Not Just a Game: A Glimpse Into the Minors

“Come out and take a nine inning vacation.” That’s the motto Peoria Chiefs General Manager Jason Mott thinks of every day, and he wishes other General Managers would use it, too.

Sitting in the second row, right behind home plate, on a warm, clear evening at Dozer Park, I have to agree. Though the home team falls behind early and winds up losing 11-2 to the Beloit Snappers, the 2,700 in attendance all seem to enjoy the game. Even taking into account the fireworks show slated for later on, I don’t get the sense they would have otherwise left early in droves.

The Peoria Chiefs started play in 1983 as the Suns, a California Angels affiliate transfer from Danville, Indiana. Just a year later, Peoria businessman Pete Vonachen purchased the club and renamed the Chiefs. They were the Cubs affiliate from 1985 through 1994 and again from 2005-2012, and the Cardinals affiliate in the gap between and since.

In 2002, they set up shop in the current ballpark and christened it with a league championship. Since then, they’ve had five playoff appearances, with the last (2018) the most successful, when they reached the Midwest League Finals.

COVID hit the minors hard, as the entire 2020 season was canceled.

“It was a mental grind,” Mott says of the lost season. “There’s nothing worse than seeing a ballpark and nothing’s going on. The focus was ‘How do we get to ’21?’ There wasn’t a lot of guidance for a professional baseball team. The biggest thing was having to make those tough decisions…that was probably the worst day of my 19-year career, calling 19 people and telling them ‘I have to let you go, but you didn’t do anything wrong.’”

Mott notes that the office staff is at about 60% capacity, and that while 2020 was just about “surviving and getting to 2021,” 2021 has been about making careful decisions – having less firework shows, not having pocket schedules, and the like.

MiLB went under a significant reorganization before the 2021 campaign. The Midwest League ended after 72 years, and the Chiefs were re-classified into the 12-team High-A Central League, which is split into East and West Divisions; the Chiefs play in the latter along with Beloit, the Cedar Rapids (IA) Kernels, the Quad City (IL) River Bandits, the South Bend (IN) Cubs, and the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.

On a typical game day, Mott shows up around 8, and the rest of the staff files in by 9 or 10. A meeting takes place at 3:30, details are ironed out, and about an hour and a half prior to first pitch the game day staff arrives. Mott typically stays until about midnight, preferring to get the most work done after most people go home or before they arrive.

During the game it’s an easy connection from his office, which is located on the concourse, to the action. He may assist with the cleaning crew, help an autistic child in a work program, or chat with fans. On the night of my visit, I suggest meeting at around the seventh inning given the lopsided score and the fact that there’s postgame fireworks, but I’m told he’s too busy to talk at the moment.

Like many minor league clubs, Peoria peppers the night with a variety of fun fan contests and entertainment features. In one, a couple of fans roll giant dice, hoping to get one of their two guesses. The first fan did not guess correctly, but the second did. His prize: a pie in the face from Homer, the fire chief Dalmatian mascot (in 2005, the Chiefs branded their nickname as a fire chief). There’s also a t-shirt toss, a Softie ball toss, some game involving very large inflatables worn around the body, sponsorship and birthday announcements, a hat shuffle, and “Guess the Celebrity Haircut,” where they show just the top of the head of a celebrity on the scoreboard. Before the fireworks, an emcee has two sections engage in a sing-off.

While minor league ball clubs don’t have the same resources as the Bigs, they can still do big things for the community.

“We get out as much as we can,” Mott says. “It’s been a challenge this year. Normally we go several times a year to Children’s Hospital.” The Chiefs also show up at summer camps, food banks, and have helped with the Special Olympics. Mott ensures his staff gets involved, and extends the model to his own family, which includes two sons. It’s a constant goal for Mott, who adds “We’ve always done a good job, but I think we can always do better. That’s an area you can never perfect.”

Mott is one of a few staff members who can enter the locker room due to COVID protocols, and he sometimes checks in with players, seeing what supplies are needed, getting injury updates, or simply hearing their stories.

