Baseball Men - The Goodwill Ambassador


Posted Nov 19, 2006


Our “Baseball Men” series continues with Dr. Charles Steinberg, Red Sox Vice President for Public Affairs.

Peter Handrinos is a frequent contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York Sports Arguments:  The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Fans’.

 

 

Bill Veeck, one of the most beloved of Hall of Fame owners, may have said it best:

 

Baseball’s an illusionary business. The fan comes away from the ball park with little more to show for it than what’s in his mind, an ephemeral feeling of having been entertained. You’ve got to heighten and preserve that illusion. You have to give him more vivid pictures to carry in his head.

 

If one modern-day executive has taken his insight to heart, it is Dr. Charles Steinberg. Over the years, Dr. Steinberg’s been positively Veeck-ian in his complete dedication to baseball fans’ deepest feelings and most vivid ball park pictures.

 

As a junior executive with the Orioles, Dr. Steinberg was among the first to create music highlights / video-board messages in the 1980’s and orchestrate ceremonies like Memorial Stadium’s tearful farewell.

 

In his next stop, with the 1990’s Padres, he helped institute a ‘triple crown’ system for complete fan service, one most noticeable for its inclusion of a ‘Pad Squad’ of ball park ambassadors / greeters. Both Baltimore and San Diego saw new attendance records, with or without first place finishes in the standings.

 

In his latest job, as the Red Sox Vice President of Public Affairs, Dr. Steinberg has carried on similar events and outreach. Today’s Sox may be the Major League franchise most likely to conduct field-access promotions (featuring father-son catches, for example), fan recognition ceremonies, giveaways, and charity fundraisers. Professor Andrew Zimbalist, among others, has called Boston some of the savviest marketers in sports.

 

Some of the more old-line traditionalists still decry Steinberg-style updates on baseball entertainment. No matter. It’s the people who matter, and Dr. Steinberg is the one who’s developed their good will. In essence, he has been a new generation’s Bill Veeck, the one who’s kept millions of happy customers coming back, back, and back.

 

Recently, Dr. Steinberg discussed how his fellow fans fall in love with baseball:

 

 

What does baseball mean to you when you were growing up?

 

I had two great parents who provided a great home, a typical middle-class Jewish home in northwest Baltimore city, and baseball was, at first, all about cards and broadcasts with great announcers.

 

I was on the receiving end of all good things in the game - minus talent. I got two hits in two years in Little League. I remember telling Ted Williams about my not-so-spectacular playing career once, and he asked me when those two hits came. I said they were both came in the second year. He said, [gruff Williams voice] 'At least you showed improvement'. (chuckles) The best hitter who ever lived talking to the worst player who ever lived!

 

If you didn't get interested as a star ball player, how did you get interested in baseball?

 

It really goes back to 1966, when I was seven years old and the Orioles were enjoying their breakthrough season. I knew they were making it to the World Series for the first time, but it didn't particularly move me. Neither did the Orioles' four-game sweep in the Series, to tell the truth.

 

Things started right after the team clinched that last game. Within minutes of the final out, just spontaneously, my mother took my sister and me in the car and headed into downtown Baltimore, and we saw something. We could see such a celebration of such incredible good will, with car horns making such a cacophony - it was the coolest sound this side of the Beatles. It was absolutely incredible.

 

Had you been to a game before?

 

I think I'd been to a game before, when I was even younger, but what really got me was, oh, that celebration. The fans' reaction to the players' action. I remember - I wanted baseball season to begin again, right then and there, and I was stunned that I had to wait until spring. It was a long wait! 

 

Your question is very interesting, because I've also tried to make a study of when fans first fell in love with baseball. Years after that October day, as a matter of fact, I was talking to a guy I worked with at the Orioles. He was also from a Maryland family. I asked him the question, and he said that for him, it was the very same day - Game Four of the 1966 World Series. He said, "My Dad had a job in the organization so I got to go that game, and when Frank Robinson hit that solo home run, I said, 'That's what I want to do'.”

 

He went on to break Lou Gehrig's record.

