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Jonathan Nelson is a die-hard White Sox fan. He was there for the 1993 ALCS, cried when the White Sox won Game 5 against the Anaheim Angels in the 2005 ALCS, made sure to be at Games 1 and 2 for the 2005 World Series, and has tried to convert his son to give up the Yankees pinstripes for the black and white.
Nelson is also the General Manager/President of the Birmingham Barons, AA affiliate for the Chicago White Sox. Where many minor league GMs concentrate on generating a profit in the business of baseball, Nelson is more of a shepherd. Yes, he is one of minor league baseball’s best in running operations, but he goes the extra mile because he knows better than most that today’s players wearing the Barons uniform could put on a White Sox uniform tomorrow.
I sat down with the Barons GM to learn more about his role, the connection Birmingham has with the Barons, and what the future holds for the White Sox AA affiliate.
What does a Minor League General Manager do?
When it comes to a Major League operation, there are two different departments: one is baseball operations, and one is business operations. I learned that first-hand in 1997 working for the Detroit Tigers that there isn’t a lot of cross-over. When it comes to a minor league team, our major league partner, the White Sox, they handle all baseball operations. Whereas what we do here in Birmingham is handle the business operations. The day-to-day, the ballpark, the season tickets, stadium signage, advertising groups, etc.
Part of my job, and I really enjoy it, is interacting with the managers, coaches, players, visiting teams, and umpires. You always need to have a good working relationship with our team, and you have to be around there. I usually go down to the clubhouse two or three times a day, sometimes more if weather issues are going on. At times players will have different questions and certain needs, like family is in town and they need to know what to do. You certainly want to welcome new players when they arrive, and make sure to say goodbye to players leaving, wish them luck and tell them you’re proud of them.
I learned a long time ago that it’s easy to go to the clubhouse when you win, but you have to be consistent and be there when the team loses. You have to be approachable and make everyone feel good. Every year I welcome the team and tell them we are excited to be here, to enjoy Birmingham, but also know we don’t want them to be here long-term because that’s not the goal. The end goal is to get them to the south side of Chicago and make their name at the major league level.
What do the Barons mean to the city of Birmingham?
It’s certainly changed over the years. For a long time, Birmingham has had a chip on its shoulder. They’ve seen Atlanta progress. The story of why Atlanta became who they are is because of the airport and the post office. Obviously, they have blossomed into a major international city.
You look up the road to Nashville, who 25 years ago was similar to Birmingham. All of a sudden they have an NFL team (Titans) and an NHL team (Predators) that went to the Stanley Cup last year. Nashville continues to grow quite a bit. Memphis is the same way. Four hours away and they had a team in AA that was in our league for some years (Memphis Chicks), and now they have an NBA team (Grizzlies). Folks in Birmingham have seen a lot of projects be promised, and then nothing ever occurred.
Then came 2013 and three big things happened: A major five-star hotel opened (Westin) adjacent to a new entertainment district called Uptown(Side note: I stayed in that area. It’s quite nice with plenty of dining options), and then Regions Field opened up. At that point, you saw a different attitude, a different sense of civic pride, and a different enthusiasm. People look at us to being a major contributor to that exciting new growth and resurgence of downtown making it a great destination.
When we opened Regions Field, it reminded me of 1994 when Michael Jordan was here. I hadn’t seen that level of civic pride because people were so excited about the ballpark. What it meant to the city and gave people the confidence of “Yes we can.” I would walk around the concourse and would often hear from people saying “I can’t believe I’m in Birmingham.” Which to me is very satisfying and cool. When you move from a suburban setting to an urban setting that has a perception of having a crime issue, you begin to erase those doubts. You make them believers.
What has the relationship been like between the White Sox and Barons?