“There was a guy couple years go who built robots. I said ‘What are you doing pitching in low-A?’ He said, ‘I figure I’m young, I got drafted, I’ll give it a shot. If it doesn’t work I’ll go back and build robots.’”

Another player revealed he’s a professional chugger. That’s similar to being a competitive eater, but you know, it’s drinking. It got Mott to thinking about doing a contest, “Can you out-chug the pitcher?” (Using root beer of course).

A minor league GM doesn’t make player personnel decisions of any kind.

“Sales, anything having to do with the stadium and the operations of the game, that’s what I oversee,” Mott remarks. “I tell people, ‘You don’t want me making player personnel decisions.’ I’m not patient enough. We have fun with it. Every year I tell the coaches, ‘Okay, we’re here to win a championship.’ And they’re like, ‘We’re here to develop players.’ I say ‘We’re here to develop players and win a championship.’”

Future Hall-of-Famer Albert Pujols began his career as a Chief. He shone so brightly in 109 games (.324. 17 HR, 84 RBI), that he skyrocketed to the big club, playing just 24 games at other levels. Longtime Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina was part of the everyday battery for that 2002 pennant-winning Chiefs squad, batting .280 in 112 games and calling pitches for Dan Haren (7-3, 1.95 in 14 starts). Current Cardinals Jack Flaherty (8-1, 2.90 in 11 starts) and Harrison Bader (.293-9-27 in 45 games) both starred in 2015 for the Chiefs, while Alex Reyes, after starting in the minors, set a MLB record for the most consecutive saves to start a career, with 24.

Currently, three of the Cardinals’ top 10 prospects – #5 Masyn Winn, #6 Jordan Walker, and #7 Jhon Torres – play their home games at Dozer Park. Mott hopes newest draft pick Michael McGreevy, a pitcher out of UC Santa Barbara, wears a Chiefs uniform soon. On the other end of the spectrum is 31-year-old pitcher Paul Schwendel IV, the oldest player (not including those on MLB rehab assignments) to ever suit up for the club. He’d been out of affiliated pro baseball for seven years, and now the one-time 40th round draft pick of the Texas Rangers, whom his Latin teammates call “Abuelo,” has a 3.55 ERA in 11 games for Peoria.

The Chiefs are not doing so well this season, but if Mott ever needs to talk about it, another GM is a quick phone call away. He recalls that when he got the post four years ago, they helped him transition into the job. “I felt like I had big brothers. We share ideas. It’s not really a competition. If something works, we’re going to tell each other.”

In 2018, Peoria hosted games for Wisconsin when that club was snowed out; in 2019 Quad City experienced a flood, so Mott hosted them, too. The league President recognized his neighborly actions with two tickets for All-Star Weekend in Cleveland.

As for MiLB’s future, Mott sees it changing all the time, and it mirrors the pro level.

“Players are getting bigger, they’re faster, they eat differently, they train differently, and I think we’re seeing that now,” Mott comments. “Video and analytics and all this stuff now plays a big part in it. The game is becoming very digital to where you can get what you need just like that [snaps fingers].”

Further changes may include tweaks to game length and a greater degree of collaboration with the parent clubs.

“We just have to be flexible,” he says. “I hate the word pivot after 2020 because that’s all I heard, but you know pivot, and be ready to adjust. My job here is to keep a great relationship with the Cardinals.”

“I love minor league baseball more than the pro side of it,” Mott remarks. “We get the creativity to try things. People come here more for the entertainment side more than the baseball. Tonight we lost 11-2. You ask someone on the way out, they’ll say ‘the fireworks were awesome.’ You want people to come out and forget about what’s going on at work, or at home. It should be fun. People don’t really get attached to the players because they know they’re going to be here today and they’re probably gonna be gone tomorrow. And that’s okay. It’s more about the atmosphere.”

Many thanks to Jason Mott for speaking to me and to the entire crew at Dozer Park for providing a great game experience. His bio may be viewed on the Chiefs website.

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