The Oakland A’s have a new Triple-A affiliate for the 2015 season, but they have a familiar face in that affiliate’s front office. Garry Arthur is the Nashville Sounds’ Chief Operating Officer and General Manager. Arthur previously worked with the A’s when he was the General Manager of the A’s Triple-A affiliates in Vancouver and Sacramento. He helped coordinate the Vancouver move to Sacramento and was instrumental in guiding the opening of Raley Field. Arthur oversaw Vancouver and Sacramento from 1998-2004. He has more than 25 years of experience working in minor league baseball and he was the 2002 The Sporting News Minor League Executive of the Year. Arthur joined the Sounds as a senior adviser to the ownership group in 2009. He was named COO and GM in January 2015.
When the A’s affiliation contract ran its course with the Sacramento River Cats last year, the A’s signed on with the Nashville Sounds for four years. The A’s will help the Sounds break-in their new ballpark. First Tennessee Park will open on April 17 when the Sounds take on the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. The park is in its final days of construction and is expected to be one of the new jewels of the Pacific Coast League. Located just north of downtown Nashville, First Tennessee Park will seat roughly 10,000 people and will have plenty of amenities. Single game tickets for the 2015 season go on sale on Monday. To check-in on the construction of First Tennessee Park as it is happening, click here.
I caught-up with Arthur on Friday to learn more about First Tennessee Park, the A’s new affiliation with the Sounds and more…
OaklandClubhouse: I know it has been a longtime coming for the Sounds to get a new ballpark. What impact will the new ballpark have on the franchise and what kind of enhancements will there be for players at the new facility?
Garry Arthur: In regards to the first part of your question, I think we are still realizing – along with other people – just how much different minor league ballparks have become. I think there are a lot of people here in Nashville that thought it was just going to look like the old Greer Stadium except have newer parts. This new ballpark goes well beyond that. This is my 25th year [in minor league baseball] – I thought the ballpark in Sacramento was pretty special at the time. And it was. I was there for the transition from moving from Vancouver.
With these new ballparks and with the design of this ballpark, there are so many more hospitality opportunities. The park is geared a great deal to the 18-35 year-olds. There are picnic areas. There is what is called a Bar Pit on three levels. There’s a 4-Top area where people meet at a 4-Top, which is four stools and a top. I call it for a working title, “Where Harry Met Sally.” [laughs] We have two big party decks on the outside of the 18 suites. The suite level has a club level that has padded seats on the seat and back and it just appears like you are right on top of the batter.
Right behind homeplate, we have four field-level suites. In the field-level suites, each suite has 33 seats in the front. The front row of the field-level suites, you are closer to the catcher than the catcher is to the pitcher. Our Club Lounge accommodates up to 250 people.
Minor league parks are now only minor in the sense that we only really accommodate 10,000 people. But the rest of it is pretty classy. We are pretty excited of that.
On top of that, I am with an ownership group that understands player development. One of the reasons I came and joined them is that understanding. Owners in minor league baseball are given a tremendous gift and that is they have the right to field a team and all of the salaries are picked up by the major league club. All we have to do is what I call create an environment for winning. And that is a clean, decent clubhouse. Good batting cages. We have those underneath. All of the player stuff is underneath [the stadium]. We have huge dugouts here, great batting cages – two 14-foot-wide batting cages underneath. We have gone out of our way to make sure that we are in compliance in every way with what is required for player development, including we can drain off up to one inch of water from our field in 30 minutes. We brought in all of the sod from Georgia. Did all of the seeding in the off-season and made sure that the root zone and root base matched what we’ve got here in Tennessee. It’s become quite a sophisticated operation in minor league ball, when you want to do it right.
OC: You’ve been in this business a long time. What is the biggest difference business-wise in minor league baseball from when you started until now?
GA: I think two-fold: the wow factor is big. We have this huge guitar scoreboard that is going to be on national TV on Opening Night. The biggest part of the guitar – the strumming part – is big enough to hold 862 32-inch TV screens. The scoreboard is 138 feet wide and 68 feet high. In minor league ball, we never had those kind of things before.
The other thing [that has changed] is the hospitality areas. When I got in, I started in Calgary with the Cannons and the Mariners affiliation there. They just didn’t have the money for a really good Triple-A park. They did the best they could, but we had the bare minimum for the player development side of it. Tiny dressing rooms and batting cages. The playing surface was pretty good in Calgary, but in the old days, some clubs didn’t keep the playing surfaces maintained the way they should have. That was a shame because we are given a pretty precious gift. Where else are you going to go in business and you don’t have to pay for your employees? We pay for the front office staff, but the main attraction [for fans] are the players. That’s special to me.
Some owners abuse that privilege, I think, and that’s not right. Or they do the bare minimum. Not so much anymore. With the new parks that have come in – especially in Triple-A, where I am more familiar with – like the new one in Charlotte and the new one in Columbus, Leigh High Valley has a splendid park. The new one in El Paso. They have all done a tremendous job. We are hoping to duplicate that here.
