Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Reds and my year as a minor league GM
The story of one crazy summer of minor league shenanigans, including Bernie Sanders and an unforgettable National Anthem mix-up.
It was the plumb job nobody wanted.
A friend of mine turned it down flat without batting an eye. By doing so he joined a growing list. Baseball, even minor league baseball in 1987, was nothing without rumor, gossip, and hearsay — word was, Mike Agganis, the owner of the Vermont Reds of the Eastern League, was calling everyone in the league, except me, to see if they were interested in running his team.
There were good reasons why no one wanted the job. It was an open secret that the franchise would be moving from Burlington, Vermont to Canton, Ohio at the end of the following season. But the biggest factor in the turndowns was that the owner of the Vermont Reds had a reputation of being difficult on employees.
Who in their right mind would take a job like that? Me, I guess. I turned 24 that month, and the opportunity to run a minor league team at that tender age, seemed akin to Orson Wells making Citizen Kane at roughly the same stage of life. It would be a monumental achievement and look fantastic on my resume. Or so I thought.
So, I took the bull by the horns and turned the tables on Mike, calling him and telling him I was interested in the job no one wanted. Next thing I know I’m driving up to Vermont for an interview. The team had a playoff game on the day I interviewed. I don’t remember any of the interview, but I do remember ending up in a grass parking lot, taking cash from drivers and directing them on where to park. I should have known right then and there that 1988 was shaping up to be different.
The deal I struck was I would run the daily operations of the team for the 1988 season. In exchange, I would get $750 a month. I was already making $750 a month for less responsibility working for a minor league baseball team in Pennsylvania. When I mentioned that, I was then offered a $100 a month car allowance as a sweetener, as if the extra $100 a month for wear and tear on my car was akin to winning the lottery. No health care or retirement plan came with the job. I know what you’re thinking, but if you worked in minor league baseball in the 1980s you understood that low wages and long hours were part of the gig. Stockholm Syndrome, baseball style.
As a kicker, I was told the following year, 1989, when the team moved to Canton in what was going to be a bright-new, shiny stadium, they would need someone with more experience than me to run it, and I would then be demoted.
And even with that disastrous set-up, the season kept finding a way to deliver more lowlights.
Stump Merrill, then manager of the Albany-Colonie Yankees and later the New York Yankees, chewed me out good, not once, but twice, for the cleanliness or lack thereof in the visiting clubhouse. Nothing like an old-school baseball butt-kicking. I can’t remember if the reaming-out was deserved, but back then it didn’t matter. Right or wrong, you had no choice but to take it.
We had changed affiliations in the off-season from the Cincinnati Reds to the Seattle Mariners, which meant we had to change team names. The boring choice would have been to become the Vermont Mariners. Most minor league teams went with more exotic names that had nothing to do with the parent club. Being the young go-getter I was, I took this opportunity to do a name-the-team contest in conjunction with the daily paper to drum up some much-needed publicity. After receiving creative responses from the public, right before the contest deadline, I was told by ownership, we were going to be the Vermont Mariners. We sure didn’t need a contest to come up with that one.
I guess odd contests were our thing that season. That year a major US airline, by coincidence, started nonstop flight service from Burlington, VT to Seattle. We used this opportunity to convince them to give us two free plane tickets to Seattle as part of the promotion to a lucky Vermont Mariners fan whose game ticket was drawn on the promotion day. As a bonus, we also negotiated two additional tickets, so we could escort the winner to Seattle. From there we were able to arrange free tickets to a Seattle Mariners game, so our promotional night was shaping up to be something special. The only problem was the owner of the winning ticket had no interest in a free trip to Seattle and refused to go. In the end, I still used my free trip, enjoying Seattle and the Mariners game and chaperoning exactly no one.
