On our latest episode of #WeBelieveInSports, our host Michael Eady sat down with Jonathan Nelson, General Manager of the Birmingham Barons. Jonathan recently started his 17th season with the Barons and his 28th in professional baseball. Over the years, Jonathan has experienced a lot- from when he first started with the Barons interning in ‘93, to Michael Jordan’s iconic ‘94 season with the Barons, to the Baron’s move to downtown Birmingham and the new Regions Field. Give it a listen or read below for some episode highlights.
Michael Eady: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what shaped you and got you into sports and got you to where you are today.
Jonathan Nelson: Well, first of all, Michael I’m thrilled to be here and then I appreciate y’all coming over to Regions Field today. I’m originally from Fairhope, the Gulf Coast and I loved growing up down there. I always was a big sports fan. Despite growing up in Alabama, baseball was always my first love. I love football and college football as much as anybody in this state, but baseball has always sort of resonated with me.
My mom’s family is from New York, so we used to spend our family vacations going up to New York. My first game was at Yankee Stadium, despite not being a Yankees fan. It was a lot of fun back in 1979 and seeing Reggie Jackson. When I realized I did not have the athletic talent to progress and make it a career past properly little league, it was one of those where I wanted to be involved in sports in some form or fashion. So I originally wanted to be a broadcaster. I wanted to be the next Vin Scully and again recognized and realized that I actually had negative talent for that. So I went in a different direction ultimately, obviously. And it’s really been a lot of fun.
When I first got into baseball, I went to the University of Montebello and I was in my last year there and I know that internships were not as commonplace as they are these days, it was in the infant stages, but a professor there, Dr. Duke, helped me get an internship with the Birmingham Bulls when they came back the second time in ‘92-93 and I parlayed that into getting lucky enough to get an internship with the Birmingham Barons in 1993. At that point, I still wanted to be a broadcaster. I was given an opportunity to do it a few times, but again, luckily I realized that maybe I had better talents in other areas. It’s been a fun run. It really has.
Michael Eady: I also tell people that when you’re working in sports, professional baseball is one of the biggest grinds there is as far as breaking into sports. The seasons are really long, the games are at night. It can make for some really long nights and some really long days and some really long weeks and months and seasons. Talk a little bit about when you first interned with the Barons.
Jonathan Nelson: Absolutely. Like you said, there’re so many young people that are starry-eyed and they see something fun. Like I said, my son’s about to go to college and I know he is looking at wanting to get into sports. He’s a huge sports fan. We’ve had interns over the years that didn’t even last a week. Just because you’re a sports fan doesn’t translate into whether you like it or you’re going to be good at it or will enjoy working in sports. But for me, in 1993, I was again lucky enough to work with the Bulls and get a baptism into the whole sports industry and be on the inside for the first time. Working for the Barons, having grown up a White Sox fan, people always think that I’m obligated to be a White Sox fan since the Barons are definitely an affiliate of the White Sox, but I actually grew up being a White Sox fan.
It was a dream come true in so many different ways. I remember we opened on a Friday night and I remember every day I was on cloud nine for much of the season. I mean it was unbelievable. We were not loaded with prospects. We did have Terry Francona as our manager, but we had an incredible staff of so many fun, unique personalities, and so not only are you working in sports at a great ballpark like the Hoover Met back then, but you’re working with so many fun people and it just blew my mind to drive to work, pull in a parking lot and say “you’re going to work at a ballpark”. I knew that Sunday afternoon game, I remember it plain as day, I remember it like it was yesterday and being on that Concourse between the box seats and the general admission area right behind the Barons dugout thinking to myself, this is what I want to do the rest of my life because I can’t imagine anything being better. And I’ve been blessed to continue to be doing that ever since. When I first started, I told people jokingly, okay, my first season of baseball was 1993. We had Francona, we had a really fun team, which eventually won the Southern League Championship. My second year was 1994. Infamously obviously, Michael Jordan was here. My third year, we were eliminated on the final day of the season by half a game and lady luck was not on our side. So after those first two seasons, really three, it’s hard to imagine why I didn’t venture off and do something different because that could not be topped by the mains.
