Rocky Vonachen has served as president of the Peoria Chiefs organization since 1996, when he succeeded his father, the legendary Pete Vonachen. Over the years, Vonachen has worked in a variety of positions with the Chiefs, dating back to 1984. In January, he was named the Minor League Executive of the Year by the Pitch & Hit Club of Chicago.
What is your earliest baseball memory?
Wow…it’s hard to say. I don’t know exactly when it was, but I remember going to baseball games with Dad down in St. Louis—that’s really where I became a big baseball fan. And then playing Little League, growing up and just loving the game. I was fortunate enough to play through my sophomore year in college, and then figured out that I wasn’t going anywhere, so I’d better hit the books and finish school. But I’ve always loved the game, ever since I was a boy. I don’t think there was any one first memory.
Did you play baseball when you attended Bradley?
I played at Bergan High School in Peoria, and then went to the University of New Orleans and played my freshman year there. I was going nowhere in a hurry down in New Orleans, so I transferred to Lincoln Junior College for my sophomore year. After that, I did transfer to Bradley, but didn’t play baseball.
How is the business of professional baseball these days?
When you say “professional baseball”—there is a difference between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball. Minor League Baseball is doing very well. I think, last year, over 45 million fans attended a Minor League Baseball game around the country. That’s more than the NFL, NHL and NBA.
Minor League Baseball is just good, affordable, family entertainment. And over the years, with the economy, fans and families can’t afford to go to major league games as much as they used to, so they’ve turned to Minor League Baseball for their baseball entertainment. With the new stadiums and all, they are giving fans that major league experience at a much less expensive price.
So, Minor League Baseball is doing very well. Major League Baseball has its own set of problems, with player salaries and things like that, but it’s still doing well. But because of the economy, the effect on Minor League Baseball has been a positive one.
How is Minor League Baseball structured?
The governing body is called Minor League Baseball, and they oversee approximately 160 affiliated teams. That’s your rookie leagues, A, AA and AAA, on out. So Minor League Baseball oversees us, and then each league has a president who oversees the teams in the league.
What is new this year for the Chiefs? What is your outlook for 2011?
We’re starting our 10th season here. It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years here at O’Brien Field. When you build a new stadium, you always have a honeymoon period for two or three years, then you kind of level off. We were fortunate enough to change affiliations to the Cubs, which kept us going at a high level. After a few years, we were fortunate enough to have Ryne Sandberg as our manager. But after that, the newness has been wearing off.
We’ve tried to really focus on our food experience at the ballpark for 2011. Food has always been a part of the experience of going to any sporting event. In the past, our food has pretty much been plain ballpark fare, so we wanted to take it up a notch, as far as variety and quality. We brought in a company called Professional Sports Catering that focuses on minor league ballparks. The owner actually owns two teams, so he knows what it takes to be successful on the catering side.
So when fans come in, they’re going to see that the concession stands are different. They’ll see new items and a greater variety. There’s a Mexican cantina with tacos, burritos and nachos, and an ice cream stand where you can get a banana split, root beer float or an ice cream sundae. We have specialty carts on the concourse; you can get a Philly cheese steak sandwich, which is very good. We have a cart that grills foot-long hot dogs and foot-long brats, Polish sausage and Italian sausage, right in front of you, and fresh, popped popcorn right on the concourse. So the concessions have a totally different feel and look, with a greater variety this year.
How many people are employed by the Chiefs organization?
We have 13 full-time, year-round employees. When we get into the season, we probably hire another 25 to 30 ushering staff and another 25 to 30 ticket takers and sellers in the box office. The concession company will probably hire 75 to 80 part-time seasonal staff. So we start off small, but once the season gets here, there are well over 100 working here at one time or another.
Do you also hire the grounds crew?
Do you hire the umpires?
No, the umpires are hired by Minor League Baseball. They are like players—they start out at the lower levels and work their way up from A to Double A to Triple A, and then, hopefully, the major leagues.
What is a typical game day like for you and staff?
The day usually starts about 9:00; I probably get here about 7:30 or 8:00. Every day is pretty much the same this time of year, but on a game day, at about 3:00, we’ll shift into “game mode”—getting the stadium ready, whether it be setting up concourse tables or putting up special signage; taking care of the group areas, making sure they’re ready; making sure we have our handouts for the gates, and those types of things. The games start about 6:30 or 7:00, and then it’s just taking care of the fans, making sure they have a great experience and enjoy themselves while they’re here.
On an off-day, we get to go home at 5:00—we’re not here until 9:30 or 10:00, until the game’s over. But I always say, when your office is at the ballpark, it can’t be all bad.
