Q & A: Princeton Rays GM Jim Holland

Princeton Rays General Manager Jim Holland was kind enough to take some time to answer some questions for us on a variety of topics. In this exclusive interview, we discuss the role and responsibilities of a minor league GM, some former Princeton Rays who have left an impression on him, how the local community helps players transition into their new lives as baseball pros and much, much more.

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Rays Digest: I guess a good place to start would be to ask you about the role of a Minor League General Manager. How does your job differ from that of a Major League General Manager, and what are the similarities? Are there any challenges that are specific to your job that aren't there for a Major League GM?

Jim Holland: The big difference is the fact that minor league general managers in affiliated professional baseball are not involved in player evaluation and procurement. A minor league general manager is totally focused on everything outside the foul lines. A person in my position is in the unique setting of being responsible to the big league club, the local owners/operators, and the local fans themselves which can sometimes lead to interesting situations when opinions differ. An MLB front office is now very specialized and, for the most part, allowing their GM to concentrate on the baseball side of things and totally focus on putting the best team on the field that he can.

Rays Digest: You obviously don't have a large staff of front office people working for you like a Major League club. What are some of your day to day duties as General Manager?

Jim Holland: Princeton is a very good fit for me because I do like to be involved in a little bit of everything and this scenario certainly provides that. To some degree, I am basically responsible for working with everything outside the foul lines. From mid-September to mid-May annually, it is primarily about the sales and the marketing of the ballclub. That time period is about building revenue and awareness to successfully operate the team each summer. Then, of course, mid-May to mid-September is to set up, operate, and shut down a season of a team performing in the Appalachian League (we are a short-season league that plays from mid- June to the end of August). It's pretty much the groundskeeper and I as a "staff" other than the summer months. We are blessed to have a 15-member board of directors and other supporters throughout the community that lend their expertise in areas that we may not have knowledge in. During the summer, there are usually a couple of additional seasonal employees added as well as usually around 8-10 college interns are on hand for the season.

Rays Digest: You have been with the Princeton Rays for over twenty years and have won several awards including League Executive of the Year in 1993, and the Promotional Award of Excellence four times including the past two seasons. Can you tell me a little bit about the keys to your success as a General Manager?

Jim Holland: Very simply, just keep working. At this level, and with our small offseason staff size, it is important to always keep plugging along. It never gets boring because of the many different areas I am involved in where this ballclub is concerned. However, while working, I am always looking for something new and innovative to keep our presentation fresh here.

Rays Digest: You have held a promotion at every home game since 1991 and obviously marketing and sales are an important aspect of your job. What are some of your favorite giveaways from past seasons and what do you have in store for the 2012 season?

Jim Holland: At this early juncture, the 2012 promotional schedule for the Princeton Rays is still a work in progress but we will make sure we have every home game covered with some sort of promotion or giveaway. Promotions are important because it helps you attract the fans that are not there for just the baseball alone. We have been doing "Legends of Princeton Baseball Bobblehead Giveaways" since 2005 of former Princeton players dressed in their uniforms of that time period and that list has included Rocco Baldelli, Wes Bankston, Reid Brignac, Wade Davis, Jonny Gomes, Josh Hamilton, Seth McClung, Jamie Nelson, Jason Pridie, and Jared Sandberg among others. We do plan to do at least one of those to add to the collection this year but haven't made up our minds yet who that will be. Being in this business over 20 years now, I have branded our team name on to about every promotional giveaway item you can think of which in turn makes it very challenging for me now. However, with all this branding, that is why you see the Princeton Rays logo about everywhere you go around here.

Rays Digest: The marketing landscape has changed in recent years due to the advent of social media. How much time do you devote to social media activities and do you see it as a substantial marketing vehicle for minor league teams?

Jim Holland: The introduction of social media has been a big addition for minor league baseball. Any business is always interested in being able to reach the most people possible for the most economical way possible. A lot of things revolve around our website at www.princetonrays.net. A fan of P-Rays baseball can go there and sign up for our free-of-charge monthly newsletter, "Raywatch." Our site includes our all-time roster, an on-line souvenir store, a complete all-time franchise record book, and, closer to the season, our complete promotional schedule is posted. We also are frequently posting updated news articles to keep the site content fresh. We also encourage people to "like" our Princeton Rays Professional Baseball FaceBook and we are also available on Twitter at @princetonrays. We do make it our objective to get new information to our fans and followers as quickly as it becomes available. It is free to listen to all 68 of our games on-line and for hard-core Rays followers, all of this available inventory is a great way for them to follow from the grass roots up, their future Tampa Bay Rays.

Rays Digest: In your many years with the organization you have seen a lot of Rays prospects pass through Princeton. Who are some of the players that stand out in your mind? Not only for their accomplishments on the diamond but as young men who are beginning their journey into professional baseball.