Michael Eady: Talk about your role now as the keeper of the organization and making sure it’s still a great place to work.
Jonathan Nelson: Well, I think when I look back on the internship, and I think we have so many young people that there are specialized jobs these days and what when I, like you said, you’re talking to young people, I always suggest to young people that get as much experience as you can and get it in all areas. There was one person who I worked with years ago who sort of, I don’t want to say protested, but was very reluctant to do a certain job (sell programs) because his parents or relatives are showing up at the game that night or dress as a mascot. But I think that to be well rounded and that’s why I think I appreciate, I think more than ever, everybody’s job here because I’ve pretty much done everything. I’ve been the mascot, I’ve helped clean the stadium after a game, I’ve sold programs, I’ve parked cars, I’ve poured beers, I’ve cooked hot dogs, you name it.
And to me, that’s part of the coolness and the variety of jobs that you might do in making sure that people have a good time. The grind of a season, a baseball season, you know, I was talking to somebody recently that worked with the Birmingham Legion and they just completed their first season, which was a great season. They made the playoffs and all that and they had their game spread out. But our season, unlike theirs, might have a couple games each month, obviously, we have six months and you have 70 games spread throughout that time period. It’s not easy. I mean, for the most part, it’s five on five off. You might have a 10 game home stand here and a 10 game road trip there. But for the most part, you’re on and off. So it’s a constant grind of continuing. People always say, well, what are you doing this time of the year? Contrary to what my mom thinks after 27 years, my feet are not on the desk, I’m not playing golf every day. It’s a continual process of getting ready for the next game, series, and ultimately season. And so that’s where we are right now. And it’s fun because you’re doing it this long, you sort of know what it is, but you also appreciate the different times of the year. And the gearing up for a season, the creativity, but that that staff was small, had a great sense of humor and made it fun. And that’s part of it. I think that my personal slogan has always been, you work hard, but you play hard too. And being at Regions Field, we certainly have an opportunity to work hard because obviously we have a lot of great crowds and all that, but we also, I don’t wanna say play hard, but we play a lot, and we walk across the street over to Good People (Brewing Company). So it’s a lot of fun.
Michael Eady: So talk about that ‘94 season when Michael Jordan came to play for the Barons and talk a little bit about what that meant for the city. I can remember as a young kid going to that game with my friends and my family and the spectacle that was Michael Jordan playing professional baseball.
Jonathan Nelson: First of all, you made me feel old by saying you were a young kid back then.
Michael Eady: I was an older kid actually. I was in my teens. I wasn’t like a kid kid.
Jonathan Nelson: You know, that was one of my top three seasons of all time. We were talking, I had a meeting at Regions earlier today and we were talking about that infamous season and certainly a different time period; no internet, relatively not many people had cell phones, just a different time period. But I remember, people always think all we did was just unlock the gates and open them and people showed up. It was a challenge. I mean, the Hoover Met while the capacity I believe is 10,800, we got in on regularity, despite Michael Jordan not being there on July 4th over the years, 13,000. And the largest crowd ever was over 16,000 for Michael Jordan’s second to last game. But it was a roller coaster ride. There were a lot of ups and downs.
There were obviously many more ups than downs, but there were some PR things that you had to navigate through throughout the course of the season. But it was, it was incredible from the moment it started. I remember it was two days before the team was supposed to show up. And I’m, you know, back in those days, you didn’t have the internet, so we had a little area called the Bullpen where he had two computers where you’d do letters on. So I’m at the bullpen, and it was about 4:30 two days before the team was supposed to show up. And all of a sudden the receptionist called and said, “Hey, listen, Bill (general manager at the time), Ron Schueler, the general manager for the White Sox is on the phone for you.
