BY CAROLYN LaWELL
SPRINGFIELD, Missouri | Here Comes the King blares from the speakers and synchs with a scoreboard video of Clydesdales pulling an Anheuser-Busch beer wagon. The old commercial plays at the end of every seventh inning here in Springfield and 215 miles northeast for those other Cardinals in St. Louis.
“I called Anheuser-Busch when we were negotiating with them,” says Matt Gifford, vice president and general manager of the Springfield Cardinals. “I said, ‘I want to have The King. They said, ‘Nah, we don’t need that.’ And I said, ‘You don’t understand, you’re getting it.’ We want The King because we want that connection.”
The song is the St. Louis equivalent of Sweet Caroline in Boston or Roll Out the Barrel in Milwaukee, and one of the many Cardinals traditions that stretches down I-44. The seats are filled with a sea of red and white and logos of cardinals. The scoreboard intro documents the Cardinals who once played here and made it to the Majors and their road to the World Series and win last season. Between inning games play up the rivalry with the Chicago Cubs.
The St. Louis Cardinals bought the El Paso Diablos and moved them to Springfield for the 2005 season. To open the operation the Cardinals tapped two employees in St. Louis to move to Springfield – Gifford and Scott Smulczenski, vice president of baseball and business operations.
"I spent nine years in the big leagues to get excited about moving to Double-A." – Springfield Cardinals general manager Matt Gifford
“I spent nine years in the big leagues to get excited about moving to Double-A,” Gifford says. “It’s a special franchise in the way it’s run, and we have special fans that appreciate the fact that this is a mini Busch Stadium experience.”
Since starting his career, the Cardinals have been Gifford’s only employer. He was hired out of college in January 1996 to sell season tickets for three months. He earned $5 an hour. Instead of tagging along with colleagues to the bar after work, where happy hour beers cost as much as he made in an hour, Gifford stayed late. “People got home after 5 p.m., right?” he says. “If I stayed until 6, 6:30, it was amazing how many phone calls I got from people just because I was there.”
Gifford sold a lot of tickets that offseason and was hired as an intern. His pay bumped to $7 an hour. It took him two years to get benefits. By the time the Cardinals were looking to send someone to Springfield, Gifford had worked in ticket sales, community relations and corporate sales – and, more important, had worked all of that with the Cardinals.
He received the promotion in September 2004, a short turnaround to bring back professional baseball to Springfield after it had been gone for decades. “We were basically given a budget that day and told, ‘Here, go do it. Figure it out,’” he says. “It was great. We had great people. We worked a lot of hours, but it paid off. There’s nothing like starting a company.”
Gifford nabbed office supplies from the designated closet in St. Louis and moved to Springfield to start preparing before the Texas League even approved of the team’s move.
From September until April, he and his team arrived at the stadium around 8:30 a.m. and left between 2 and 3 the next morning, just enough time to sleep a few hours and shower. “It was a super challenge,” Gifford says. “There were a lot of sleepless nights.”
Minor league general managers work years, sometimes decades, to earn the title. Gifford had no minor league experience. He went to the Winter Meetings in Anaheim, California, and the Texas League meeting in Las Vegas and talked with other GMs. Some had been in the business longer than he had been alive.
Gifford didn’t tour a minor league park or attend a game. He knew the Cardinals’ expectations. “We tried to set it up like we do in the big leagues,” he says. “It’s not rocket science that we’re doing here. Making sure it was fun, making sure there was value, keeping it affordable. I know what it’s like to go to a game, I know what I want to see on the field, and that was part of the philosophy that we were able to create.”
Part of that creation was, of course, tying ideas from the parent club and the city’s baseball past. Like in St. Louis, the dugouts note the league championship titles of former Springfield teams – 1932, 1934, 1937 and 1941. One of the former owners loved tending to a rose garden, and now a rose garden sits under the scoreboard. Here Comes the King, of course, every night.
Gifford also wanted to adopt ideas from the Majors that could be better executed in Double-A. Having players sign autographs, for instance, was difficult to organize in St. Louis. Gifford knows because he was once tasked with that responsibility in St. Louis.
"We tried to set it up like we do in the big leagues. It’s not rocket science that we’re doing here." – Gifford
“Here, well, we don’t have to do it once a month,” Gifford says. “Every night, four guys go up and sign autographs for the fans for a half hour when the gates open, in uniform. You have that feeling – I remember when I walked into my first ballpark, the color of the grass, the size of the players, the brightness of the uniforms, all of that.”
It filters all the way down to promotions. This year, the Cardinals handed out bobbleheads of Matt Adams, who played first base for them last season and is now in St. Louis. Fans lined up at 10 a.m. for a 6 p.m. game to ensure they went home with a bobblehead. World Series replica ring giveaways had fans line up at 8 a.m. and waiting almost half a day.
“The best marketing we’ve had this year was winning the championship,” Gifford says, a real World Series ring on his own hand. “All of the stuff we were working on, we set aside and said, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do this year. It’s what our fans want and they want to celebrate.’”
That synergy might not exist without the effort to replicate the St. Louis philosophy in Springfield. Gifford refers to it as the perfect storm because the fan base and the Cardinals tradition were already there in Springfield. Few teams can claim a similar connection. The Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves are two exceptions.
“There was a point where most of the affiliates were owned by their teams and then they spun them off and said, ‘We don’t want them,’” Gifford says. “But if you look at how successful the Braves are and how successful this has been, I think there are probably teams that wish they could get back into it.”
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