In Part Two of our interview with longtime major and minor league baseball executive Mike Veeck, we talk about where his father might be operating if he were alive today, his favorite place to run a team, and why baseball in Florida is a tough sell.
This is something I’ve always wondered about. Given the current economic climate in baseball, if your dad was alive and operating in the present day, would he be involved in ownership at the major league or the minor league level?
Well, it’s hard to say. I mean, he had a track record where he certainly moved in and out of both. It probably would be a very small piece. I was one of the 48 owners, for example, of the Chicago White Sox. I was able to convert pay checks into stock, and my cousin Fred was a stockholder and made a gift to me, so I was actually listed as an owner of the White Sox. And then I came along and when I took the Tampa job, I got a deal which allowed me to invest up to 10% in the then-Devil Rays. I had to last thirteen months and of course I only lasted seven, so I didn’t get it.
But my point is that being a man of his times, he never had any interest in money. We were never raised that money had any particular, special place. You know, you needed it to have a couple beers and you needed it to keep your family clothed and a house, but it wasn’t a pursuit. So I think he would’ve always figured a way to get a piece of the action, whether it was a finder’s fee for putting the deal together, as I’ve done, but I think he would’ve floated between major league and minor league. I mean, I’ve worked for four major league teams, I’ve got ten years in the big leagues, and 25 in the minor leagues.
Would you ever consider going back to work at the major league level again?
I don’t know that I’d consider going back to work FOR people. I wanted very much to be involved with the Cubs. I pursued a piece of the ball club through an offer the Ricketts Family made. It kind of went away. But I worked for a year and a half with Bill Murray and some of my other partners to be part of that deal, so obviously it hasn’t died. My only regret as I look back on what I laughingly call my career is I’d love to have a major league ring and I don’t. And we all do this for the same reason. No matter what anybody tells you, whether it’s an athlete on the field or a guy in the front office, it’s a ring. That’s why we do it.
It’s just a passion, but that means for that one careless moment, you succeeded in a world that you don’t very often succeed in.
You’ve operated all over the place. What’s your favorite place that you’ve either operated or continue to operate a ball club?
No hesitation whatsoever on that one.
No. Ninety-eight percent occupancy. Twenty years, this is our 20th season. I love independent ball. And it’s been just a wonderful thing for me because I basically showed up here in ’91, broke, maybe a little out of sorts, smarting from some of those things that life deals, and I found this magical place. Everything worked, right time, right place. First ball club, at least in modern times, seven miles from a major league ballpark. The pundits all predicted we’d be out of business by July 15 and that thank God wasn’t the case.
Whenever I’ve really taken a beating – when I left Detroit, I came right back to St. Paul. When I left the Marlins, I came right back to St. Paul. St. Paul’s just kinda where I come back and it’s a balm for me.
And I read that you guys are still pursuing a new ballpark there?
Yes. And pursuing is right. [laughs] I feel like I’m on horseback with a lasso, but you know, doing what we can.
Affiliated, my favorite place to operate, hands-down, was Charleston. Love Charleston. That’s my home. Even though we’re affiliated with the Yankees, I still love Charleston, but affiliated ball you don’t have the freedom you do in independent ball. That’s what it comes down to. A hundred players have gone back to major league organizations from the St. Paul Saints. Eighteen, I think, have gone back to the major leagues from St. Paul. Everybody from Darryl Strawberry to Kevin Millar. So I mean, it’s been a really wonderful run.
Is that something that gives it a little more satisfaction, that you can actually give a guy the opportunity to get a second chance, or a first chance I guess?
I just made up my mind about you. I just decided that I liked you because no one ever, ever pays attention to that to me, but we became developmental in spite of ourselves. The original marketing plan was to make it fun for the fans and everything was of the fans, for the fans, because it was by the fans. But the fact is that this is good Double-A baseball if the pitching is on the mark, and it really has become a good, solid part of the food chain, and we never could have foreseen that. I think we all hoped that but it’s succeeded beyond its wildest dreams.
Now it’s nothing for guys to say, “He came out of the independent leagues and now he’s in the big leagues.” But you know, Kevin Millar had a lot to do with opening those doors. And Strawberry left here on July 1, went to Columbus, hit three homeruns, and then went to Yankee Stadium and hit 11. He hit 18 in 29 games for us here. Now, nobody ever asks me about any baseball questions because I’m just the cheap theatrics guy. [laughs] But we’re actually developmental, I’m really proud of it. I just never get a chance to talk about it.
Actually, after that, I have a question about more promotional and attendance stuff. One of our writers lives in Florida and he mentioned that the Fort Myers Miracle always has an interesting array of promotions. Are there additional challenges to promoting in Florida, being that those fans generally have a reputation for poor attendance? And does that reputation hold water, in your opinion?
No it doesn’t. Yes, they get murdered – I mean, it rains every day at a quarter to three in Fort Myers! But it rains every day in Charleston, too, so I think that people use that too much. And by “people” I mean everyone. I’ve been guilty of it myself. But what makes Fort Myers and the Florida State League a really tough draw is that you’ve got 17 spring training games. You’ve got 70 [regular season] games you’re at 87. God forbid you make the postseason and you’re at 92 games. That’s longer than a big league schedule. So it just grinds you.
That’s the real secret. It’s that heat and it’s that grind and it’s that kind of weather. But when you’re drawing whatever, 1750 or 1900 like we’ve done, that’s a real tribute to people. You’ve got bigger stadiums, nicer stadiums on the whole, but bigger stadiums because of spring training capabilities. There’s no better place to cut your teeth. And I was down there for two years, and in Pompano, right down seven miles from the Yankees in Fort Lauderdale, so I’ve been there and that was my sole job. I was president of the Miracle for three years or whatever and then came to St. Paul, so I’m not talking about something that I don’t know about firsthand.
I’ve kept you a long time here. I think the last thing I want to do is go back, and you seemed to enjoy talking about players, so I wanted to ask you who’s your favorite player?
Of all time, Early Wynn was my favorite player. When I was a kid it was SayHeyWillieMays – and that was all one word, SayHeyWillieMays – but when I became a child and I was aware of the game and the players on it, Early Wynn was my hero, and I’ll tell you exactly why: I opened the newspaper one day and he said, “I’d throw at my mother if she dug in on me.” And I just thought that was the coolest thing because I didn’t know anybody who could say something like that about their mom and not get a whupping.
The greatest five-tool player I ever saw was Dick Allen.
He’s an underappreciated guy, I think.
Absolutely. You’ve gotta be a ball fan to realize, but he could do it all. People just don’t realize the talent that that man had.
Who’s your favorite guy who’s ever played for you? Or played for one of your teams, I should say?
Dan Peltier, who had a couple cups of coffee with the Giants. Dan Peltier, as good a fielding first baseman as you’ll ever see, one of my all-time favorites, and Torii Hunter down in Fort Myers, one of the great guys. Always loved Torii Hunter because he said what he thought.
When you take a liking to a guy is it more based on what he’s doing on the field or what he’s like off the field?
I’m not a very good judge of talent because I fall in love with the kind of person they are. There’s no question. Dave Dombrowski has a huge laugh at me because I’m like…Kevin Millar had the perfect balance, and you could see that but he didn’t have any great tools. All he did was beat you, you know, which is a trait I love.