James Renwick--Let's start with a brief history of the Smokies.
Tom Hart--The Smokies have been around for about 30 years, and about five years ago moved into a brand new 19.4 million dollar facility, Smokies Park, in Kodak, Tennessee. We're about 12 miles from Knoxville, which is where most of our fan base comes from, and we're right next to Sevierville TN, home to gateway to Smoky Mountains National Park. It's a huge tourist area and most people don't realize that more people visit this area than the Disney properties in Florida. The organization has spent the last two seasons as the AA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, and before that we spent about a quarter century as part of the Toronto Blue Jays organization.
JR--How about a brief history of you?
Tenn.--First and foremost I'm the radio and TV announcer, but in the minor leagues everybody wears different hats, so I'm also in charge of Corporate Accounts and Media and Public Relations with the club. This is my fourth season with Smokies, and my third organization in four years, but that's a little misleading. I was in Winston-Salem with White Sox High A team, then with the Smokies as part of the Blue Jays. We became a Cardinals affiliate in my second year, and now the Diamondbacks this year. The changes actually help me in my position as far as being an expert on other organizations, and talent, in the area.
JR--Talk about some of the players you've gotten to see.
For Diamondbacks fans the first guy that comes to mind is Koyie Hill. I got to see him in Jacksonville a couple of years ago, and he was very impressive, both on the field and off it. I just saw a kid that I really think is going to be a long time contributor at the major league level, and a very solid person. I've seen a lot of guys that have impressed me, but as I'm the fans know, there's a lot of kids who are impressive at the minor league level that never make it in the big leagues. I can tell you the Smokies organization has seen their share of big time players. Virtually the entire Blue Jays team that was so successful in the early 90's, from Carlos Delgado to Fred McGriff played here, as well as Woody Williams.
JR--Anyone else that jumps to mind?
TH--I'm not 100% sure on this, but I think we're the only organization that has had a Heisman Trophy winner, when Chris Weinke was here.
JR--Since we're getting to know the organization, let's talk about GM Brian Cox.
TH--He's been with the club for 13 years, and truly went from the bottom to the top. Brian has literally done everything there is to do in minor league baseball. He was selling popcorn, pulling tarps out onto the field, and now he's the GM negotiating affiliate contracts and being the most important go-between for the Diamondbacks and the Smokies. He's truly done it all and done it all well.
JR--The Blue Jays owned the Smokies for a long time, and now the President is Doug Kirchhofer. Tell me a little about him.
The Blue Jays sold the team to a group of local investors, among them the Haslam family, who own Pilot Oil. Doug is a longtime Knoxville native who has been involved in this type of business before as the owner and GM of several minor league hockey teams. He's really well suited to being the primary go-between of the two ownership groups and he's contributed greatly to the success of the team.
JR--How familiar are you with why exactly the Cardinals and the Diamondbacks moved their affiliates?
TH--Well this situation made business sense for both teams, but what's really sad is that the only people who lost were the fans in El Paso. As far as the Cardinals were concerned they got an incredible opportunity to move into a $30 million facility in Springfield, Missouri. It really gave them to opportunity to spread the Cardinals brand name all the way across their region and from a business perspective just made sense. For the Diamondbacks it really came down to an issue involving travel. The Texas League is so spread out that it really started to wear on players in El Paso because there were regular 17 hour bus rides. In Tennessee the travel times are just much shorter, and because we have the brand new facility they Diamondbacks felt it was an opportunity they couldn't pass up. It really is a shame though because the fans in El Paso are really the only ones losing in this situation.
JR--How much do you know about who's going to be coming to Tennessee from the Diamondbacks?
TH--As far as the roster's are concerned nobody really knows yet. The managers from El Paso might be coming, but we're really not sure. The Winter Meetings are this week, and Brian and Doug are going out there, so they'll find out more this week, but because the Diamondbacks have had such a crazy off season we really haven't had that much contact with the organization thus far. We'll know a lot more after the Winter Meetings.
JR--Okay, then what can the Diamondbacks, and their players, expect from the Smokies?
TH--Really knowledgeable, supportive, big crowds. The Smokies' fans are really winners with this move too. For a long time when the Blue Jays were here Smokies fans got to see a lot of players getting the chance to fill holes and get opportunities with the big league club. The Cardinals were a little different. Tony LaRussa has always been a manager who favors veteran players, and you can't blame him, because the Cardinals have had a lot of success, but because of it there wasn't a lot of opportunities for the Smokies' fans to see guys here that would make the jump to the big leagues. That's what fans are here for after all, is the chance to see players develop into big leaguers. With the Diamondbacks really going young, we're excited about the possibility of seeing players who could be on the big league roster a lot sooner than later, and that will excite the community that's already excited.