By: Chris Kutz
Leadership can be tricky to define. A significant amount of time and studies have been dedicated to narrowing down what makes a good leader. None seem to give us a universal answer.
In sports, leadership can be vaguely defined as an “intangible.” Leaders are the ones who rise to the top. Teammates and fans are drawn to them. Members of the media, coaches and scouts all attempt to capture this mystic quality as “it.”
“It” is one of the broadest terms in the English language, but from a leadership standpoint, “it” can be found in John and Diane Carbray.
Diane is Kansas born and raised. She played volleyball, basketball and softball. After completing her undergraduate coursework at Benedictine College in her home state, she later earned her Master’s degree in Sports Administration at Ohio University.
John’s life has been devoted to sporting events and entertainment. His first experience in the business of sports came in the form of professional baseball. He first served as the Northwest League President from 1969-71 before venturing into the Pacific Coast League for the first time in his career with the Eugene Emeralds and Sacramento Solons. He earned the honor of Sporting News Triple-A Executive of the Year in 1974.
The game of soccer brought the two together as the John and Diane first met when both were working with the San Jose Earthquakes, then of the North American Soccer League. In 1983, the future husband and wife founded Projects West Entertainment, a company that would put on more than 400 concerts over 20 years at athletic events.
From Jimmy Buffett to The Beach Boys, The Temptations to Miami Sound Machine, the Carbrays put on shows with a stable of self-owned portable stages. Baseball became one of the easiest settings for an action-packed event from beginning to end.
“Sometimes people would show up in the sixth inning, catch the end of the ballgame and use the 20 minutes between the end of the game and the start of the concert to visit the concession stands, go the bathroom; whatever they needed to do so they see the best of both shows.”
But navigating the country, putting on hundreds of concerts, can show one the corners of the nation that might have not been known prior to the journey.
“Bob Freitas [a Minor League Baseball executive] introduced us to Fresno,” said Diane. “The Fresno Giants/Suns moved to Salinas [after 1988], and Bob called us to see if anyone wanted to buy the wooden bleachers from Euless Park [the Fresno Giants’ former stadium]. The Rose Bowl Parade ended up purchasing the bleachers, but we quickly learned more about Fresno.
“It was a business-decision to bring professional baseball to Fresno. There are five Major League teams in California. From a partnership standpoint, [the MLB teams] would have a partner. This market…not having a pro team, was ripe.”
It was 1991, and the Carbrays began to set in motion their dream of bringing a team to Fresno.
Leaders without followers are lonely folks. The “it” they possess becomes a wasted quality. Leaders must have the vision, the dream, the persistence to institute change, but no aspiration is attainable without a dose of reality.
Followers institute this reality. They empower leaders to continue on and realize the vision. Without the followers, leaders quickly realize others do not share their goal.
For the Carbrays, the followers became the Fresno community. The Central Valley motivated them to change the landscape of baseball in a land of agriculture. Pro ball may have left, but they brought it back.
“There was a will here,” said Diane. “The community lifted us up, and we were the leaders. We got so far into it, we couldn’t quit.”
“It was a grassroots effort,” said John. “We kept selling the dream. People of Fresno kept us motivated. As soon as we got down, someone would come through the door.”
Seven years worth of motivation from the community was needed before the Carbrays introduced the Grizzlies to Fresno. People such as William Connolly, Jack Emerian, Dave Cates and Tim Cullen helped make up the ownership partners, the Fresno Diamond Group. Residents of the area bought 3,000 season tickets for a team that didn’t yet exist. Each person not only became an investor financially into John and Diane’s vision, but invested their time and efforts to help make the vision a reality.
“We didn’t use their money until the stadium was built. It was a huge trust factor,” said Diane. “Numbers told them it was a good idea.”
The group, led by John and Diane, eventually purchased a Triple-A team in 1996. With the Tucson Toros franchise in hand, the dominoes for a professional baseball team in Fresno began to fall.
A few years later, after getting commitment from more powerful figures in town, the Carbrays were able to fulfill their entire vision: pro baseball in downtown Fresno. Now, Chukchansi Park is considered one of the finest ballparks in Minor League Baseball, even 11 years after it was completed.
The 2012 season will be the Grizzlies’ 15th anniversary and 11th in downtown. The Carbrays always knew a Triple-A team is what Fresno would want.
“It is a bonding experience for everyone with the diversity of people who are going there. It is a melting pot with a common community experience in front. That is why we built it.”
The Carbrays sold the dream, took the community through a long-winding journey, and delivered the prize to the believers by bringing Fresno the second-highest level of professional baseball in North America to its downtown.
The Al Radka Award was created by the Carbrays in 2003 and meant to celebrate individuals who made a contribution to the community through the game of baseball. They then awarded it to Bill Thompson, but it is now time for the award to come to its original starting point.
“Humbled and honored,” said Diane after learning her and her husband would be recipients of the achievement. “It’s been 15 years since we bought the team, and for it to come full-circle feels great.”
Leaders are visionaries, opportunists, harmonious, persistent, to name a few qualities. As with the Carbrays, whose leadership is being honored at the Hot Stove Gala on January 28th, their qualities can be summed up simply by saying they have “it.”