‘This is definitely a serious business.”

That’s the first thing Will Smith wants you know about running a minor league baseball franchise. The 35-year-old College of New Jersey graduate was named general manager and CEO of the Trenton Thunder last August, when Brad Taylor, who had held the job since 2006, moved on. Taylor left to take on the task of getting a brand new team, the Bowling Green (KY) Hot Rods, off the ground. As both Taylor and Smith would tell you, there are two dream jobs for a minor league GM — heading a start-up operation, and taking over one of the top teams in the country. Smith gets to do the latter.

When he was introduced to the media last summer, Smith declared flatly: “The Thunder is by far the best Double-A franchise in baseball.” Few would dispute it. Double-A baseball is two steps below the major leagues, and in 2008, the Thunder became the first team at this level or below to draw 400,000 fans for 14 straight seasons. The Thunder plays its home games at Mercer County Waterfront Park, with a seating capacity of 6,440. All-time attendance for the franchise now stands at over 6 million.

The Thunder was a hit from the moment that the year-old franchise moved to Trenton in 1994. Fans flocked to its stadium inaugural year, and they have never stopped coming. The Thunder won Baseball America’s Bob Freitas Award for Long Term Success in 1998, the Larry MacPhail Award for Outstanding Club Promotion in 2003, and the organization was voted the John H. Johnson President’s Trophy, minor league baseball’s award for the nation’s best franchise, in 2005.

The Thunder was a Detroit Tigers affiliate in 1994, and a Boston Red Sox farm club from 1995 to 2002, winning the Minor League Team of the Year in 1999. The New York Yankees took over the franchise in 2003, and last September the Thunder announced that it had extended its player development contract with the Bronx Bombers through 2014, delighting the many Yankees fans in central New Jersey who have watched the team win its first two Eastern League championships, in 2007 and 2008.

But as Smith points out, it’s not about championships on the Double-A level. It’s about entertaining the fans.

“People ask me how the team is doing, are they playing well? They’re asking the wrong guy. That’s not what drives our business. I want a championship team because I want the fans to walk out of here with a great feeling, not because I want to have a great feeling. It’s always going to be better when you win; the players, manager and coaches that you talk to on a regular basis are happier when you win. It’s a marketing tool for the diehard fans. Of course, we market that we are a Yankees affiliate, and we market the marquee players who come through. We market that we are two-time champions. But we can’t control any of that. So we heavily market the entertainment value of what we do, because that’s what we can control.”

When he walked off the campus of Trenton State College in 1996 for the last time (“They changed the name the day after I left”), Smith had no idea that he would ever end up in minor league baseball. Sitting at his desk in the newly-expanded Thunder front office in Waterfront Park, Smith reminisces. “When I was growing up in Dumont, in Bergen County, minor league baseball didn’t exist in New Jersey. Oh, I was a huge baseball fan, huge Yankees fan. My mom was born in the Bronx, and I can remember going to Yankee Stadium as a kid, coming out of the tunnel, and seeing that green grass. I have a World Series ball from 1978, and I had a Reggie Jackson bat I used in Little League. I played in high school; but my arm wasn’t good enough to go further.”

Smith’s father, now deceased, was a third generation DuPont worker, and his mother, recently retired, was a teacher and then an administrative assistant.

While he was a student at Trenton State, the Thunder came into being, as did the New Jersey Cardinals in Sussex County. “I went to a few games, saw Tony Clark play for the Thunder. I became aware that there was an industry for minor league baseball, unlike other sports, but I didn’t give it much thought. I got a degree in mechanical engineering, worked one year for Educational Testing Service, and then took a job with the North American Electric Reliability Corporation in Princeton.” That turned out to be less than his life’s dream.

“Frankly, they threw me in over my head a little bit,” Smith recalls. “My boss split the first year and they threw me into his work, and I was clueless, and not happy in my job. By year two, I knew more about what was going on, and started to enjoy it. But by year three, I knew it just wasn’t enough.”

Smith thought that minor league baseball had a fun ring to it, and he e-mailed Brad Taylor, then the assistant GM at Trenton. Taylor generously agreed to sit down with him.

“I didn’t have a sports management degree — now every college in the world offers one,” says Smith. “What I needed was experience. Brad actually talked about a ticketing internship, but I just couldn’t do it for $600 a month. I had heard about the job fair held each year at the baseball winter meetings in December, so I decided to give that a try.”

At 27, he was a little older than most candidates for an entry-level position. However, his work experience was in his favor, and he met Rick Brenner, the Thunder GM, who offered him a position assisting Eric Lipsman, the Thunder’s marketing guru.

“A great opportunity, but the offer was low,” says Smith. “The New Haven Ravens (also an Eastern League team), were able to come up with a few thousand bucks more. My take home pay paid my rent and my car payment and insurance. Any food and going out was on credit cards. I knew I would sell and make commissions.” But he made more his first year than he did the following year and “knew it was a sign to get out of there.”

“I lucked out by getting a job with the Hagerstown (MD) Suns, in single-A ball, and spent six years there,” he says. “Every year I got a chance to do a little bit more, and when I became their GM, in 2007, I thought for the first time in my life that I had a chance at a career.”

