Women GMs mean business in minors

Former college tennis player Elizabeth Martin, 34, runs Cincinnati's Class A California League affiliate in Bakersfield. Courtesy of the Bakerfield Blaze

In December 2003, Kattie Swartz arrived at baseball's winter meetings in New Orleans determined to find a job in minor league baseball. Three summers working for a rookie league team in her hometown of Great Falls, Mont., doing everything from working concessions to being an on-the-field master of ceremonies emboldened Swartz to pursue a career in a male-dominated industry. She thought her experience, coupled with a nearly finished degree in business-to-business sales and communications, made her an attractive candidate.

Swartz interviewed for an entry-level job with a club she declined to identify. She emerged from a meeting room excited and confident. "I thought I nailed the interview," she said.

But as Swartz left, the executives she thought she had impressed welcomed the next candidate -- a man -- with backslaps and talk of going out for beers. Swartz quickly realized what was happening, and her heart sank.

"I thought, 'I guess I didn't get the job,'" she said. "I love baseball. I love working in baseball. But I was a little bit discouraged."

Nine years later, the 30-year-old Swartz -- now Kattie Meyer, a newlywed -- is back home in Great Falls as the team's general manager. Voyagers president Vinney Purpura hired Meyer as director of business development for the Chicago White Sox affiliate in 2010, and she moved up to GM in January 2011.

"It's interesting," she said in a telephone interview. "I went to an all-girls school [St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn.], and ended up in an all-boys field for work."

She's not alone.

Since September 2010, seven women have been hired as general managers in the affiliated minors -- that is, leagues with working agreements with major league teams.

Along with Jane Rogers of the Class A Staten Island Yankees, that makes eight women GMs among 160 teams, believed to be the most at any time. All work in Class A or rookie leagues except Marla Terranova Vickers of the Double-A Montgomery (Ala.) Biscuits. Terranova Vickers holds another distinction as the only active woman GM hired by a woman, Sherrie Myers, who owns the Biscuits and the Class A Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts with husband Tom Dickson.

And Jupiter Stadium Ltd., which operates two Florida State League franchises, installed women as GMs of both clubs this season: Lisa Fegley of the Palm Beach Cardinals and Melissa Kuper of the Jupiter Hammerheads.

"I think it's fantastic," said Terranova Vickers, 31. "It obviously shows you don't have to be a male to be in this position. It's really about business."

Women also are making inroads in independent, nonaffiliated leagues. Last month the Atlantic League's Lancaster (Pa.) Barnstormers hired Lisa Riggs as president and promoted Kristen Simon to general manager from assistant GM. Two other minor league clubs list women as presidents, but Riggs, a Johns Hopkins graduate who founded and ran a Lancaster nonprofit development group for nine years, is the only one unrelated to the owner.

"It was not at all by design to hire two females," said Jon Danos, the president of Keystone Baseball, which owns the Barnstormers. "We were trying to find the best candidates, and I think that's what we achieved."

The hirings follow a diversity initiative introduced by Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner at the 2008 winter meetings. O'Conner, elected in 2007 after 14 years as Minor League Baseball's chief operating officer, promised greater opportunities for minorities and women in a sport whose executives historically have been white and male. O'Conner said he pushed the initiative after reading a newspaper article predicting that people of color will outnumber whites in this country by 2042.

"We'd better get off our keisters and look more like the world than less like it, or we're going to lose touch with that world," he said. "If we don't start now, when do we start? In 2012, everything ought to be open to everybody."

It's business

Unlike their major league counterparts, minor league general managers don't make trades, sign free agents or negotiate player contracts. The major league organization handles all that. Instead, GMs direct business operations -- ticket and sponsorship sales, concessions, cash flow and team travel -- while managing employees and interns.

In Lancaster, Simon even helps pull the tarp on and off the field. Ever see Billy Beane do that in Oakland?

"You don't have to know how to throw to first base, or figure a batting average or an ERA, to command a minor league front office," said O'Conner, a former minor league general manager. "It's PR, management, entertainment and everything wrapped in."

In short, professional playing experience is not a requirement. Now you have GMs like Elizabeth Martin, a 34-year-old former college tennis player with a law degree from DePaul who runs Cincinnati's Class A California League affiliate in Bakersfield, Calif.

Martin worked in sales before going to law school, intending to be a sports agent. She reconsidered that path during her first semester, and an internship at MiLB's headquarters in St. Petersburg, Fla., attracted her to baseball management.

After further summer internships with Visalia in the California League and the NFL's Oakland Raiders, she returned to Visalia as assistant general manager and legal counsel. Two years later, she applied for the Bakersfield job.

"She had a lot of the qualities I look for in a GM," said D.G. Elmore of the Elmore Sports Group, who hired Martin in September 2010 and sold the club a few months ago. "She could sell, and loved to sell. She was very focused on getting the job done. She had a determined competitive streak that I could sense. She wasn't the least bit frightened by the situation that was there in Bakersfield."

Candidly, Martin called Bakersfield "the joke of the California League for the better part of a decade." The Blaze played in an antiquated stadium, Sam Lynn Ballpark, which faced the wrong way. The sun set in center field, forcing the club to stagger starting times to protect batters and its few spectators from glare.

Once a Dodgers farm club whose alumni include Don Drysdale, Mike Piazza and Rick Sutcliffe, Bakersfield had finished last in the league in attendance for three straight years when Martin applied.

"As a woman, you can't wait for a dream job," Martin said. "If I go to Bakersfield and help it get back to its days of glory, that's a star on my résumé. I can make that my calling card."

