Pretty much every baseball fan has a favorite major league team, but having been born in Corpus Christi, Texas, and been raised in Lexington, Ky., and living in several different parts of the country and working for different organizations, it wasn’t always easy for Adam English to find a natural fit to be his. A veteran of 16 years working in baseball, English, who was introduced as the Gwinnett Stripers’ new general manager in November, recently spoke with staff writer David Friedlander about who he came to cheer for growing up, and other subjects, such as how he came to appreciate the business side of baseball.
DF: So you were born in Texas, along the coast in the heart of Houston Astros country, and grew up in Kentucky, in the Cincinnati Reds’ backyard. Were either of those teams your favorites as a kid?
AE: It’s funny. Growing up, I went to my first baseball game (to see) the Houston Astros, but I’ve had a lot of baseball influences in my life. I certainly grew up in Cincinnati Reds country. My dad is actually a (New York) Yankee fan. A Texas Yankee fan, and his excuse is that theirs were the only games on T.V. in Texas (back then), and he was a huge Mickey Mantle fan. So I had his influences, and by chance from the time I was 8 until the time that I was 15, my little league team and my Babe Ruth (League) team were the Yankees. So I always watched them from afar, but I always kind of felt that I needed to support the local team in Cincinnati. So that’s the team that I claimed, but certainly, I also had a lot of Braves influences in my life because really, when I fell in love with baseball was the heyday of Greg Maddux and the Braves’ dynasty. Being a right-handed pitcher that didn’t throw that hard, I loved Greg Maddux, and love the change-up with Tom Glavine. I remember going to many Reds-Braves games in Cincinnati.
DF: So since you mentioned the influences of baseball, I take it that was your favorite sport to play growing up?
AE: I played baseball and soccer all the way through high school, and baseball in college (at Transylvania University).
DF: So I guess soccer was a fall sport instead of the spring like it is here in Georgia?
AE: I played baseball in the spring, soccer in the fall. It was back before the boom in travel ball, and I’m a proponent of kids playing as many sports as they want to. I used to love playing soccer in the fall. I used to play goalkeeper one half, and then left forward for one half because I was left-footed. I’m all backwards. I’m left-footed and right-handed. … I would play soccer in the fall and roll right into baseball conditioning.
DF: I have to ask, when did you realize a pro baseball career as a player wasn’t in the cards for you?
AE: Baseball was always my first love. It really was my passion. A large part of my college decision to go to Transylvania University in Lexington was to play baseball, and then get a great education.
Anytime you’re playing summer ball and you start to see the level of competition differ.
Every athlete faces it at some point. It became apparent to me in college that was going to be where I stop playing. At that point, I didn’t know much about the business side of minor league baseball or the business side of sports, but I knew I wanted to be around the game.
DF: So how did you kind of gravitate towards the front office?
AE: I did an internship with the Lexington Legends. At the time, they were the Single-A affiliate of the Houston Astros, which connected me with my first baseball game. It was an amazing experience, partly because the year that I was an intern there was during the time period when Roger Clemens wouldn’t play the first half of the season (near the end of his career). The Astros would sign him in June, and he would rehab back and get back and be (in Houston) for the home stretch.
DF: So he would come through Lexington to get back into pitching shape?
AE: Typically no, but the year that I was there, his oldest son, Koby, was there.
So he came through Lexington, and I got to see what it was like to have one of the most popular pitchers in Major League Baseball come to a Single-A facility and execute that game. And during that internship, I did everything. I was the mascot. I pulled tarp.
My game day responsibility was running the parking lot. And of course, I’d make sales calls and went to meetings and did all those things, too. But it just opened my eyes to the business side of sports.
DF: Basically, you’re describing the life just about everybody who’s made it into a front office position has had to live at some point. You do a little bit of everything.
DF: When you look back now, how did you develop ticket sales as you specialty?
AE: I think that ticket sales is a common area to break into sports, and I love meeting people face-to-face, and I had success in it. As you go from sales into management, I developed this passion for working with people.
I tell college students and classes that I’ve spoken to, and not point in college was I like, “You know, I want to get into ticket sales.” It’s just one of those things that develop, and you develop a passion for it the more you learn about the industry. Ultimately, in this industry and in most industries, ticket sales drive the bus. The more people you have in the stadium, the more people want to be corporate sponsors, the more the atmosphere is electric and relationships are developed. So that’s the goal.
