baseball America article that outlines the full history of the minors' relationship with the majors. Given the current events of contraction and also with the Corona virus, how are the Emeralds doing as a team? Matt explained, "The main issues that MLB have are mainly with facilities and travel. Our facility is new, built in 2010 at the U of Oregon (one of the main reasons the Cubs wanted to be affiliated with us). We’ve always felt pretty safe. Short season might be on the chopping block, so it might end up being a longer season. Nobody knows exactly who those 40-42 teams are, but today’s article is saying 42 teams. As for the Emeralds, we will need to figure out how to co-exist playing at the same ball park with the U of Oregon (should it turn into a longer season). The facility only has 1 locker room. We have to use the Austin football locker rooms for visiting teams. Our season would start about a week after the Super Regionals . Worst case scenario, we would have a week to get ready, usually we have 2-3 weeks to get ready. But if we move it back to April, we’ll be overlapping 4-6 weeks."
As games aren't being played, and as the MLB is trying to eliminate 40 minor league teams, there are struggles for the team. The Emeralds are trying to remind people that they are a big piece of the community. In terms of financial survival, they are offering gift cards for next year, and hoping to use the stadium and grounds for events besides baseball, perhaps for something like movie nights. A lot of places are being forced to evolve to maintain short term survival, until hopefully life gets back to normal. But they have the right front office to keep the team alive.
Before the pandemic, the front office already had to be creative to draw fans. Although there is not a lot of local sports competition, the area isn't a huge sports market. They have struggled to fill seats because there would be a big music festival an hour or two away. Eugene is different from Chicago and it's suburbs, because there isn't a major city near Eugene (population: 166,000). The closest MLB team is the Seattle Mariners, a five hour drive north. Sports fans in the area are drawn to an assortment of Washington state and California teams, putting Eugene in a bit of limbo at times. Despite winning two championships in the last five seasons and having beautiful summer weather, there hasn't been as big of an uptick as one might expect. Instead, the Emeralds find themselves connecting with the community to have a lasting impact. It's also something that the Cubs themselves have placed importance on, partly to influence players as they move through the system.
With the Coronavirus shutting down group outings, this obviously impacts baseball pretty drastically. Right now, the minor league staff is trying to contingency plan for what might be next. If certain leagues cancel their seasons, there's going to be a lot of space to fill. It will be very concerning if the minor league season does get cancelled. The Emeralds do have a tenured front office which has won several top awards for their promotional performance. Between their strong team and great facilities, I am extremely confident that the Eugene Emeralds will survive the storms that lie ahead.
The Eugene Emeralds are a part of the Chicago Cubs family, after all, even if they are our goofy west coast relatives. There will be ways to support Eugene. They are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, and at milb.com/eugene. All of those accounts are a worthy follow. Another great way to support the team is to purchase Eugene Emeralds gear from their store. They have a lot of cool hats, shirts and jerseys. Nothing says that you are a die hard Cubs fan like wearing gear from their distant affiliate! I encourage you to support the Emeralds. They are a part of the Cubs family, and I can now say first hand that they are a group of nice and capable people.
Thanks again to Eugene Emeralds Assistant General Manager and home Radio Announcer Matt Dompe for taking the time to sit down with me over the phone and dig into minor league operations and the Eugene Emeralds. And thank you to the rest of the Cubs DNA team, who transcribed, edited, and assisted with this deeper look at the Eugene Emeralds.