And so he got up, closed the door, and I knew right then that Michael Jordan would be a Baron because my logic was always that they’re not gonna send somebody of his athletic stature too low and they’re not gonna send them too high, but they’re going to send them somewhere, probably a little bit above the middle, which was AA for the Barons. So, the next morning I showed up at the office, and there were a lot of folks outside of the office. And me being a second-year guy, I got thrown right in the line of fire. So I was selling tickets the whole day at the ticket window at the Hoover Met. And on busy days when you have rain, a lot of times you order pizza or you get food in or whatever it is. I never got to leave. They just brought the pizza to me and they said, just keep selling tickets. So we ended up selling tickets and that happened, and I always say that it was the REM song. It was the end of the world as we knew it because it was, it was unbelievable. He was great. I know that he enjoyed his time here. And it was always like a comparative to a Lakers game too, because you never knew who you’re going to see at the Hoover Met on any given night. It could be Kenny Rogers, the country music performer that shows up out of the blue or any kind of athletic or entertainer celebrity that was going to be in town. Charles Barkley was a fixture out there that year. And you had a variety of his friends. So it was fun.
I mean, you had Michael Jordan, he always had two bodyguards. One was in the dugout with him. And it was a lot of fun. And to this day I was telling our staff this past season that no season will ever compare because I think our staff was invited for more golf tournaments throughout the Birmingham Metro area than ever before because they hoped, knowing that he was a golfer, that he would participate and he never did. But we were invited to so many throughout the season. It was a lot of fun. That was a lot of fun. It was certainly a nice park that year.
Michael Eady: Talk a little bit to us about what it was like being at the Barons, being in Hoover, Hoover being a great home for the Barons for a long time, the decision to move Birmingham downtown and what that was like and what you guys have seen.
Jonathan Nelson: Thank you for all the kind words about Regions Field and of course our move downtown. Hoover certainly was a wonderful home for us for many years and that community will always be a very special part. 25 great years of so many great players and championship teams and providing so many wonderful experiences. We’re still very active within the Hoover area. We always sponsored the Hoover Chamber Lunch and have so many wonderful friends still down there. Relocating downtown was something that was a big picture thing. Moving downtown was certainly not an original plan unique to Birmingham so it was going to be successful. But knowing that there was so much pent up maybe frustration about projects that didn’t get off the ground or things that maybe folks in Birmingham seeing Atlanta obviously for a long time turned into a major international city or Nashville continuing to grow beyond compare these days or Memphis as well.
But it was to me being here in 2013, being a part of all this process for the Barons has been extremely satisfying. Obviously Regions Field is a great modern day ballpark with all the amenities that satisfies the needs of this community, centrally located and easily accessible right off I-65, but what you’re saying is ushering in a new era, a revitalization, if you will. I mean, you know, we just completed our seventh season and you look outside the windows and you see at least four cranes constructing apartment residential buildings. The amount of development, not only in the shadows of Regions Field, but all across the downtown area, whether it be Avondale, the uptown entertainment district, and all across. This area has been staggering. While, to me, it is twofold when it comes to Regions Field and the Barons moving downtown, the satisfaction one, our role in contributing to the overall better quality of life and development and of this area too.
And of course, you’re talking about the economic impact of everything, both residential and retail and business overall, but also the morale. The morale that Birmingham is so genuinely excited and proud of making downtown a destination and the belief that yes we can. That’s why, when folks say this is a Minor League town or an events town or whatever it is. We have so many great events that have been established here for years. And of course, the Barons have been around for the most part since 1985 and other minor league teams as well and you guys do great events, is that I never want us to just continue to believe that that’s what we’re going to be. I want us to continue to hopefully continue to raise the bar and into belief that we can continue to be who we want to be ultimately.
Whether it be an NFL team or another major league sports, whatever it is, or other major sporting events. The World Games are going to come in a few years. I mean that’s beyond exciting to see where we’re going and not limit ourselves on what we think we should be or what we have been, but again, just see where we can go with this whole process. To me the satisfaction, you talk about 1994 and the Birmingham Barons and Michael Jordan. In 2013 that wonderful season, which was my favorite season by far, my favorite season ever, was 2013 my season in Detroit with the Tigers and then of course 1994. But 2013 compared to 1994 with Michael Jordan was very similar because in 1994 you saw an incredible sense of civic pride of enthusiasm for Barons baseball.
But that was short term. Michael Jordan was not going to be a Baron for the rest of his career, whereas in 2013, the opening of Regions Field was something of a major impact that will certainly be lasting in this community. You saw that same enthusiasm, you saw that same sense of civic pride and you’re seeing it still today. That’s a testament to the folks in this community, the businesses and everybody’s overall enthusiasm and support and desire for Birmingham to continue to grow and see where we go with this thing.