 

Cal Ripken, Jr. and I both fell in love with baseball because of the same game, at the same time, in the same town, only there was a big difference - he fell in love with the action and I fell in love with the reaction. Cal had the talent to back his interest and, thankfully, I had the personality and opportunities to pursue mine.

 

How did you start on that career path?

 

Well, after that day, October 9th, 1966, I really became a baseball nut - writing down every game's score, reading everything in sight, getting out to games when I could. But, then again, so was everyone else in Baltimore. Every year, well into the '80's, we were in the playoffs or darn close with 90 or 100 wins per season, and the town was in love with its team.

 

Really, though, the next big event in this path came during my time in a small private school, The Gilman School. When I was a teenager, they had a program to set up internships in the community. My first thought was, 'I'll work for a dentist like my father, so I can set up my whole career for dentistry'. But a friend of mine walked down the hallway and says to me, 'I hear they'll let us work for the Orioles'.

 

Wow.

 

You got the internship.

 

I got it.

 

Peter, it wasn't a dream come true - I never dared to dream I'd work in someplace like Memorial Stadium.

 

What attracted you to the internship - was it the glamour, the power, the money?

 

(chuckles) Oh, I knew I'd have to take the lowest jobs around. That wasn't a worry or a wonder. I knew I'd have to work for free, and then later, take minimum wage - $2.50 an hour - that wasn't a question, either.

 

What attracted me, more than anything else, was curiosity. I grew up loving Brooks Robinson and Elrod Hendricks and [announcer] Chuck Thompson. What are they really going to be like? It's an interesting question, wouldn't you say? What are the actors really like behind the curtain?

 

Here's the thing - everything I saw in those early years validated what I wanted from ball players as my heroes. Brooks was a personal hero, who I'd briefly seen in a bank appearance several years before, and he was so approachable and friendly, signing everything in sight, treating strangers like long-lost pals, going out of his way to make even a 17-year old kid feel welcomed and included. He was greater than the person I wanted him to be.

 

You had another connection with Cal Ripken, Jr. in that respect – Ripken has also cited Robinson as a personal hero.

 

Cal loved Brooks Robinson and had the phenomenal playing ability to emulate him on the field. I wanted to be like Brooks Robinson and I had absolutely no playing ability, but I realized I could emulate him in trying to give back and help fans fall in love with the game.

 

That's what my job is about to this day, and it has a very personal motivation. For example, right now, I'm wearing a Red Sox 2004 Championship ring. When I'm out and about somewhere, do I dare deny anyone a look at the ring, or a friendly wave or a handshake or a chat? No way. It's for the fans involved, to be sure, but it's in thanks to Brooks and his spirit.  

 

I don't doubt your sincerity, but you know that not all stars have Brooks Robinson’s attitude about giving back. Other players are as confrontational as Albert Belle or as reclusive as Steve Carlton. When you moved on to the Orioles public relations department, how did you handle those situations?

 

You mentioned a couple of players, but let me give you another one - Eddie Murray. Eddie was a skinny 21-year old rookie in 1977, which was my second year with the Orioles and Brooks' final season.

 

In my opinion, Eddie saw exactly how Brooks' open, friendly attitude could be draining at times. And, more importantly, by nature, Eddie was more private and shy. He didn't have a lot of trust for some members of the media. He wore a tough game face on the playing field.

 

As a P.R. guy, did I necessarily like that approach at times? No, not really, but I'll tell you this about Eddie Murray - he was a great, very open person within his private sphere of family and friends, and I respected the fact that he did what he had to do. He stayed true to himself and, obviously, competed and won as a Hall of Famer.

 

By the way, Jim Rice is much the same way. From a distance, I always thought he was this mean and surly type. It was only when I got to know him as a person that I realized that he was another very private and very good guy. Another Eddie Murray.

 

Now, you asked about the team relations side, and here's the good news - you don't need a clubhouse full of Brooks Robinsons. You don't need a roster with 25 guys who are going to relate to the media like Kevin Millar. As long as you have some of them, a good number of them, a franchise can establish a very positive relationship with the community.

 

That seems to have been a constant in your career, from Baltimore to San Diego and, now, Boston. You've always emphasized getting the players involved in fan outreach.