Jim Holland: One thing about that stands out about Tampa Bay in my mind is that they draft kids with great character. I cannot imagine myself at 18 years of age handling all the complex things that these kids do and they exhibit great poise while doing it. I am looking at players from the angle about their patience with our fans and how some go out of their way to interface with our community. That being said, the first names that come to my mind that your readers might recognize are Josh Hamilton, Seth McClung, Rocco Baldelli, and from our 2011 team, Drew Vettleson and Jake Hager. Matt Moore is a tremendously nice young man also. The list could go on forever and if there was a list of players that didn't reach the big leagues but showed these traits, it would definitely start with two players that were here just a few years ago: Mike McCormick and Jairo Delarosa. It is also special to watch players like Josh Hamilton, Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Wade Davis, Matt Moore, etc who you can tell even then are going to be very, very special players.

Rays Digest: Many players that take the field for Princeton are getting their first taste of professional baseball while experiencing their first extended period of time away from their family and loved ones. What do you do as a General Manager do to help ease this transition for the players, and do you have any specific programs in place to help with this adjustment?

Jim Holland: It is not so much me as the GM, but our fans themselves that assist in this process through our "Adopt-A-Player" program, which our franchise has had in existence since 1993. Since then, we have annually been successful in pairing players with local families to give them a local person to bond with. Most of our local adoptive parents will call the players' parents right out of the gate to introduce themselves and I feel it gives the players' parents a little sigh of relief to know there is someone on this end interested in the well being of their son.

Rays Digest: Along the same lines: Many Latin American players come to Princeton not only as new professionals in the game, but as recent arrivals to America. How do you help players from countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela adjust to learning the language and culture of the United States?

Jim Holland: The Tampa Bay Rays are very aggressive in programs to help foreign players adapt to living in this country. We have a local teacher here that the Rays contract to teach these players English and it is my understanding that they make great progress throughout the course of the season in learning the language. I would assume that this continues in all levels of our organization. Most players are eager to learn the language!

Rays Digest: How much time do you spend with the players and coaching staff on a day to day basis during the season? Does the Tampa Bay Rays front office ask you for input on scouting and player development or is that handled solely by the scouts and player development folks?

Jim Holland: I have been very lucky that Tampa Bay through the years has sent me managers and coaches that are aware of the things that a minor league GM deals with. I usually don't spend much time with them at all other than to coordinate with them any ceremonial things I have going on during the game that may affect them. Another area is coordinating with both players and coaches things like when the media can have access to them other than the standard post-game quotes. Other things are usually just minor and quick in nature although we do have a few situations each year that require a little more cooperative planning. The biggest and longest discussions are usually on game dates when inclement weather is in the picture. All this being said, we do maybe "small talk" chat for a few minutes when they get to the park each day, both coaches and players alike. I have made a lot of great friends in this profession. I have nothing to do with player development and scouting other than what I might mention to them sometimes about a player's personality in regards to doing something special outside the foul line in our community.

Rays Digest: I wanted to ask you a little bit about some specific players, the first one being catcher Justin O'Conner. The scouting reports on him coming out of high school were off the charts, but he has struggled a little in his first two years in the organization particularly in the area of strikeouts. What sorts of things did Justin work on in 2011 and how do you see him developing in the coming years?

Jim Holland: There actually is a recent story on Justin O'Conner on our website right now. Most importantly, he did finish strong by hitting .292 (7-24) in his last ten games for us with 3 homers and 8 RBI. The home runs he launched there at the end of the year were not cheap shots either. If you ask him, he will just tell you he decided to relax a little more and the results speak volumes. Also, for the season, he threw out over 35 percent of the baserunners that attempted to steal on him, so he's just started to make a compelling case that you will see a lot more of him in the future.

Rays Digest: Two other guys that are top prospects that played at Princeton in 2011 are outfielders Drew Vettleson and Josh Sale. Can you tell me a little bit about the progress they both made in 2011, and what level of the organization they might be playing at in 2012?

Jim Holland: The numbers show that other than a couple of slow games at the start and a couple more at the end, that a good argument could be made that Drew Vettleson was our steadiest position player throughout the 2011 season. And, for me as a minor league GM, he was a joy to work with in terms of community events and the relationships he built with our fan base here. Tampa Bay named him as the 2011 Princeton Player of the Year, our fans voted him as our 2011 Most Popular Player, and I designated him as our nominee for Tampa Bay's "Erik Walker Award" for his community service and actions he displayed both on the field and in the clubhouse as a teammate. I don't believe we have had a player here making a clean sweep like that but the Erik Walker Award wasn't in existence when Josh Hamilton was here in 1999. By the numbers, Josh Sale, wasn't where everyone was hoping he would be at this point but the potential is there and different players do progress at different speeds.

Rays Digest: 2011 First Round draft Pick Jake Hager played his first professional baseball at Princeton in 2011, what was your impression of him and his first season? The scouting reports on him are among some of the best in the organization.