Not just a career. While he was working at Hagerstown, Smith met his future wife, Jada, and you can trust him when he says that any jokes you have about the names Will and Jada Smith, he has already heard.

So life was good for the general manager of Hagerstown. Then he got the word heard that the Thunder was looking for a new face.

“I heard through the grapevine that there might be a change, and the Thunder ownership group asked me if I might like to throw my hat in the ring. I don’t know how many other people were considered, but I was excited to get the chance. It was a homecoming of sorts, but I didn’t let that be a consideration. The fact that it was the Yankees was a little bit sexy. What I was attracted to was the size of the market, more responsibility, and a higher-level team.

“The sales are greater, the budget greater, the staff bigger, and the costs bigger. And they have suites here, which Hagerstown didn’t. The very old stadiums like Yale Field in New Haven (opened in 1927) and Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown (1931), really test you. When I first walked into Yale Field, I thought it was gorgeous — so historic, so old. Then I started working there, and I found out where the leaks are, and which rooms the raccoons get into.

“In Hagerstown, I was the GM and I was on the field with plastic cups trying to get the water off the field so we could play a game that night. The goal is always to play the game. At that level, that stuff got old. When you lose $2,000 worth of product because you have a freezer outside of the concession stand because there is no room inside and somebody unplugs it inadvertently — those types of things got old. There were drainage issues where the field was not graded properly. So all that was a factor. If Hagerstown had had a new field, I might have been there forever.”

In Trenton, Smith oversees a staff of 24 full-time employees and about 110 game-day workers — ushers, parking attendants, security, EMTs, cops, food services, cleaning, and grounds crew. It’s a much bigger set-up than Hagerstown, but the job also comes with higher expectations. And the current economic climate also changes the scenario.

The expectation is that the high prices charged by major league sports may send more people to minor league games, but Smith is savvy enough to know that big city sports aren’t the Thunder’s only rival. He generally agrees with the three-tiered theory of the minor league audience. One third of the crowd is made up of die-hard baseball fans, one-third of the casuals who come occasionally, and the rest are families and people who come in groups, often through their companies. This latter third is strictly there for the socializing, and they often don’t even know — or care — who’s playing. This is pretty much what Smith sees as the Thunder’s audience, but he worries that a core group — the die-hard fans — is eroding.

“It’s growing harder to keep the diehard fans interested,” he says. “Season tickets aren’t the way most teams operate anymore — it’s hard to come to 71 games. So more and more, group sales is the driving force, and the walk-ups. Any time we can have tickets sold in advance, it’s great for us because we can pre-plan. The play-offs are a great illustration of the huge importance of group sales, which are always made in advance.

“We’ll get only three or four thousand at the play-offs,” says Smith, “and that’s the diehards. Because you don’t know who’ll win the division, you can’t plan it two or three months in advance, can’t advertise.”

Smith emphasizes that the Thunder’s competition is other entertainment venues.

“We’re up against Six Flags, going to the shore, movies, concerts, or other family events, like Little League games, and soccer practice. We are always trying to appeal to families with our giveaways and promotions. Great weather on a weekend could be a hindrance or could be a help, because there are so many things to do in this area. I hope that in this economy, people are already thinking of the Thunder as an affordable alternative. We are trying to make it even more so this year with our Kids Eat Free promotion. Every kid 12 and under gets a voucher good for a free hot dog, a bag of potato chips and a 12 ounce soda. You can find out more at www.freefoodforkids.com.” (Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, a big competitor, is reportedly teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, but opened on April 4 and is widely expected to remain open this summer.)

The Thunder is planning changes for the upcoming season to increase interest and to bring in the casual fan. It has contracted with Rider University to have the school’s radio station carry all 142 of the team’s games. That’s a new tack for the Thunder, whose games were previously carried on commercial radio.

“We’re excited about the partnership,” says Smith. “We’ve had to restructure a bit, being on a public station. But it’s not so different. Any of our sponsors will just sponsor Rider rather than us. It’s a good signal; the first time we’ve had an FM signal, which is stronger. It’s a tough radio market stuck between Philly and New York — there are not a lot of radio stations in the middle. We’re excited about the partnership.”

The Thunder has also come to an agreement with the Trenton Marriott, making the local hotel the official destination for visiting teams. Prior to this season, the teams have always stayed in hotels on Route 1 in the Lawrenceville-West Windsor corridor. Jeff Zeiger, the new general manager of the Marriott, and a long-time Mercer County resident, contacted the Thunder almost as soon as he took the job.

“You needed a local guy to see the positive implications of partnering with the Thunder,” he says in a cell phone conversation. “We are partnered with the Trenton Devils, why not the Thunder? Why it took so long is a good question.”

Smith agrees. “The Marriott is a great property. The rooms are great, it’s nice inside, nice courtyard,” he says. “Hopefully the ballplayers should be good with it; there’s food in the hotel, so they should be good with that, if they can find other things to do, that’ll be great. It’s five minutes from the ballpark.”