Then there was the scheduling debacle that, thirty-plus years later, still wakes me up in a cold sweat. Thanks to the wrong proof getting sent to the printer, we had a typo in our pocket schedules, one that showed the team off one day when they actually had a game. I became aware of the error when the visiting team called me shortly before game time wondering where the hell our team was. Imagine his surprise when I called the team manager, Rich Morales, and asked him if he could pull together a professional baseball team in the amount of time it takes to microwave a bag of popcorn. In the end, we ended up forfeiting that day. Not our finest hour.
To call us a Mickey Mouse operation would be an insult to mice everywhere. Oh, sure we had some highlights. The team was pretty good, and the roster was chock-full of future big leaguers, including Ken Griffey, Jr. and Omar Vizquel. We ended up losing in the Eastern League championships to Stump Merrill’s Yankees. I’m sure Stump was extra pleased to beat the clowns who couldn’t even keep the visiting locker room clean.
Enter Bernie Sanders
I was desperate for people to come to our games. Try selling tickets to night games in April and May in chilly Vermont to a fan base that knew the team already had one foot out the door. One creative promotion night I had that didn’t flop was hockey puck night, where we winked at the chilly conditions and gave hockey pucks with a team logo on it to every fan in attendance.
I was so anxious to coax people to the ballpark that I invited the Mayor of Burlington to throw out the first pitch prior to a game. The Mayor of Burlington happened to be some guy named Bernie Sanders. If five people showed up to see the Mayor throw out the first pitch, or if the newspaper took a photo of him at the game, or even if Bernie hung around for a few minutes after the first pitch and bought a hot dog at the concession stand, it would be a win for us.
After extending an invitation for the first pitch, Bernie accepted in short order. The schedule of our pregame ceremony was simple. First, we’d play the National Anthem, and then Bernie was to walk to the pitching mound and throw out his pitch. I stood with Bernie off the third-base line, playing host and amicably chatting with him. When it was time for his pitch, I gave him his cue to head to the mound. I had never met Bernie until just prior to the first pitch, and what struck me was how the heck did a guy with such a thick Brooklyn accent end up as Mayor of a small Vermont town?
The National Anthem was played from the press box, which was bare-bones and old. We played our games in Centennial Field, which we rented from the University of Vermont and was built in 1904.
Back in 1988, there was no such thing as technology like Click Effects, which allows you to play songs, sounds, and video over your stadium PA or video board with a simple click of a button from a computer. We, in Vermont, were old school. We had no video board and sound was amplified over a speaker from a cassette. Our music catalog wasn’t exactly large either; counting the “Star-Spangled Banner,” we probably had about a dozen songs to choose from.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Please rise for the playing of our National Anthem.”
Bernie and I were already standing but stood a little straighter as the fans shuffled to their feet and players stepped out of the dugouts and took off their caps.
A momentary pause ensued as the recording started. Only somehow it wasn’t the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Instead, it was one of our dirty dozen songs that were part of our musical library, this one being the Johnny Rivers classic 1966 hit song, “Secret Agent Man.”
“Secret Agent Man,” for the unenlightened, is a snappy tune that parodies a James Bond theme song; plus, it does a nifty job of rhyming “danger” and “stranger.” Thanks to the archaic equipment we had, “Secret Agent Man” played on for far too long as our fans shifted nervously while they stood wondering what was going on.
After what seemed like forever, a loud click of the cassette being turned off could be heard, which was followed by the sound of a rewinding cassette tape. Eventually, the “Star-Spangled Banner” was played.
Those who had a bird’s-eye view from the press box said the amazing thing was the shocked look on Bernie’s face while this was going on. Bernie, to his credit after his first pitch was over, never mentioned the mishap to me and wandered off into the night afterward, slightly dazed after his encounter with me. He and I, destined to never cross paths again.
The players, being players, however, never let us forget the screw-up. After the incident, when we played “Secret Agent Man” between innings for the rest of the season, our players stopped what they were doing to make sure they were standing and to take off their caps.
As a footnote, I reached out to Bernie Sanders’ camp to see if Bernie had anything to add to this recollection. He wisely declined to comment.