This article also appears in the sixth edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending the homestand that runs through Thursday, June 25th. Purchase tickets here.
Story by Ryan Young
After the final out at Chukchansi Park on any given game, General Manager Derek Franks gets his second wind. From his second floor office behind home plate, his light is one of maybe two still on as the cleaning crews get to work on making sure the stadium is set for tomorrow’s game.
Franks, 30, is feasting on the analytics from that night’s game. He inputs everything from how the Grizzlies Team Store did prior to first pitch down to how many slices of pizza were sold at stand one. He goes beyond the numbers and replays the in-game skits the entertainment crew did, how well giveaway distribution was executed, and even has ran out to the corner of Van Ness and Inyo street to direct cars to parking lots when an attendant didn’t show up. This is more of what a general manager of a Minor League Baseball team can expect to be a part of on any given day.
Unlike most GM titles that are known to many fans as the taskmasters of player transactions, Franks’ job duties are geared in an opposite direction.
“My role is to build the business around the players and coaches and be a venue for entertainment,” he states. “The only player transactions I get to be involved in are in my fantasy baseball league.”
The confusion is there, especially when highly-touted No. 1 Prospect Carlos Correa was promoted to Fresno from Double-A Corpus Christi back in early May.
“I’m getting used to those emails that ask me why it took me so long to call certain players up, but I stay patient in explaining that it’s the Astros who get to decide which players wear our uniform.” Franks says with a smile.
Named to his position on March 5th of this year, the Kingsburg native started with the organization way back in 2004. He’s a true farm grown talent having worked his way from intern to the top decision maker in the organization.
Within a short amount of time atop the organizational chart, he’s been critical in strengthening the relationship with city officials, cutting the organization deficit in half within 12 months, and being the steady presence during the only affiliation change in club history.
That’s right. What challenge could be more daunting to a new GM than transitioning the Fresno Grizzlies from a 17-year relationship with the San Francisco Giants to the Houston Astros, who were virtually an unknown to the entire Central Valley. But to know Derek Franks is to know that he’s someone who likes to present the challenges faced and then find the solution right there and then. So back in October, he used the strength of his front office to unveil a local Grizzlies’ brand to the community that finally tied the club to it’s location.
“I’ve been really pleased with how we’ve been able to brand this a Fresno team,” he says reflecting on the last few months. “We’re wearing Fresno on the front of the jersey. I’m seeing the Growlifornia Bear Flags on people’s lawns or hanging from their balconies when I’m driving around town.”
He speaks glowingly of the ability for the front office to make adjustments on the fly and see change as an opportunity.
“We’ve definitely tried things that haven’t worked, but we’ve shifted and tried something different the next day.”
The difference has been the organization becoming much more transparent to the city and fan base. The Grizzlies hosted an open-to-the-public Q&A panel with Astros front office members back in October, posted a mailbag through their website on hard hitting topics, and connected into the community like never before.
Marketing Ninja Sam Hansen, appointed by Franks to handle marketing shortly after the affiliation change, harkens back to a moment this past fall at a Fresno State football game when public interaction showcased how much work would need to be done prior to Opening Day to get people to invest in the Grizzlies.
“People walked past our booth saying ‘How sad’ and even refused to even interact with us because the Giants left,” recalls Hansen. “There I realized even further about the opportunity we had. We needed to brand unapologetically Fresno and not rely on our affiliation to justify who we are.”
And so it began. The Grizzlies have run with a brand that has local energy since October 2014 and seemingly won’t alter that approach in the coming years.
Factors outside of the control of the team have also presented challenges. The temporary closure of Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino has been a hot topic with media and has made fans question if that means a death blow to the Grizzlies.
“Obviously Chukchansi is our biggest partner and key to making Triple-A Baseball in Fresno possible. Without them, it’s hard to do,” answers Franks when we asked him about an update. “We have a naming rights contract with the Chukchansi tribe that goes through the 2021 baseball season. All signs point to them re-opening and it’s obviously taken longer than a lot of people wanted, but everyone is motivated to get them back up and running. We don’t know when, but we do know we have a contract with them to be the naming rights sponsor through 2021 and hopefully many years beyond.”
That continuing theme of not dwelling is one of his strongest traits. Where many want to make more of a situation, Franks hits it head on, delivers an answer, and gets on to the next task. During the fall, one of those tasks that took more than a simple answer was convincing a season-ticket holder base that the Fresno Grizzlies were worth their annual investment.
Franks decided to sell it as more than just the players on the field. The first part of the recipe was advertising it as “Fresno’s” team. He then challenged the marketing department to come up with new promotions, the entertainment to improve the in-game experience, and the ticket and corporate sides to develop new methods that added additional value to the overall Grizzlies’ atmosphere.
He believed if the club could continue to capture the heart of their die-hard fan base, they’d be able to build it and grow the core exponentially over the next 12 months.
“Those season-ticket holders we have are part of the core and always have been. The question came up this year about if you’d still be part of the core if the players don’t come from your favorite baseball team’s affiliate. A lot of people stayed and some dropped off, which we understand. But for those people who stuck with us, they’re glad they did. Those fans that stuck with us are important and we consider them family. I love all of those people.”
There’s something to be said for a man in a position who expresses that sense of care. It’s surely not a weakness, especially in the family-oriented nature of Minor League Baseball.
One of the things people will see be implemented by 2016 will be the addition of ritual elements that detail the history of the baseball club and celebrate the local heritage inside Chukchansi Park.
“I don’t think we’ve done a great job of capturing the history of the Fresno Grizzlies inside the ballpark. I’d like to go back to 1998 and help give fans a perspective of where we’ve been and the story of the franchise. We added a few elements this season, but we want to bring more of that heritage into the ballpark.”
Franks is focused on evolving the story of the organization into the minds of locals and believes that it’s something they will sink their teeth into once it’s complete.
So far, the buttons he’s pushed have gotten responses. Opening Day this season had the feeling of an NBA Playoff game according to one fan on social media. No matter the difference in sport, the point was that the energy had noticeably changed and the experience transcended into the fibers of each fan.
“We’re only halfway through the season and we’ve already put together some of the best promotions you’ll find anywhere in the country. Combine that with a first place team and we’re confident that a Fresno Grizzlies game is going to be the place to be this summer.”