 

I'm aware that ball players aren't always going to please everyone or fall in love with everyone. I understand and that's fine. But my personal experience tells me that just a little decency and patience can give so much, and can mean so much. A smile, taking a moment for an autograph, telling kids to stay in school . . . it takes so little to affect fans in a profound way.

 

This is kind of a long-winded way to say, yeah, you better believe it - I do my very best to emphasize fan outreach in the organization. I'm here because know how powerful it can be. I'm a beneficiary.

 

As you know, even fan favorites can't have the closest possible relationship. A Johnny Damon can always move on at the end of his contract, even move on to the hated Yankees.

 

That's true, but none of us who never played in the Majors really know what it's like. Only those who make the commitment to devote their life to it know what it's really like. So I can't sit down in judgment of those who decide to move on for the sake of their families or personal situation.

 

There’s criticism and anger, on talk radio and other outlets, when players move on or when there's an incident. Sure, that happens. There are negative comments to be made about a lot of things about this game, because it is such a human game, but my perspective is - it's a shame if you get caught up in that too much. You'd be missing out on the reason baseball matters in the first place.

 

One of the unique things about your career, from what I’ve seen, is how you don’t just utilize ball players as ambassadors - it’s an important role for your regular ball park staff on game days.

 

You better believe it. With the Orioles, it was the BaseRunners. With the Padres, it was the Pad Squad. Now, with the Red Sox, it's the Fenway Ambassadors. Whatever the team and the label, I've been fortunate enough to work with some terrific, terrific people in reaching out to live customers. It doesn't happen as a solo artist, it happens in an ensemble setting.

 

With the fans, we try to do Norman Rockwell stuff. We give little boys and little girls small team gifts, quietly. To look at their expressions, you'd think we were handing out solid gold coins. We pull youngsters out of the stands and have them announce that magical phrase - 'play ball'. We recruit honorary bat boys and bat girls. More kids are invited out of the stands and up to the booth to announce the first three batters in the bottom of the sixth.

 

Why do we do that? Because it makes people happy! Our people engender good will, in other words, and I hope that any economist in the world will tell you that good will is good business. Those small gestures - they don't take enormous amounts of time or money. But they make the kid happy, they make the parents happy, and - best of all! - they make kids happy with their parents - and that's ‘the Triple Crown’ [of fan satisfaction].

 

Peter, it's magical. Baseball will be in trouble if we, with the privilege to work within it, forget how to welcome children, to thrill them, to provide hospitality, to basically, ensure that they go to bed at night with the faith that baseball can provide them with some of the greatest experiences of their lives. Their lives so far. (chuckles)

 

It's a very important part of marketing baseball today, but what's remarkable about your career is that you started off in the 1970's, modern marketing was almost unknown. Can you talk about the development you saw in those first few years in Baltimore?

 

Well, you're absolutely right; back in the 1970's, there was no 'marketing' per se, at least not any that we'd recognize today. In the Orioles' P.R. department, where I worked, we did everything - we did advertising, we did giveaway promotions, we did media relations, we did community appearances. There were four full-time employees, and myself, with Bob Brown as my supervisor.

 

When marketing became a presence, around 1980, there was an undeniable division in the game. If you were in P.R., you hustled, you ran here and there, you had connections to this writer and that player. You had a rumpled shirt and chances were, your shirt tail was hanging out at times. If you were in marketing, on the other hand, you were a higher-up. You were supposed to wear, yes, a starched white collar and suspenders.

 

You know, both had a valid perspective. To the old school's credit, not everything had to be about money. To the new school's credit, the game had to think about new ways to spread and deepen the fan's connection to the game.

 

The good thing was, I was very, very lucky in my timing. After several years in the organization, I had had enough experience to respect the old school, but I was still young enough that new ideas didn't scare me. I was sewing up the gap splitting my front office.

 

Just before, you said that Baltimore loved the Orioles and, by the standard of time, that was definitely true. Even so, well into the 1970’s, a very popular team could barely draw more than one million in paid attendance. Can you talk about the transition from that time to the present?

