Touring The Bases With…Durham Bulls GM Mike Birling
Mike Birling is the General Manager for the Durham Bulls located in Durham, North Carolina, in the International League. They have been an Affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays since 1998. Their Stadium is Durham Bulls Athletic Park. (a) International League Champions 2002 – 2003 – 2009
Seamheads.Com: What was your first job working in baseball? How did you obtain that position? How did that job enable you to get to where you are today?
Mike Birling: My first job in baseball was as an intern for the Appleton Foxes in the Midwest League in 1994. It was a great introduction to baseball for me as Alex Rodriquez, Raul Ibanez and Shawn Estes were just a few of the players on that team. We had a few full-time employees and the rest of us were interns. Halfway through the season, I was asked to take on the operations of the ballpark, which was everything from concessions to the cleaning of the park. That season was so much fun for me. I was able to do everything and learn about every different department.
After the season, the team went through a name change to the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and we moved into a brand new stadium the next year. Steve Malliet, who has been a long time mentor for me, hired me as Assistant General Manager in the new stadium. That break gave me the opportunity to continue to work my way up the Rattlers to General Manager. After the 1998 season I moved to Durham to take the position of Assistant General Manager of the Durham Bulls. A few years later, I was name GM and have held that position ever since. I continue to believe every day I live the dream.
Seamheads.Com: What does your job consist of? What are your responsibilities?
Birling: I oversee all aspects of the organization including: ticket sales, stadium operations, marketing, promotions, community relations, grounds crew, corporate sales, concessions and merchandising. Each one of these departments has a manager who reports back to me on their progress. To break it down in the simplest terms, my responsibility is to generate the highest NOI (Net Operating Income) each season, while making sure we provide affordable family entertainment with a commitment to customer and community service.
Seamheads.Com: What do you love the most about your job?
Birling: I am very lucky to have the job I do. Most people only dream of having a job they absolutely love. In eighteen seasons, I have never looked at the clock saying, it is time to go home. The best things are the everyday challenges. There is no boredom in this job. Every day, a different department has something that needs to get solved, so I love working with each manager on coming up with solutions that will make the experience more memorable to our fans and our community.
Seamheads.Com: What is your history with the Bulls?
Birling: The Durham Bulls have so much history and that is what makes it so much fun working with this team. Obviously everyone knows about the movie (b) but there is so much more to the Durham Bulls than that. Our most recent history has been the success on the field. Since we joined the Triple-A International League in 1998, we have been to the playoffs ten of the thirteen season, been to the Governor’s Cup Championship eight times, won it three times and won the Triple-A National Championship once.
Seamheads.Com: Where were you born and raised?
Birling: I was born in Kimberly, Wisconsin. It is a small town of about five thousand people located about a half hour from Green Bay. I graduated from Xavier High School in 1990.
Seamheads.Com: When did you get interested in baseball as a child? What was the first pro game you saw?
Birling: Sports has been a part of my entire family’s life for as long as I can remember. My sister and I both played three sports through high school and she went on to play basketball in college. I played baseball in college. Both my parents were very good athletes and influenced me in regards to sports. Sports can teach you so many great lessons about life, they realized that early on. The first pro game I ever saw was a Milwaukee Brewers game. This was when the Brewers were a tremendous team with Cecil Cooper, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, etc.
Seamheads.Com: What is the most difficult part of your job?
Birling: It is constantly trying to top what we did the previous year. That means both from a business standpoint and from a fan experience point of view. Things change so quickly in today’s world; you always have to be ahead of the next trend. That can prove to be very difficult.
Seamheads.Com: When you were a youngster, who did you root for? Who were a few of your favorite players?
Birling: I was a big Brewers fan. I remember when we lost in the 1982 World Series, it took me weeks to come out of my room; I was so upset. My favorite player was Cecil Cooper. He was a left-handed hitter like me and I loved his batting stance.
Seamheads.Com: Who are a few of your favorite ALL-TIME players?
Birling: Greg Maddux and Cal Ripken Jr. The reason is because they both played the game the right way. Maddux proved you do not have to throw in the mid-90’s to be successful. It seems every scout is looking for that in a young pitcher now. Ripken Jr. should be an inspiration for everyone. The effort he put in and the mentality he had about playing hard every day is something every person should learn from.
Seamheads.Com: Of all your accomplishments with the Bulls, what are you most proud of?
Birling: My focus is on the business side of the team, so the thing I am most proud of is my staff and I have never missed a budget in the twelve years I have been with the Bulls. It is difficult to deal with the ups and downs of the economy and the different entertainment options that have come into our market. It says a lot about our managers and staff.
Seamheads.Com: what College did you attend? What was your major? Did you play any sports? If baseball, what position?
Birling: I graduated from University Wisconsin-LaCrosse in 1994. My major was in Sport Management and I had a minor in Business Administration. I was a pitcher and outfielder on the baseball team for a couple years.
Seamheads.Com: What career were you considering in college, how, when & why the change to a baseball career?
Birling: I actually started out trying to become a Physical Therapist. The change to Sport Management came after my first year of chemistry and physics. The grades in those classes told me I needed to try something new.
Seamheads.Com: Should MLB take a greater role in disciplining players for criminal actions as DUI? (5 players this year have been arrested for this offense)
Birling: I absolutely think both the players union and MLB should take a much greater role in disciplining players for criminal actions. Whether they like it or not they are role models to kids and they need to understand to play Major League Baseball is a privilege, not a right. Take the money out of the equation and they still have one of the greatest “jobs” anyone could ask for. Somewhere along the line a lot of players forget the responsibility they have to the game and the fans.