In the off-season, it’s a normal nine-to-five job. It’s fairly slow in September—that’s when we start doing a lot of planning for the upcoming season. In October, we start our push for season ticket renewals, and in November and December, we really start a big push for promotions and those types of things.
Speaking of that, you’re well known for your special promotions. Anything in particular you want to highlight?
We try to build value into every game: value and entertainment. On Wednesdays, we used to have free hot dogs and peanuts—we can’t do that anymore because of the cost of product—so it’s dollar hot dogs, dollar sodas and dollar ice cream sandwiches, still a very good value. On Thirsty Thursdays, we have reduced beer and soda prices. On Mondays, all tickets are half-price—you can get into the game for five bucks, or get into the game for $3.50 and sit on the grass. So it’s very affordable.
And when you get to your Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, that’s when we really try to do our giveaways. We have our fireworks shows, which fans always love, and a lot of different family things on Sundays.
Minor League Baseball can do a lot of things they can’t do at the major league level; that’s where the entertainment aspect comes in. We don’t have the big-name stars, so it’s really the entertainment that people come out for. Sometimes the game is almost secondary.
Tell me about the work that goes into maintaining the field and the stadium.
Over the years, it’s become more and more important to maintain your stadium. These new, multi-million dollar stadiums are not cheap, so we have a maintenance staff that makes sure it’s in good shape. The field, especially, is very specialized anymore. Major league teams are developing their players, and they want the best possible playing surface, so your head groundskeeper has to be very educated, not only in turf, but with dirt, irrigation, fertilization, those types of things.
Does the grounds crew work year-round?
Just the head groundskeeper. We’ll bring on a seasonal staff that will start about the beginning of March and work through mid-October, but the head groundskeeper is here all year long. In the off-season, he’s back working on equipment and those types of things, but for six months, he’s here from early in the morning until late at night, almost every day.
Tell me about your franchise agreement with the Cubs.
Our affiliation with the Cubs is a very good one. It’s a perfect fit—being right in the middle of Cubs Country is good for us, and then, our being just two and a half hours from Chicago, it’s good for them.
You either sign a two- or four-year agreement—that’s set by Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball. We’re nearing the end of our second four-year agreement. In 2012, our agreement expires, but I think that will be renewed. It’s really just a one- or two-paragraph agreement that basically says they are our affiliate. And then we go by Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball rules and regulations.
There are certain specifications set by Major League Baseball. Any new facility has to meet certain standards, from the locker room to the playing field. The locker room has to be so big, the manager’s office has to be so big, indoor hitting cages, those types of things. They put a lot of money into these guys, and they want the best facilities possible.
How often do you have contact with the Cubs? What types of issues do you have control over, and what are dictated by the parent organization?
I don’t have a lot of communication with them. When I do, it’s usually with their staff downstairs, the manager or the trainer. Oneri Fleita, who’s the vice president of player development—I’ll talk to him every two weeks or so. He usually checks in, or I check in with him to see how things are going. Basically, they handle everything that happens on the field, and we take care of everything that happens off the field.
Bradley University plays its home baseball games at O’Brien Field. How do you coordinate schedules?
They’ve been great partners of ours since back in the ‘80s, playing at the old ballpark, and they came down here with us. Sometimes, it can get a little busy around here with both of us. For example, tomorrow and Saturday, we play at one, and they play at seven. If it rains, it’s going to get a little hairy—who’s going to play and who’s not going to play. But they’ve been good partners. We always work out the scheduling between the two of us, and it’s always worked out well.
The field takes a lot of wear and tear, that’s probably the worst part. Basically from the beginning of April to mid-May, there’s somebody on this field every day, and that’s tough for the field to take. That’s where the groundskeeper comes in to work his magic.
What is the status of naming rights for the stadium?
The agreement expired at the end of the ’08 season, pretty much when the economy really went downhill. So for the rest of ’08, ’09 and into 2010, it was very difficult to get somebody to even listen to us. That is changing. People are more receptive, and hopefully in the near-future, we can bring somebody on board.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about running a minor league ballclub?
That you don’t do anything in the winter! That’s how some people think: “Okay, the season’s over, now what are you going to do? Are you going to spend the winter in Florida or what?” And that’s not the case. You just start all over again, planning for the next season. We close the office for a week to let everybody unwind, but then we come back and go into our planning sessions for several weeks, and then we get into our selling season. It’s a cycle. But we’re here year-round.
What is in the future for you and the Chiefs?
We feel the Chiefs and O’Brien Field are big assets to central Illinois. And we plan on being here for a long, long time, continuing to provide that good, affordable family entertainment. iBi