 

Baseball was challenged as the National Pastime in the late 1960's. It was the Year of the Pitcher [1968] with anemic offenses, baseball was corny, the Super Bowl started up . . . you had serious headlines asking, 'Is Baseball Dying?'.

 

Look, you know this - the notion that baseball was more popular in what was lovingly and romantically called a 'golden age', this is a complete myth. The game wasn't nearly as popular in the 1950's or 1960's, not even close. Today, forget one million in attendance. People start noticing when you hit three million. I'm in awe of that phenomenal escalation. I've been part of an era when we were scraping to get to a million fans and part of an era where franchises can sell out every single game. It's been a stunning, stunning development.

 

The explosive growth in baseball's popularity is too often ignored, it seems to me. It's worst than ignored - it's stated in precisely the wrong way. Critics talk about effects - higher salaries and ticket prices - instead of talking about the surging fan demand.

 

How did things change for you at the Orioles when Edward Bennett Williams bought the ball club in August 1979?

 

It was thunderous news. Williams was a legendary, and therefore, terrifying, Washington trial lawyer. The thought was, he might move the franchise over to Washington. I still have the News-American headline reading 'Bye Bye Birdies?'. As it happened, though, the biggest factor in the new ownership was the introduction of another Washington lawyer, a guy named Larry Lucchino.

 

We knew we were small market. We were little Baltimore, so if we hustled, hustled, hustled we could net a million fans, but Larry Lucchino never accepted the status quo. It could always improve, it could always get better. Whatever you drew in attendance, surely it was within the realm of possibility to improve that number next year, even if it was by one. 

 

He had visions of two million fans. He had visions of, eventually, three million in attendance. He had visions that seemed absolutely irresponsible to have. Larry led such an aggressive and innovative marketing that we got to two million. 'Two million time', we called it.

 

He had a vision of how much more popular the franchise could be, and it was a radical vision. Looking back, the establishment was limited by its experience. How could this guy from Pittsburgh by way of Yale Law School figure out a way to take baseball to completely unheard of levels of popularity? It was a nutty thought.

 

Beyond that marketing push, you all had another ‘nutty thought’, in connection to the Orioles’ new ball park. Can you talk about the introduction of Camden Yards?

 

It was definitely a time that break new ground and, again, if you want to break new ground, it's my experience that Larry Lucchino is the leader for the task.

 

[The marketing push in the 1980’s] was just the beginning - Larry said we could take it even higher, as long as we got a new ball park, an old-fashioned downtown ball park with modern amenities. Ha! Even if you buy the intellectual argument in getting rid of old Memorial Stadium, the entire trend was in a modern glass and steel thing, sitting in an acre of parking lots somewhere out by the Beltway. Furthermore, he said that people would take the trolley downtown. Ha! My parents had stopped taking the trolley back in the '40's.

 

In Baltimore, it sometimes seemed like we loved Memorial Stadium as much as we loved crab cakes, and we lamented the passing of our old home. But can anyone deny that Camden Yards represented a revolutionary change in how fans enjoyed the baseball experience? The attendance records it rang up tell you all you need to know about what Larry Lucchino's work with [planning executive] Janet Marie Smith.

 

Beyond that, I would submit that Larry Lucchino's vision for Camden Yards helped transform American cities, at least those with Major League franchises, because it brought millions of happy spectators back to the downtowns, and not just to see ball games, but to experience new, vital neighborhoods.

 

In 1990, if you predicted the kind of civic pandemonium that would erupt from Baltimore to Cleveland to San Francisco and elsewhere, to the tune of tens of millions of extra fans over the years, you would have been dismissed as a crazy. Larry Lucchino, more than any one else, helped start that movement, and that's why he-  and Janet Marie Smith-  will ultimately be in Cooperstown, in my opinion.  They have played a critical role in modern American history. 

 

As you know, Larry Lucchino isn’t necessarily considered in those terms among the media. More often, he’s known as a hard-nosed businessman in everything from day-to-day operations to contract negotiations.

 

I've known Larry Lucchino for, now, more than 25 years. More than a quarter of a century - I'm dating myself! - but I know that he's a guy who loves baseball, first, middle, and last. And, please, don't fall for that myth about Larry being some kind of adversarial tough guy. That's his role he plays, out of loyalty to his bosses. He's been a remarkable success within this game because he is, and always has been, a passionate baseball fan.