OC: You mentioned that you worked on that transition from Vancouver to Sacramento [when the A’s affiliate moved]. A lot of the A’s front office is the same from back in that era, especially on the player development side. What did you like about working with guys like Keith Lieppman back then and what are you looking forward to with the new affiliation?
GA: I really wanted us to be able to have the opportunity somewhere along the line when I rejoined the Sounds to go with Oakland. I didn’t dream it would happen in the first year of me coming in as GM. Ultimately, everything fell into place with Oakland leaving Sacramento. They knew me and I think the biggest reason why we are with Oakland from my perspective are the names Billy Beane, Keith Lieppman and Ted Polakowski. They are like brothers to me. I have known them for almost 20 years now and we are on the same page.
Oakland has a philosophy that I really respect, and that is: ‘if you can’t win at the minor league level, how do you expect your players to have a winning attitude at the big league level?’ So many other affiliates that I have been with, when you are a GM at the end of a game, they only want to know about three or four players – their top prospects. They don’t really care about the score, they don’t care that much maybe about the other players on the team. They have a Triple-A affiliate because they want to develop maybe five or six players.
Whereas with Oakland, they believe that part of successful player development is learning how to win. Just look at their record in the minor leagues. Gosh, that Sacramento team from day one was a winner. And even before that, when I was in Vancouver, we won everything, including the Triple-A World Series. My first team in Vancouver, I had Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder.
OC: Not a bad rotation. [laughs]
GA: Yeah [laughing], not bad. Now they weren’t always there at the same time, but during the course of that 1999 year, we had Mark Mulder the whole year. We had Tim Hudson for about half of it and then he got called up. And then Barry Zito joined us later in the year. Kevin Jarvis was on that team, Frank Menechino. That team was loaded.
It’s kind of neat to feel like you aren’t just in the minor leagues to develop five prospects. You are there to develop an atmosphere that is conducive to winning. You know as well as I do, those three guys are great to be around.
OC: With the A’s having their Triple-A affiliate in Sacramento for so many years, it was easy to have the fanbases mix together and not a hard sell for the River Cats to get fans interested in the players. How do you build a fanbase when the major league affiliate is so far away from the minor league city? Do the fans start to follow that big league team when their minor league club is affiliated with it, or are the fans more interested in the individual players and what happens to them later?
GA: I have always felt that we have to work very hard to give the players a profile in the community for the fans to identify with. Once they get to know the player, they follow him, regardless of whether that player is playing for Oakland or St. Louis or Cincinnati. Would it be ideal from a geographical perspective for our fans – probably the largest following in this area is probably the Atlanta Braves, the second would be St. Louis and a close third is Cincinnati. But we were amazed when we announced the affiliation how people reacted. ‘Moneyball’ alone has made the A’s famous.
But it is up to us to create the personalities that people can relate to. We can’t rely on the fact that we are affiliated with Atlanta or some close-by big league team. Some of those teams, like Memphis, are actually owned by the St. Louis Cardinals, but they don’t rely just on that to make a connection with the fans.
OC: Will there be a big grand opening for the park before the first homestand? Or will there be more of a gradual opening throughout those first seven games?
GA: Because of the construction schedule, the grand opening will be on Opening Day with the mayor opening the park and all of the bells and whistles. But the Open House will be the weekend following the first homestand. The first homestand is April 17-24. I want to get us rolling a bit before we roll out the carpet to events outside of baseball.
OC: Vanderbilt University having such a great baseball program, there is obviously a lot of local interest in college baseball. Sonny Gray is a Vandy alum and Nashville native. I know the A’s hope Gray won’t have to pitch in Nashville at any point this year, but is there anything planned with him, promotions-wise?
GA: We would love to engage in Sonny during the off-season. That’s the only time we can get him, and we’ve approached him on that. As far as the Vanderbilt program and Coach Corbin, me and the Nashville owners have a very good relationship with him. We love that team. They have a great facility. Anytime they want to use it, they will use our park for special games in the future. They just help us so much – and hopefully we will help them – sell the great game of baseball. We are all in this together. We are all selling the same product. It’s just a different league.
OC: You guys went through a re-branding this off-season. Was that tied to the new stadium?
GA: We collectively didn’t think we had cashed in on the music industry enough. The re-brand is based on the “N” on top of a guitar pick. We wanted to play up the fact that we are proud that this is Music City. We have a Music City hat the players are going to wear. We have a Music City all-black uniform that the players are going to wear on Friday nights. We are going to cash in with ushers and fans in the stands that hopefully can sing along with the Seventh Inning Stretch. With the name Sounds, we didn’t think we had explored or exploited enough the idea that we were in Music City, USA. That’s what the new re-branding hopefully will achieve.
To learn more about the Nashville Sounds history and their new stadium, visit their website - nashvillesounds.com