In the second grade, Jay Miller wrote a paper saying he planned to make a living in baseball.
And he has — not as a player, but as a front office executive for 38 years.
Miller is president of the Wichita Wind Surge, which begins its first season in a new stadium in less than two months.
After playing baseball at Wheaton College in Illinois – he’s in the school’s hall of fame – Miller’s first job in organized baseball was with the Eugene, Oregon, Emeralds in 1982. Since then he has worked for the Texas Rangers and the highly successful Round Rock Express minor league team in Texas.
Before coming to Wichita, he was president of the Sugar Land, Texas, Skeeters.
He has been named Minor League Executive of the Year three times in his career.
Miller moved to Wichita more than a year ago, overseeing construction of the new stadium – the seventh of his career – assembling a staff and selling tickets and advertising for the upcoming season. The desk in his temporary office in a construction trailer includes a 2016 World Series baseball from the Chicago Cubs.
Tom Shine talked with Miller last year about the team’s transition to Wichita, what his previous stops in his baseball career have taught him and who’s the most important fan in baseball.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Tom Shine: You talked about Lawrence-Dumont Stadium and the attachment the city has to it and trying to move forward from that. Talk a little about that.
Jay Miller: I was at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium in 2000 when Round Rock played the Wichita Wranglers in the championship. And I remember thinking, "Boy, this is a neat little stadium." And then I saw it like three or four months ago before it was torn down, and it had really aged and it was time. And when I talk to people and they say, "We're going to miss that stadium." I said, "Well, you're going to miss it a total of one game." Your first game that you walk into at this new stadium, you're going to forget all about Lawrence-Dumont Stadium because it's going to be state of the art with all the great amenities and things for the kids.
So although there was great tradition there, now we're going to start some new traditions.
Your first job in pro baseball was with the Eugene Emeralds in 1982. What was something you learned there on your first job that has stayed with you throughout your career?
What I've learned is, especially in the minor leagues … you wear every hat there is. One of the first assignments I had in Eugene, Oregon, was painting numbers on the back of seats. And … they weren't dry by the time we were playing our first game. So we bought a lot of shirts that next day.
But you pull the tarp, you sell, you do it all. And that's kind of the beauty of minor league baseball, is you do it all.
What did you learn in Round Rock that you hope to transfer to Wichita?
What I learned, I've known all along my whole career: It's all about the fan. Like even back in Eugene, Oregon, in '82, I'd be standing at the gates when they'd come in, and I'd be standing at the gates when they left. If you get to know the fan and you call them by name when they're at your ballpark … everybody likes to be called by their name.
But we got to remember it's always all about the fan and making the fan happy.
Speaking of fans … your success is going to rest on the casual fan, not the baseball fan. Baseball fans will come out to watch baseball no matter what, but it's the casual fan that … you probably have to attract. How do you attract them and then keep them coming back?
You know, that's a great question. And you’ve got to get mom because mom decides what the family does.
I had a mom in Round Rock that came up to me and asked if I was Jay Miller. And I said, "Well, I don't know." You know how that goes, and I go, "You mad?" And she goes, "No. As a matter of fact, I couldn't be happier." And I said, "That's great. What do you want to share with me?" And she said, "You know, I am not a baseball fan. I don't even like baseball, but I've been to 30 games this year at least. And I have young kids and my kids have a ball on the basketball court or the rock-climbing wall, or the speed pitch or the swimming pool or all the amenities that we had at the ballpark. … I've learned to become a fan just because it's cheap entertainment where I can bring my family."
What’s Mom want at the ballpark?
Mom wants a clean restroom. Clean restrooms are very important. So when you see .. me on the concourse and there's a piece of paper on the ground, I'm going to pick it up. And if I do it, everybody does it. It's kind of contagious with your staff.
But they (moms) want it clean, and they want affordable pricing, and they want stuff for their kids to do.
Wichita’s going to join a pretty select fraternity. There’s only 30 Triple-A teams in the whole country, and we're going to be one of them. In 2018, average attendance for Triple-A baseball was about 6,600 fans a game. Will Wichita be over or under that number in 2020?
I'm going to say we're going to be over that. With the berm, with the club, with the suites, with the seats, everything that we have … our capacity's going to be around 9,000, But with all the things we do – with the fireworks, the giveaways, the group nights, et cetera — I'm going to take us at the over.
Are you going to have events about every night of the season?
We'll have something going on every night. And then, we've told people and we mean this, we're going to be a multi-use facility, too. We plan on having high school baseball, high school football. We've talked to Wichita State about doing a (baseball) tournament here. We might have an ice skating rink in the wintertime.
But that stadium, our goal is to use it around 200 nights a year.
Tom Shine is director of news and public affairs at KMUW. Follow him on Twitter @thomaspshine.