 

One of the criticisms of Camden Yards and your later San Diego project, Petco Field, is that they went too far in catering to fans. Some have said there’s too much of an atmosphere of an amusement park, but I imagine you’d disagree.

 

(chuckles) Ask the tens of millions of fans streaming through the turnstiles what they think of the new ball parks. They don't seem too worried.

 

Of course, I'll acknowledge that the baseball game is the carriage, the single most important element, but here's my question - aren't you providing two products at any ball park, in the ball game and the venue? Why not do your very best in presenting both? There's the action on the playing field - enjoy the greatest game ever invented - and, while you're at it, enjoy the stores and the attractions and amenities, if you're so inclined. One only adds to the other.

 

Right now, we're in Fenway Park. It's not a new ball park, but I think we've done a pretty fair job in presenting its charm, too. It's no coincidence that one of our owners, Tom Werner, was one of the creators of The Cosby Show. He knows how to create experiences that resonate with kids and families on a very positive, powerful level. We all believe in that, John Henry, Larry Lucchino. I hope and expect that everyone involved in today's Red Sox believes that.

 

You know a couple of things about shows, too, I’d argue. Can you talk about the finale for old Memorial Stadium, and your role in putting together its closing ceremony?

 

That started around November 1990, when we were still 11 months away from the closing of Memorial Stadium. We were at a meeting with the Orioles’ General Manager, Roland Hemond, after he had come back from the closing ceremonies for old Comiskey Park. He'd been there as a GM for 16 years, and he told me how disappointing it was, what a missed opportunity it was. There wasn't a moment that touched his heart.

 

The initial thought in the room was, 'Let's bring in a big name musical act'. I thought, who are you going to bring? For an event like that, my reaction was - 'I don't want a show, I don't want stimulation. I don't want you to impose energy on me. When I see the last pitch at the place where I fell in love with baseball, I'll be full of emotions. I'll want to express emotion. I'll want to do what everyone wants to do at the end of something special - say thank you'.

 

That was your starting point.

 

Absolutely. To me, a grown-up kid, it'd be more than enough to salute some of the greatest heroes in the history of Baltimore. I wanted Brooks and Frank and Boog [Powell] and Elrod [Hendricks] and Jim Palmer and even Connie Johnson and all the other players to stand out there for as long as it took for us all to thank them.

 

I was proud of that ceremony, because I think there was a simplicity there, but also details, and that's so important in connecting. The players weren't suit-and-tie, but in uniform, and the exact uniforms we remembered from back when. Brooks was in his 1970 uniform; Frank Robinson was in his 1966 uniform, with the lettering in black, not orange.  They weren't in some choreographed line, but exactly where we remembered them - at second [base], we had Davey Johnson and Bobby Grich and Rich Dauer, at short we had Mark Belanger and Luis Aparicio. It got crowded out there!

 

Details. We had Dave Criscione there - he only played one week in the big leagues, in July 1977, but what a week it was! He laid down a key sacrifice bunt, hit a game-winning home run, and his wife gave birth to a baby, all in that week. We had Lenn Sekata there at catcher, because, one night in 1983, he had to play catcher for the first time since Little League and runners were so eager to steal that Tippy Martinez picked off all three runners.

 

Why were those details important to you?

 

Because they trigger memories. On days like the farewell, you don't thank the bricks, you thank the people. We just wanted to make it easy for the fans to do that.

 

That seems to be the consistent thread in your career over the years.

 

From my days as an intern and a go-fer and a stadium operations guy to today, we’ve enjoyed bringing the fans closer to the game, be that through a once-in-a-lifetime ceremony or the most routine game-day interactions.

 

But it’s not about me. It’s about baseball. Baseball has a fabulous power to help kids and families. I don't know of anything with the same power to unite cities and states and regions and beyond. It's a privilege to be a part of it. I've benefited from a job where, knock on wood, I've seen dreams come true.

 

 

The complete Table of Contents for the ‘Baseball Men’ interview series can be found here.



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