Jim Holland: I cannot talk from a scout's perspective but Jake Hager is a tremendous young man. He has a very quiet maturity about him and you can tell he loves this game. I am doing other things during the course of a game but will stop to watch if I see a ground ball headed his way or if he is stepping up to the plate. I enjoy watching how he handles the responsibility of playing shortstop and we have had some good ones here through the years. For someone his age to be carrying around the accolades and expectations that are associated with him, he does it quite well.

Rays Digest: At what point do the Rays decide to assign a particular player to your affiliate? Are some of those decisions made in the off-season or are they made exclusively during and after Minor League Spring Training?

Jim Holland: We usually don't get our roster until just a day or two before the team arrives. How and when it is determined who goes where can change daily for a short-season team until the final decisions are made. Since our roster is somewhat draft influenced, it can somewhat change with the pace of how many draftees are signed, the position they play, and what level the organization feels they can successfully begin at as well as what roster has what particular needs that still needs to be addressed. Then of course, with the players that are already in extended spring training, they might either play themselves onto or off of a destination that was originally considered for them. This is what makes the decision-makers with the Rays the very best at what they do in my opinion.

Rays Digest: How much time do the organization's roving instructors and player development staff spend with the team? What sorts of teaching and coaching happen during the season on a Rookie League club as opposed to higher up in the system?

Jim Holland: All I can say is that we have some rover (or more) from Tampa Bay in here at almost every one of our home games. They are constantly travelling and rotating throughout all levels of the organization. Tampa Bay has a large number of rovers and all of that knowledge certainly helps each player to have the maximum chance to reach the next level and beyond. This is the lifeblood of this organization and Tampa Bay will never cut corners where this part of the game is concerned.

Rays Digest: What do you consider some of your most treasured accomplishments at the helm of the Princeton Rays? Have you considered moving to another position within the organization?

Jim Holland: I am entering my 21st season with Princeton (I was here for five years with the Reds and now 16 with the Rays) and quite honestly, the greatest reward is to get to be part of something like this every day and getting paid to do this at the same time. I just try to stay busy doing the best I can every day and the future always has a way of taking care of itself. A job like this allows a person to accumulate a lot of great memories and I plan to enjoy every one of them in retirement when that time comes.

Rays Digest: You were originally a Journalism Major in college. Does your education in that field help you with your job and does it make it easier or harder do deal with the media?

Jim Holland: I couldn't have had a better major in college (Mass Communications with an emphasis on print journalism) to fit being the GM of the Princeton Rays. Communications is the centerpiece of being successful on the business side of baseball and I do write my own press releases year round. A lot of the news story content I write on the website is in the offseason but during the season I turn that over to an intern with writing ability. Having this experience makes it much easier to deal with the media since I can convey things in writing in a way they would like to receive it. Also, I am very empathetic toward the media and their needs since I at one time sat on their side of the desk.

Rays Digest: You will be headed to the Winter Meetings in December in Dallas. What is your role within the organization at the meetings and what sorts of things do you do while you're there? Give me an example of what a typical day might be like.

Jim Holland: We do have meetings for our league in which I sit side-by-side with Mitch Lukevics, Tampa Bay's director of player development and many issues are discussed that we both share with each other how a decision can affect the Princeton Rays from both a local perspective and the big league team's perspective. Otherwise, I really am looking for souvenirs to order along with new marketing and promotional ideas.

Rays Digest: One final question: This one about the baseball atmosphere in West Virginia. Do you consider the state to have a good baseball culture and is it easy or difficult to sell the Rays brand to the residents in the area?

Jim Holland: We have great fans here and I often have said that there are no more die-hard fans in a town about the Tampa Bay Rays outside your immediate area than those in Princeton, West Virginia. If someone were to visit Princeton, they would be amazed at the amount of Rays shirts and ballcaps they would see on people, regardless of what time of year it may be. The state has a great baseball culture that was nurtured via all the baseball that was played in industrial coalfield leagues that were everywhere in the 1930's and 1940's. Matter of fact, as a little side note, the current managing general partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Ken Kendrick, is a graduate of Princeton High School. Much like your readers, people here tend to follow the Tampa Bay organization from top to bottom since so many of these players have played for Princeton at one time or another. Now that we are entering our 16th consecutive year as a Tampa Bay affiliate, we have a really good following here. People here were really excited in 1997 and bought into the concept that we were going to be on the ground floor of helping to construct a brand new major league franchise. We now can say that 38 players that played here as Princeton Rays have gone on to play in the big leagues and that we had a role in making that happen. We have had 57 overall former Princeton players to date that have gone on to play in the "bigs" and do a "Wall of Fame" at the stadium with all 57 framed photos.

John Gregg is Publisher and Senior Editor of Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaysDigest. He can also be reached via e-mail at raysdigest.com@gmail.com.

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