These aren’t the only changes for the Thunder this year. In July, 2008, the team signed a new 10-year contract with Mercer County that will keep the Thunder in Trenton through 2023. The deal restructured some of each party’s responsibilities. The Thunder took over the majority of responsibility for maintenance and grounds keeping, a move that the county says will save the taxpayers about $300,000 a year. In return, the rent was reduced from $600,000 a year to $150,000, although it will increase to $250,000 by 2019.

The county also agreed to give the Thunder the naming rights for the stadium, but that may turn out to be a burden for the team, rather than the bonus that the county enjoyed. The county made about $2.7 million selling the naming rights to the Sovereign Bank Arena in 1999, and in the 2008 election, Republican candidates for Mercer County Freeholder questioned County Executive Brian Hughes’ decision to give the Thunder “a sweetheart deal.”

Now the deal looks a good deal less sweet.

Sovereign Bank has been purchased by the Spanish financial institution Banco Santander, and the bank has decided not to renew the naming rights to the arena when the current deal expires on October 1. In this economy, it may not be easy to find a replacement. Even corporations still pulling in substantial profits are showing a marked tendency to keep a low profile. Witness the negative publicity surrounding the Mets new ballpark. CitiField, carrying Citibank’s name, is already being referred to as “Bailout Park.” Title sponsors have also dropped out of the LPGA, the PGA, and NASCAR.

For the moment, the Thunder is adopting a wait-and-see-policy on naming rights. Although Thunder president and co-owner Joseph Finley was not available for comment, Smith explains, “There have been some discussions; there’s nothing active going on. I think it’s still in the planning stages of how do we attack this. I would imagine it would be easier to sell in a better market.”

But that’s not at the top of Smith’s list of priorities. He’s in the business of trying to sell minor league baseball to fans and sponsors. When a team has been around for 15 years, it’s a known commodity, but can familiarity breed contempt?

“I gotta believe that the name recognition is a help,” says Smith. “I’ve never thought of it as a hindrance. We are always trying to reinvent ourselves. Ownership has made a sizable investment in renovating and updating. Our new picnic area doubles our capacity there to 400. When this stadium was built, suites were all the rage, and they still are, but you’ll see a lot of new stadiums built with more open room that can be broken up with dividers. You can have corporate meetings there; you can have a wedding reception. We’re always trying to change with the times. We have a really good reputation, so that will help with sales. That 15-year history is a really good one.”

Strong reputation or not, Smith knows the Thunder will be continue to affected by the economy, like any business.

“You can’t go through day without hearing about the economic climate, and perception is reality,” he admits. “I am dumbfounded by the number of job applicants we have had come through here.”

“I don’t think it’ll be a barnburner of a year, but we’ll be okay. Billboards are down a little bit, not dramatically. Companies are very slow to respond. We had two companies respond recently that I was really worried about. One increased its sponsorship by 50 percent and one completely dropped out. When you have 15 unreturned voice mails and E-mails, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. So our approach to our sponsors is, “‘Let’s do something special for you.’”

We are going to do something to add value or cut prices, so we don’t lose them. And we are trying to be fair — we know what they are going through. We give our sponsors great value. We are trying to bend as much as we can, with the understanding that we might bend back in a couple of years as the economy improves. But over all, we anticipate having sold what we need to have sold. It’s just taking longer.”

Smith still has all the enthusiasm of the new kid in town. He and his wife, who has taken a job as an advertising salesperson for The Times of Trenton, have set up their home in Newtown, and he is eager to answer the question: After seven months with the Thunder, has he made the job his own?

“Every day more and more,” he answers. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently; there are a lot of ‘still’ questions, still learning so many little things, still figuring out things, like an onion, peeling back layers. But I think I’ve got a pretty darn good handle on it. I think I’m making it my own.

“It takes a certain amount of time to build the trust of your employees. I came in here by myself, as a new man; they never hired the GM from outside before. I’m trying to get to know them; they’re trying to get to know me. It’s hard to get to know 25 people. I think I’ve shocked some people with something I say or the way I do things bad, but I hope that if you asked the staff, they’d think that I’m doing an okay job. And some people have said that to me personally, which makes me feel pretty good.

“Of course, some things have changed — someone said to me at the winter meetings this year that the six most dangerous words in business are “‘The way it’s always been done.’” I don’t have all the answers — if I did, I’d probably be running the Yankees. But I think I’m gaining that knowledge and ability to make it my own.”

While ball players enjoy a nice long break after the season ends, general managers work a 52-week year. “I’ve taken one day off this year — to move,” says Smith. With a stadium to tend, employees to hire and supervise, capital improvements to make, and sponsors to woo, the job requires full-time commitment. “By January, it’s full steam ahead,” he says.

Now, with opening day arriving, as it usually does, right along with spring chills and showers, it’s show time. “It’s a lot of planning,” says Smith. “It’s three to four hour events, 71 of them, every other day for five months.”

It’s time to begin. After a long, miserable winter, with fans hopes as fresh as the new grass and their spirits as high and bright as the omnipresent forsythia, it’s Play ball!

Trenton Thunder, 1 Thunder Road, Trenton 08611; 609-394-3300; fax, 609-394-9666. Will Smith, general manager www.trentonthunder.com.

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