Seamheads.Com: What is the most outstanding memory you have working for the Bulls?
Birling: The most outstanding memory I have is the day I was hired as the General Manager. The Durham Bulls are the most iconic franchise in Minor League Baseball and to have the honor of representing the team, as General Manager is something very special to me.
Seamheads.Com: What advice would you give a young person considering a career in baseball?
Burling: You must be a passionate, determined, and competitive person to succeed in this business. Also, you must get practical experience as early as you can. Nothing helps more than being a part of it on some level and continuing to learn. People skills and selling skills will be what takes you to high levels or what keeps you from breaking into sports.
Seamheads.Com: What makes you successful at your job?
Birling: I believe what makes me successful are my passion and drive to always be better than everyone else. I always want us to be the first team to do this or do that. I always want us to do better than the year before. It may not work out how you want or expect it to, but you can never stop learning more and can never stop working harder.
Seamheads.Com: How has baseball affected your personal life?
Birling: Baseball has affected my personal life both positively and negatively. The negative part of baseball is the extremely long hours put in, which keep you from having a normal life with your family and/or friends. You miss out on things with your family that you feel terrible about. On a positive side it gives you and your family opportunities that a lot of people only can dream about.
Seamheads.Com: Being an avid Green Bay Packers fan, do you still own anything Brett Favre related?
Birling: I haven’t gotten around to burning the jersey’s I have of his yet. The one thing I will keep is the autographed football he gave me. At least I can make some money off the trader.
Seamheads.Com: What are your top 5 television shows of all time?
Birling: My all-time top five would be Seinfeld, Cheers; The Price is Right, Happy Days, and Everybody Loves Raymond.
Seamheads.Com: If you could change one thing about education today, what would it be?
Birling: First thing is I would double or triple what teachers make, but with that hold them more accountable to the progress of the children. The big change, though, would be in the structure of the classes. I believe, too many of the important subjects that prepare you for the real world aren’t being taught, like setting and exceeding goals, understanding people, taking responsibility, effective listening, effective communication, building relationships, and the magic of a positive attitude.
Seamheads.Com: What is your most exciting non-game Bulls day-to-day activity?
Birling: The most exciting day-to-day activity for me on a non-game day would be the ability to go home at a decent hour and spend time with my family.
Seamheads.Com: In this upcoming Bulls season, what excites you the most?
Birling: What excites me the most about this upcoming season is a combination of memorable events (i.e. the exhibition game against the Rays and the Return to the DAP game) and watching the journey that hopefully takes us back to the National Championship game.
Seamheads.Com: One of your players, Russ Canzler was named the International League MVP and Durham Bulls MVP. In addition, he was the Triple-A All-Star Game MVP and was chosen for a post- season all-star team. Care to comment on Russ?
Birling: Russ is currently up with the Rays. He had a tremendous season with the Bulls on the field, but more importantly is the type of person he is off the field. He would always be there for our organization to help in ay way possible. His work with our sponsors, in the community and with our fans shows why he was the MVP.
Rapid Fire questions:
Blackberry or iPhone? Blackberry
Are you a quiet father on sidelines or screaming father? I am embarrassed to say I am the screaming father on sidelines
Surf or Ski? Ski
Soup or Salad? Soup
Jeans or Khaki? Jeans
Musical or Sporting event? Sporting event
Email or face to face? Depends on situation, but mainly face to face
Steak or Seafood? Steak
Pitch count or keep throwing? Keep Throwing
More exciting – Grand Slam or No Hitter? No Hitter
Favorite MLB player growing up? Shawon Dunston
(a) Durham Bulls Athletic Park opened in 1995 and captures the spirit of a classic Carolina League park while providing all the amenities sought by today’s baseball fan. It is a classic ballpark of the minor leagues.
Durham is the most storied minor-league market thanks to the amazing popularity of the movie Bull Durham, which featured Kevin Costner. Featured prominently in the movie were the Durham Athletic Park and a wooden bull that would snort after a home run.
A roof covers approximately 2,500 seats behind home plate and down both the first and third base lines to the end of each dugout. All seats at the DBAP are extra wide with seat backs, extra leg room and over 95 percent of the seats have cup holders. The stadium was designed and built so that every seat gives fans a great view of the field with an intimate ballpark feel.
b) Bull Durham starring Tim Robbins who plays a rookie pitcher with a lightening fastball but cannot find home plate and Kevin Costner, a battered veteran catcher making one last minor-league stop is brought in to mentor Tim. A quirky, intelligent comedy with plenty of surprises and sharp dialogue. Also stars Susan Sarandon.
© The 1982 World Series had the St. Louis Cardinals against the Milwaukee Brewers,
with the Cardinals winning in seven games. The Brewers won the American League East division by one game over the Baltimore Orioles, and then defeated the California Angels three games to two to win the American League Championship Series.
The series was referred to as the “Suds Series” as St. Louis was home to Busch beer while Milwaukee was the home of Miller Brewing.
(d) Canzler joined the Bulls as a free agent and was one of only a handful of players to spend the entire season on the Bulls roster. He finished the year with a 314 average, had 149 hits, 40 doubles, 4 triples, 18 home runs, 83 RBI and a .530 slugging percentage.
Russ bats R. Throws R. Ht: 6’2″ Wt: 220 lbs. He was born on April 11, 1986 in Berwick, Pa and was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 30th round of the 2004 amateur draft. He made his Major League debut with the Tampa Bay Rays on September 15, 2011.
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Norm Coleman is a sports writer, actor. He live in Half Moon Bay, California
This interview has been published with permission from Baseball Digest