Michael Eady: You talked a lot about your favorite seasons in work and stuff, but just personally as a sports fan, do you have a favorite sports moment? It could be anything from going to a game with your dad or your son or anything like that to experiencing some of those magical seasons that you talked about.
Jonathan Nelson: I would go tie to the base runner. One, when the White Sox actually, not won the World Series in 2005, but when they actually recorded the final out in the ALCS, when Paul Konerko recorded the final out because I never thought, I should never say it’s sitting doing the job that I do, but I never thought the White Sox would, would get there. Just because, again, I’m a long time White Sox fan. But probably my favorite sports experience moment would be a few years ago when my son and I went to Yankee Stadium. A good friend of mine, who’s an AP writer, brought us down to the Empire’s Clubhouse and brought my son and I down to the field. I’ve been on fields for a long time, Major and Minor League, but for my son, who’s a Yankees fan, to experience something like that was pretty cool.
Michael Eady: So, what’s next for the Birmingham Barons?
Jonathan Nelson: I think completing season seven, we’ve led the league in attendance for seven great years and provided so many fun experiences. I think the challenge that we have is continuing to make Regions Field, the ballpark fresh and add new amenities on an annual basis and all the bells and whistles that we do and also continue to attract attendance and make sure that we do what we’re entrusted to do and that’s provide the best experiences and folks come out. And again, this is their sense of civic pride in coming out here and raising the bar. We have a new team coming up, the Rocket City Trash Pandas, that moved from Mobile and it’s going to be a great addition for our league. I think there’s going to be a good little rivalry between Madison, the Rocket City in Huntsville and us moving forward. I know there’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. So we’re looking forward to them jumping on board, but at the same time, we want to continue to raise the bar in what we’re doing every year. That means continuing to prepare and think about how we can stay fresh and make sure that everybody wants to continue to come out to Regions Field on an annual basis.
Michael Eady: I’ve said a couple of times how much we love sports. What, what is so special about sports to you?
Jonathan Nelson: When it comes to sports for me, it has changed over the years. I think for me, what’s so wonderful about sports, one, going through the experience, the drama, the journey, if you will, of a season. But also connecting and sharing it with so many folks, the relationships, the connecting of generations on a personal level whether it be my son or my grandfather or my dad, my mother, my niece who contacted me recently about trying to get a job in Major League Baseball. But to me, things have changed so much over the years, but I enjoy now the relationships more than ever because you see how much sports, as you say, means to so many folks on a variety of different levels. Somebody might like our mascot race, somebody like our, dollar hotdog night. They might like our fireworks. They might love coming out here and seeing Louis Robert, one of the top prospects of Minor League Baseball or Omar Vizquel, our manager this past season. Everybody has their own reasons for wanting to come out or go to their own type of game. But I think to me the most satisfying thing is about connections. That’s why when we do the Rickwood Classic every year, and we started that back in 96, to me the most satisfying thing is that that really does connect so many different generations. Not only Barons fans but baseball fans as a whole. I mean we have folks, believe it or not, that come in from all across the country just for that one game each year. But you see so many different generations of the same family showing up for that one game because the grandfather went to games at Rickwood, the son went to the Hoover Met and now the grandson or granddaughter is going to Regions Field. And so it all sort of comes together and that again, that’s so satisfying.
Michael Eady: That’s awesome to hear. Well that just about does it. Just want to say thanks again, Jonathan, for taking the time out of your schedule to sit down and talk with us. Obviously we’re huge fans of the Barons, huge fans of what the park has done for downtown Birmingham. We have a lot of civic pride at Knight Eady and really appreciate what you guys do.
Jonathan Nelson: Well, thank you, Michael. We have the utmost respect and appreciation for what you guys are doing and thank you for everything that you guys do here in the Magic City.
Through this series, we’ll be talking with some of the most powerful and impactful influencers in the industry. Join us wherever you listen to podcasts as we explore how their work impacts sports, why sports are such a powerful platform, and how sports can shape our communities.