We’ve had the longest relationship of any affiliate in White Sox history. It’s been a wonderful history. I’ve been with the Barons for 25 years and the incredible legacy of players the White Sox have gotten through Birmingham is unbelievable. Whether that be Frank Thomas, Kenny Williams (when he was a player, Robin Ventura, Jack McDowell, and the list goes on. Even the 2005 squad with Aaron Rowand, Joe Crede, Mark Buehrle, Bobby Jenks, and Neal Cotts. The White Sox have seen AA as a launching pad. I certainly don’t want to speak for them, but it feels they have always valued our partnership with us with the ease of the airport (direct flights from Chicago to Birmingham), and working with Dr. James Andrews.
How does the quality of prospects impact attendance?
This is the state of Alabama. If you’re familiar with it you know it’s a live-or-die with Alabama or Auburn football. Win or lose; it’s life or death around here. It’s not the same for Barons baseball, but when the high caliber prospects like Eloy Jimenez and Michael Kopech people get excited about it.
When we won the 2013 Southern League, there was that civic pride in winning a championship. Even though fans can’t recite that lineup of Trayce Thompson, Marcus Semien, Dan Black, and all of those guys were a great, fun team. But the fans remember the championship and how much fun they had out here. Winning here cures everything, just like the south side of Chicago.
Minor League baseball is hitting record numbers in attendance. Why do you think that is?
Well, I think there are a variety reasons for that. For one there has been an influx of new stadiums. I can’t remember off the top of my head, but we’ve seen three or four new stadiums in the Southern League. We connect with our fans and continue to identify with them. I remember in 1993 when my boss told me that we’re comparative to going out to the movies. Well, movies now are way out of our league. Tickets prices for the matinee are more expensive than a Barons ticket.
With that being said, we continue to try and satisfy our needs of the community. Each community is going to have different core needs in entertaining families. Minor League Baseball with Pat O’Connor the president of MiLB does a great job of communicating and making sure we are all on the same page.
You’re hosting the AA All-Star Game this summer. What goes into hosting an event like that?
It’s a unique opportunity, and we dipped our toe in the water back in 2009. It was an incredible experience. We had Todd Frazier in the Home Run Derby and the game. Such a thrill to host an event like that to showcase Major League Baseball’s brightest stars.
Back then, the Southern League would host the All-Star Game a day before MLB’s All-Star Game. Which prevented a lot of Futures participants to be in our game. This year it will be June 19th where it’s better aligned to our season, and you never know when players will be promoted, but it’s early enough where the top prospects will be here playing in the game.
What does the future hold for the Barons? Are there big plans for this franchise?
People always ask us, and this goes back to the Hoover Met days, will the Barons go to AAA? That’s not something that we have any interest in. I think AA is perfect because we’ve had the high caliber prospects whether for the White Sox or visiting teams come through here. I think it’s perfect for us and perfect for the community. There is more prestige in AAA, but we don’t want to pass on that extra operational costs to the fans because you have to fly to Salt Lake City or flying to Canada, paying higher end hotel bills, etc. We want to keep it very affordable for all of our fans that want to come out here.
What I do see us doing is continuing to raise the bar. Important for us to continue to maintain the quality of the ballpark and satisfy the needs of this community. Make the ballpark a vital part of the whole downtown area is. When we designed the ballpark, it was meant to be used year round. More concerts or college baseball games. Before the Barons starting, UAB baseball calls this place home. They aim to play 20 games a year, and it has been a great partnership because this helps their program when it comes to recruiting and helps us to train our staff to be ready for the season.
Do you see investing more into streaming Barons games?
I do, and I see MiLB wanting to continue down that road. Make it more fan friendly for those in Chicago who want to follow White Sox affiliates.
If the White Sox are losing 5-0 next week, and Eloy Jimenez is back, I can tell you which game Sox fans are going to be watching.
Oh, there is no doubt because of all the trades and draft choices the fever pitch is on for the White Sox. I’m a fan of the White Sox, and I share the same enthusiasm and excitement for the future. Even if the White Sox are winning 13-0, everyone wants to see what kind of man-child Eloy Jimenez is. In his home debut, he had a home run in his first at-bat, and then a double. It’s exciting because the potential is there and I think we all want it to be closer to what we think it is, and it certainly could be.