Leader Blues

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

SPORTS >> Travs’ exec makes pitch

Leader sports editor

For Arkansas Travelers general manager Pete Laven, the fans come first.

Laven, entering his fourth season calling the shots for the Travelers, paid a visit to the Jacksonville Rotary Club luncheon Monday to discuss the new season and his plans for showing ticket-buyers a good time.

“We don’t consider Jacksonville an outlying area anymore,” said Laven, whose club moved a little closer when it opened Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock in 2007.

Unlike his Major League counterparts, Laven gets no say over the comings and goings of players, managers and coaches.

That’s up to the Los Angeles Angels, who have been sending players to Arkansas since signing the first player-development contract with the Travelers, of the Class AA Texas League, in the fall of 2000.

While Angels general manager Tony Reagins spends most of his time focusing on the roster, Laven spends most of his time trying to see to it the paying customers get their money’s worth.

That means continuing the grand tradition of promotions like Clunker Car Night and midget wrestling and the free giveaways like magnetic schedules and replica caps for which the Travelers became known under long-time, legendary general manager and executive vice president Bill Valentine, who retired at the outset of last season.

“That’s what you have to do these days,” Laven said. “I know Jacksonville is a great baseball town but you can’t depend on the diehard fans anymore.”

Laven noted the popularity of the Dickey-Stephens Park beer garden, which has become a nightclub unto itself where fans, Laven noted, may not even pay attention to the score.

Other distractions this season will include a celebrity boxing match, the usual school day games with their 11 a.m. starts, fireworks, and two nights of midget wrestling.

“I really would have thought the novelty would have worn off by now,” Laven said. “Instead we have two.”

The Travelers will also hold their first “bark at the park” game on April 29, which also happens to be the first Jacksonville-Cabot community night. Fans can bring their dogs and stick around for a postgame concert by the Baja Men, who sang “Who Let the Dogs Out?” and turned out to be available for $5,000.

“I’m sure they’ll play all their hits,” Laven said.

Dickey-Stephens Park has a fixed seating of 5,200 and its capacity increases to 7,000 with the outfield berms, but Laven said the ballpark can hold even more than that, and noted the 13,000 at last year’s concert by the Dave Matthews Band.

“The Texas League is very unique,” Laven said. “So many new ballparks. The oldest ballpark in our league is in San Antonio and that was built in 1994.”

Laven is a 1991 graduate of Eastern Illinois University who first worked for the Travelers as an intern at old Ray Winder Field in the 1990s. He worked for ball clubs in Kane Co., Ill., Albany, Ga., and Kannapolis, N.C., before returning to Arkansas as an assistant general manager in 2000.

Laven was named Texas League executive of the year in 2006, which began with a minor league umpires strike and featured the Texas League All-Star Game at Ray Winder Field as well as closing ceremonies for the ballpark, which opened in 1932.

Among his many all-star game duties, Laven had to pace out the steps the color guard would take on the field, then sing the National Anthem to himself in order to time out the Air National Guard fighter jet flyby, which went off without a hitch.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been four years,” said Laven, who was promoted when Valentine stepped down as general manager before the start of 2007.

While Laven has no say on player personnel, he is pleased to point out the number of Major Leaguers the Travelers have produced. The Texas League is just one stop away from the big leagues, and on the Angels’ 40-man roster alone there are 25 former Arkansas players.

Under the Angels’ affiliation the Travelers have rarely boasted stellar records but won the 2001 Texas League championship, lost the TLCS to Midland in 2005 and won another championship in 2008. Laven said the success, talent and relationships with the Angels’ front office make it likely Arkansas will extend its contract with Los Angeles sometime this season.

“All in all it’s been a very good partnership,” Laven said. “If you asked me who I want to be with next year I would say the Angels.”