Said Elmore: "We had a couple of applicants who kind of flaked out in the interview at taking on a challenge like this. It didn't faze her in the least. She just wanted the opportunity."

New local ownership committed $300,000 for stadium improvements. Attendance still lags, but Martin said the club and Bakersfield officials are talking about building a new stadium, which would help. "Obviously, we can't get the sun to set in another direction," she said. "There's no magic pill for that."

History of opportunities

The major leagues have never had a female general manager. But in the minors, women shattered that glass ceiling four decades ago.

Lanny Moss, hired by the Class A Portland (Ore.) Mavericks in November 1974, is believed to be the first full-time woman general manager in the minor leagues.

Joanne Gerace (Utica Blue Sox, 1983 to '90) and Leslie Leary (Auburn Astros, 1983 to '87) followed in the New York-Penn League, which is short-season Class A. Roger Kahn, the author of "The Boys of Summer," wrote about the Blue Sox and Gerace in the book "Good Enough to Dream," published in 1985. Leary, now an attorney, won the Rawlings Woman Executive of the Year Award in 1987 and advanced to major league front-office jobs with the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros.

The Triple-A Portland/Salt Lake City franchise employed women GMs for 16 years, Tammy Felker-White from 1990 to 1996 and Dorsena Picknell from 1997 to 2005. Felker-White was a Rawlings winner in 1992. Since 2004 there have been at least three women GMs in the affiliated minors every season, according to MiLB.

Elmore believes that today's minor league owners are more willing to hire women because they operate other businesses that routinely employ and promote them. A less exclusionary mindset, Elmore said, leads to greater opportunity. "I'm all about the best talent," he said. "I'm not concerned about what the sex is, or the color of the hair, or skin, or anything."

Dave Heller, co-owner of the Class A Quad Cities River Bandits in Davenport, Iowa, is a real estate developer who heads a political media and strategy firm. Last fall he promoted Stefanie Brown, 28, to general manager after three seasons as assistant GM and one as director of community relations. Brown is not only the Midwest League's youngest GM. As vice president of Main Street Baseball, she also oversees operations of Heller's other club, Class A High Desert in Adelanto, Calif.

Typical of the new female GMs, Brown started at the bottom and learned all aspects of the business on her way up. She worked or interned for three teams before Quad Cities.

Brown prides herself on arriving at the Modern Woodmen Park ahead of anyone else. Early one winter's day, Heller -- who lives in Washington, D.C., and Miami Shores, Fla. -- popped into town unannounced and found Brown outside the park, alone, shoveling snow.

"When we bought the team, she was the second person on board," Heller said. "Nothing was handed to her. She's proven herself on every level, over and over again."

In Pulaski, Va., 27-year-old Abby Lyman rose from intern to assistant general manager to general manager of the short-season Mariners in less than two years. A Brigham Young graduate from Highland, Utah, who started at shortstop on her high school softball team as a freshman, Lyman developed fluency in Spanish during an 18-month Mormon mission to Santiago, Chile -- a plus in dealing with the club's Latin-American players.

When co-owner Tom Compton stepped aside as general manager, the Appalachian League club made Lyman its first and only full-time employee.

"It was a getting to be a little too much work for Tom to be doing," said Dr. Rick Mansell, another co-owner. "Abby was in the right place at the right time."

So why haven't more owners given more women like Brown and Lyman a chance?

"A lot of owners are idiots," Heller said.

Fitting in

For women GMs, operating within the so-called "old boys network" can be challenging.

"I wish that I could say it does not matter that I am a woman, but that would not be the truth," Meyer said. "I never want to make an issue with it because I want to be known as a great general manager and not have the word 'female' always placed in front of 'GM.' But I am a woman, and it does make me different. So I embrace the challenges that it presents and do the best I can to be fearless and stay true to myself."

Interacting with players who view female employees unprofessionally can be tricky. Early on, Lyman had to set straight a Latin-American player who hit on her. And after overhearing two players chat about her in Spanish, Lyman now tells everyone up front she is bilingual and spells out what is and isn't appropriate. For her staff of interns, it means no fraternizing with players, no swearing and no chewing tobacco or dipping.

"It helps that when they get here, I lay down the law," she said.

The demanding minor league front-office lifestyle, with 12-to-14-hour days, isn't for everybody, regardless of gender. Sometimes it takes its toll. Martin and her husband, who moved with her to California, are separated, although they remain friends.

Meyer said her husband, Kirk, a financial consultant, often plays golf at a course next to the ballpark while waiting for her to finish up. They were married in September, nine days after Great Falls won the Pioneer League championship.

"He brings me lunch at work," Meyer said. "I guess we navigate it as best we can. It's tough."

In Montgomery, Terranova Vickers met her husband, Tripp, an attorney, when he won a contest to name the club in 2003. "He used to come to a lot of games, and I got to know him at the ballpark," she said. A 2011 Rawlings winner, Terranova Vickers recently gave birth to their first child, Alice Adeline, whom she often brings to work with her.

O'Conner would love to see more women GMs in Double-A and Triple-A. And sooner or later, one will be hired in the major leagues -- perhaps Kim Ng, formerly an assistant GM with the Yankees and Dodgers and now an executive with Major League Baseball.

Most of the new GMs haven't thought that far ahead. Martin likes what she's doing too much to consider anything else.

"I don't see myself going anywhere anytime soon," she said. "Growing up an Indians fan, if [Cleveland president] Mark Shapiro calls me up and offers me a job, I won't turn it down. But there isn't much else I would rather do."