DF: So now in all the years you’ve spent in baseball, what do you think you’ve learned about how fans think, and how has that changed over that time?
AE: I think minor league baseball has some of the best fans in the country. I mean, you can see that from the statistics across 160 teams. Minor league baseball is routinely ranked the most family friendly, the most affordable. Their attendance continues to go up year-by-year across 160 teams. It’s because it’s all about fan experience. That’s the thing I think has changed the most, specifically on the minor league side. There’s so much more focus on the overall fan experience. Here in Gwinnett, we can’t control win and losses. We can’t control which players we have, which players we keep. Don’t get me wrong, we’re rooting as hard as we can for wins and the success of our players here, but ultimately, we put all of our resources and focus on creating unique experiences for fans. That could be through allowing them to take batting practice on the field or creating unique social spaces in the stadium, like a beer garden or a social media area, things like that, which are certainly plans for down the road.
DF: You mentioned a few things, but what are some of the more common things you’ve heard from fans in general over the years, especially from Stripers fans since you’ve gotten here?
AE: I think kind of gone are the days that the majority of your fans just want to come and sit in their seats and (only) watch the game.
They want to come and want to be able to say, “Hey, I’m going to meet my friends at this unique place,” like Niekro’s (Craft on Draft), which is a great craft beer area (at Coolray Field). Or they’re out here with their family and their kids and want to stop by the kids’ area, get some Dippin’ Dots and make a big day of it.
Rarely are your young kids going to just sit in their seats and just watch the ball game. So the more we have going on for fans, the more opportunities we have for them to connect to each other, and the better the overall fan experience.
DF: Is there anything different you’ve heard from fans in Gwinnett than you have anywhere else?
AE: No. I mean, we had a reception where all of our season ticket (holders) could come and meet me for the first time and meet our (assistant general manager) Erin O’Donnell. It was really unique because so many of the things they were asking me about were fan experience-related. What are some of the things you’re going to bring to the team? And telling them some ideas like a membership platform that allows them to take B.P. at the field, to have unique experiences at the ballpark like — one of the things that I’ve had success with in the past (while with the Sacramento River Cats) is we used to (rent) buses and take our season ticket members down to AT&T Park in San Francisco. That’s not something we charged them for. That was part of their membership. We’re so close to SunTrust (Park), that would be an easy, awesome experience for our fans. When you add value to what people get at the ballpark through experiences, that creates a really fun fan experience.
DF: That might go over well here because a lot of the young players currently with the Atlanta Braves came through Gwinnett. That brings up the next natural question. While Sacramento was fairly close to San Francisco, it’s not quite the same metro area the same way Gwinnett County is with Atlanta. It this a bigger challenge for you to trying to run a minor league club in the same metro area of a major league city?
AE: It’s certainly unique, but there’s so much pride in Gwinnett County, and the surrounding counties here. So many people that you see in Suwanee and Buford and all of these really proud towns around here, it’s awesome to have (the Braves) so close because once they (leave) here, you can certainly go see them on the major league level. But there might be some people who have full season tickets to the Braves who live over here, who are fighting (Interstate) 285 to do all that, and I love that. I love die-hard fans. This is definitely Braves Country. We want to take care of our backyard and make sure that we have unique fan experiences, and why not both (Atlanta and Gwinnett)? If somebody has a quarter season (ticket package) with the Braves, why can’t they have a quarter season with us? I think that being in Braves country is something that will be a positive for us. And being close to our affiliate, I don’t think it is a situation where our fans are being cannibalized or we’re marketing to the same people. Working with the Braves has been amazing.
DF: I know you don’t have any control over the on-field product in your current position. That’s strictly the Atlanta organization’s discretion. But have you thought about if you want to get into that area of baseball at some point? Or are you happy with the business side?
AE: I want to leave (the baseball decisions) to the experts. Being a former player, I love the game, but honestly, I love the business side of this sport and the fans side of this sport. I enjoyed my playing days, and I love getting out there and playing softball and taking grounders. As my son gets older, I can’t wait to be involved in those sorts of things. But in no way am I qualified for (baseball operations). That’s absolutely not an aspiration for me.