CLINTON — LumberKings fans and staff took a break from the snow and spent an evening thinking about the upcoming baseball season Sunday night at the 2018 Hot Stove Banquet at Eagle Point Lodge.
“We always joke that this is the unofficial start to our 2018 season, which is weird considering it’s 10 degrees out,” LumberKings broadcast manager Erik Oas said to begin the evening.
The annual fundraising effort for the Friends of Riverview Stadium brought in a high-profile speaker this year: the general manager of the Seattle Mariners organization, Jerry Dipoto. Dipoto is entering his third season at the head of the organization and made his first trip to Clinton since taking over.
“Someone asked if I was going to Beverly Hills for the Ken Griffey Jr. dinner and I said, ‘No, I’m going to Clinton,’ “ Dipoto said. “Ted (Tornow, the LumberKings’ GM) asked me if I would come out. I knew it would be a little on the chilly side for my taste.”
Dipoto started by reiterating one of the philosophies of the organization: involvement with all the communities in which their affiliates are located.
“One of the things that has been really important to me in the front office is cultivating environments for our young players and asking, if not demanding, that they interact with their communities,” Dipoto said. “We are very involved with the communities we are with. It’s a must, it’s part of our curriculum and we have been doing it this way. It starts in the instructional leagues and works through each of the affiliates.
“We are unique in major-league baseball in that way. We want to teach our players how to be good people and how to give back when there’s an opportunity to give back. That’s the difference between the baseball pipeline and any other professional sports.”
LumberKings staff continued to describe Dipoto as “the busiest man in baseball” throughout the night, referencing the amount of transactions that have happened throughout the organization in the past three years.
When Dipoto started in Seattle, he was going in with the oldest ball club in baseball. Five players at the major-league level accounted for 75 percent of the payroll and 90 percent of the on-field productivity. That included players such as Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez.
“General baseball knowledge and even the most casual fan knows it’s a young mans game,” Dipoto said. “Most stars are in their 20s, by the time they are in their 30s they’re our heroes on their way to the other side. We had a model that was not conducive to future success. We had to fix that while inheriting what, at the time, was the 28th-ranked farm team in baseball.
“We had to find a creative solution. We wanted to get younger, athletic, more sustainable.”
With busy offseasons, once setting the record for transactions in a single month, Dipoto and his staff have done that. They now have the second-youngest team in the American League and the sixth youngest in professional baseball.
Plus, the Mariners organization was the only franchise to pick up two top-25 prospects in the last draft. That includes players such as Evan White and Sam Carlson, the latter expected to make an appearance in Clinton this summer. The young talent in the system is a factor that Dipoto expects to see the fruits of here in Clinton.
“The talent that will be coming through here hopefully by midsummer will be encouraging to you,” Dipoto said. “Teams develop as they go because you see so many different players. The teams that we put on the field since we’ve been here, over the last two years we have a winning percentage of .536. That’s fifth in all of minor-league baseball. That’s not too bad.”
Plus, Dipoto has high remarks about the new Clinton Manager Denny Hocking. Hocking and Dipoto played in the majors at the same time in the 1990s.
“Denny Hocking has personality. Denny is a contemporary mind,” Dipoto said. “We played against each other back in the ‘90s, and he lasted into the 2000s because he knows baseball. To last in the big leagues as long as he did says a lot about his IQ. He has a great sense of humor and knows how to keep an environment loose.
“I’m encouraged with his communication skills. He knows how to work with young players, and he’s a very patient guy. Denny likes to win. Sometimes in development that takes a backseat to progress on any given day. We have made it a priority in our system to teach our players how to win. He’s blue collar, a hard-nosed guy and not afraid to talk.”
For the LumberKings faithful, it was encouraging to hear from someone from the front office who is as interested in how the LumberKings are performing as the ones who will be in the stands come April.
“Not just the box scores, we put it on the TV,” Dipoto said. “For the ones we don’t see on minor-league TV or that we’re not getting through an internal feed we watch a taped game. We are just as in tuned to what you players are doing on the field as you are and are often seeing it in real time.”
Tornow also spoke about the improvements coming to Ashford University Stadium in the upcoming year with the biggest rennovations since 2006.