Throughout the season, Claw Digest will be bringing you an inside look at the Stone Crabs organization both on the field and behind the scenes. The first of these features is “In the Office with the Boss”. This segment will appear throughout the season and feature questions and answers from the Stone Crabs General Manager Joe Hart.
Hart has been the general manager of the Stone Crabs since the inaugural season. Under his guidance, the franchise was developed from the ground up. He was involved with creating the identity of the club and providing a fan friendly atmosphere which help them lead the league in attendance in each year of their existence. Today we will introduce you to the boss.
Claw Digest: Tell us a little about you career in professional baseball.
Joe Hart: The 2011 season will mark my 16th season in minor league baseball and my 3rd with Ripken Baseball / Stone Crabs. Throughout my career in baseball I’ve had the opportunity to travel the United States and live in cities that I probably would have never been in if it wasn’t for baseball. I have lived in the following cities: Buffalo, NY, Harlingen, TX, Nashville, TN, Fresno, CA and now Port Charlotte. It is a career that I am truly passionate about and one that I feel very blessed to be involved in. I appreciate the Minor Leagues because I believe our franchises can have such a positive and valuable impact within the community if you do it right and strive to be good community partners. During my career, I have held pretty much every position within a Minor League front office: box office manager, group sales rep., director of food & beverage, director of sales, Asst. GM Operations and General Manager.
Claw Digest: You worked your way through the ranks of front office jobs. You started as an intern, worked in sales, worked in food and beverage and eventually becoming a general manager. What was it like to see these different facets of the job and how has it helped you as a GM?
Joe Hart: As general manager, the various positions that I have held has been extremely important to me and my career development. By having the vast knowledge of all areas of a franchise it made the transition to General Manager much easier and it made me more well rounded and a better leader. I also believe it has helped build credibility with my staff members. They know at one point in time I was probably faced with the same issues or demands they have and when we discuss issues they know I have the experience and the knowledge.
Claw Digest: You have had the opportunity to work in many levels of professional baseball and for different organizations, what are some of the front office memories you have made?
Joe Hart: I have a couple that really stand out. While in Fresno, we had a gentleman on staff name Gus Zernial or “Ozark Ike” as he was also known. Gus, was a former major league ballplayer and played in the big leagues during the 1950’s. On many Fridays we would sit around him and listen to stories about his playing days. The stories were amazing and some of his memorabilia was amazing. He had pictures and stories that included Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and even photos from the time he met Marilyn Monroe. The second memory that stands out is a trip I made to Spring Training while working for the Fresno Grizzlies. On this trip I had the opportunity to go down into the Giants clubhouse during a game at their Spring Training complex and while in the locker room I looked over my shoulder to see the great Willie Mays standing 10 ft. away. It would have been a great opportunity to actually meet one of the all-time greats but I was so intimidated and in awe that I never walked over to introduce myself. While in Nashville, I had the opportunity to witness something that is very rare on the baseball field, a perfect game that was thrown by our pitcher John Wasdin. It was an amazing experience and one that I will probably never witness again in person. Finally, I would say the friendships that I have made over the years is something that I will always cherish. This includes, fans, front office co-workers and even umpires.
Claw Digest: Along the same line as above, who are some of the players you have worked with that stood out either on the field or in the community?
Joe Hart: Most of my time working in minor league ball has been at the Triple-A level so I have had an opportunity to see some pretty talented players as they chased their dreams to make the big leagues. While working in Fresno, we had some pretty good talent but the one that stood out the most was a former shortstop that was converted to starting pitcher only to end up as one of the best closers in baseball, Joe Nathan. Several others that I had an opportunity to get to know and meet were during my days in Nashville as the Brewers affiliate. We had Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart and Tony Gwynn Jr just to name a few. These are all guys that are building a nice career in the majors.
While having an opportunity to meet some very talented ballplayers on the field, one of the most important things for any front office is to have some players that are great off the field and willing to do things in the community. Over the last 15 seasons, there is one player that stands out as the easiest to work with and the one most willing to help out with a community event or function. That player is our own Stone Crab and 2010 Florida State League All-star, Stephen Vogt. He has been a great asset to not only our franchise but the Rays as well. He is always willing and able to help out with an autograph signing, player appearance or baseball clinic. I have great respect for him and how he approaches the game and the responsibility that comes with being a professional athlete.
Claw Digest: When you were named the GM of the Stone Crabs, what was the hardest part about joining the new franchise?
Joe Hart: From a personal standpoint, the hardest part was moving to Port Charlotte because my wife had just given birth to our son, Calvin, about 2 weeks prior to leaving Nashville for the Sunshine state. That was certainly a big change for my wife to leave an area in which her family lived and she grew up. From a business standpoint, the hardest thing was the lack of time to get the franchise up and running. Typically when a new franchise is started you would have 12-14 months of lead time before your first game. Unfortunately we did not have that luxury, we did everything within 6 months. There were a lot of long days during that first 6-8 months, but I can honestly say that I wouldn’t trade it for anything, it was the most rewarding year of my entire career. It is always hard when you move to a new area and you are not familiar with the area or any of the people in the community. Heck, I was even starting with a staff of employees that I really didn’t know either.
Claw Digest: You were involved with creating the franchise from the ground up, what was the hardest part of creating the identity of the Stone Crabs?
Joe Hart: The hardest part was coming up with a name and a logo that is unique but one the community will identify with and like. The challenge for us was finding something that fit the area but wasn’t being used by another school or franchise…i.e..tarpon, pirates..etc.. From day one we came into the community saying that we were going to be involved in the community and also be a good business partner. It started with joining all the local chambers and attending any community function that we were permitted. Like any other business the biggest challenge is letting know people know who we are and what we are about, so it was important to stay extremely visible and relevant that first 12 months.
Claw Digest: What is your most memorable Stone Crabs moment so far?
Joe Hart: Without a doubt it was Stone Crabs Opening Night in 2009. While most of that day and the 6 months leading up to it were a complete blur, I will always remember standing out at home plate, address the crowd prior to the start of the game and looking around and seeing a packed house. Our attendance that night was over 7,000 and it was amazing. It just confirmed all the hard work and effort that we had put in.
Claw Digest: Now that you have two seasons here in Port Charlotte and working on year three, what are your thoughts on the fans and the community?
Joe Hart: Amazing. Selecting this community as the home of our franchise was without a doubt the right decision and we couldn’t be happier. The fans have opened their arms to us as a franchise and to us as individuals. I think that by us leading the league in attendance our first two years says it all. Especially when you look at the other teams in our league and the size of their communities. Clearwater for example has 1.3 million people in their market and we have approx. 150,000 people but we are still able to be the top drawing team.
Claw Digest: Is there anything else you would like the readers of Claw Digest to know?
Joe Hart: I would just like to say thank you and if you have not come out to the ballpark yet to catch a Stone Crabs game, please just give us a try. I also want to let everyone know that we want to hear customer feedback and suggestions. We truly value the ideas and suggestions from our fans. Many of the things we have done or implemented over the last two seasons are a direct result of fan feedback. I look forward to seeing you at the ballpark and help me cheer on the team as we look to defend our South Division Championship.
I would like to thank Joe for participating in the series. Look for future interviews with him throughout the season. If you have any questions for Joe, please leave them in he comments below and I will try to work them into future installments.