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Published On: Thu, Aug 26th, 2021

Getting to Know Larry Baer, SF Giants CEO and President on the Jed Hughes Podcast

Jed Hughes Podcast – Ep59 Larry Baer

Joining the ownership group that saved the team from a move to Tampa Bay in late 1992, Larry Baer is now President & Chief Executive Officer of the San Francisco Giants. Inside Episode #59, Jed and Larry discuss the financing and construction of a new ballpark, as well as the building of a ballclub that has consistently contended for championships. With 3 World Series titles since 2010, including the 2014 victory as a wild card, the Giants are a standard in the big leagues. They are currently competing with teams spending almost $100 million more on their team payroll. Baer’s story of securing the radio rights, as a college student, for the Oakland Athletics is legendary.

Bild von Cindy Jones auf Pixabay

Full transcript below:

Jed: I’d like to welcome you to the Jed Hughes podcast. Each episode will feature a unique leader and will delve into the qualities that inspire greatness, galvanize organizations, and teach the next generation of aspiring leaders.

Larry ran the process that resulted in the hiring of Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh, Andy Reid, Massa Yuzuri. Now, according to Forbes, Larry is the most connected man in sports. The San Francisco Giants are one of the most storied franchises in professional sports, moving from the Polo Grounds to Candlestick Park, and having some of the real legends of baseball, whether it be Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Barry Bonds, Juan Marashau, the Giants needed a new home. And under the guidance of our guest, Larry Baer, he combined with Peter McGowan to help move a privately funded ballpark into the city and has worked to develop a community around the ballpark. A Berkeley undergrad, Harvard MBA, one of the real bright, innovative people in professional sports, our guest Larry Baer.

Welcome, friends. If you grow up in the Bay Area, being bright, politically savvy and forward-thinking is essential, and our guest today has championed the San Francisco Giants for almost 30 years. Larry Baer has built a brand for the Giants that is unmatched in professional sports.

His background and his story to how he got to where he is today is interesting. And I think my audience will find this as a very provocative story of how you began at Berkeley and convinced the owner of the Oakland A’s to do radio.

Talk a little bit about how that all occurred.

Larry: Well, first of all, Jed, thank you. It’s very kind of, those words are very kind.

A lot of really great people at the San Francisco Giants, going back to 1993, have been part of the picture here.

In terms of myself, I would say that my real love for baseball and my journey into the baseball industry really started when I was maybe 7, 8, 9 years old, when I would board a bus with my father and we would go after Candlestick Park and watch Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Supeda and Juan Marichel play. And I fell in love with baseball. I fell in love with going to games with my father.

And one of the great things we have with the sport of baseball is it’s very generational. And now it’s been a wonderful experience raising four children, going to the ballpark with them.

So I think that was really the birth of my love for and passion for the sport and the experience of consuming a game with family and with the community in San Francisco.

My initial beginning formally in sports was at the school radio station at University of California, Berkeley, where Charlie Finley had owned the team, did own the team, but was talking about potentially selling the team, and it scared away bidders for the radio rights.

So our noncommercial station at the University of California, I made a phone call and I said we’ll broadcast the games. And as you know, Mr Finley, very much always with an eye toward promotion, thought, wow, that would be pretty cool having a couple of college kids broadcast games.

So it came to be known, the smallest rights deal in the history of show business. It was a one-figure Deal. He said, send us a dollar in the mail and you’ve got it for the first month and a half of games.

Jed: Wow, that’s amazing. Amazing. And then you end up going to Harvard Business School. You end up coming back then going back and working for the Tisches.

So talk a little bit about how those maneuvers occurred in terms of your thinking, as you were planning your career.

Larry: Well, you know, the sports industry is really, I think, a microcosm, really a big part of the overall media and entertainment landscape. I think we all realize that and we’ve all known that for a while. So after Harvard business school — and I worked for the Giants briefly between college and graduate school — I found that it would be really valuable to… I had a passion for impacting people with experiences, and you can do that through entertainment, you can do that through media, you can do that through sports.

And I worked first for Westinghouse Broadcasting and then was hired by Larry Tisch, who had just taken over CBS, to be a special assistant where we worked through all parts of the company.

It was a fascinating experience — looking at CBS entertainment, CBS news, CBS sports, sales, the ONO Division, all the different pieces that the networks in those days — this is the late ’80s — were really still in a dominant position. So it was super interesting.

And Larry Tisch was such a brilliant financial mind, and understanding how to balance all the pressures and keep an eye on the stock price, and keep an eye on how to move the margins at the business. Really fascinating.

One other thing that happened while I was there. I became close with his brother Bob Tisch. And while I was at CBS working with Larry, Bob Tisch and I would have breakfast regularly at the Regency Hotel.

And Bob said one day — you know, I’m thinking about coming in and stepping up and buying 50% of the New York Giants, what do you think?

And I encouraged him to do it. Others did, and some didn’t. And it was probably one of the very best investments that the Tisches have made, and certainly, certainly for the psychic income that Bob enjoyed through his years before he passed, of being a 50% owner, and now Steve and John and his children are involved, of course and running it. But the 50% that they own, it was just a wonderful experience for Bob. And it was great seeing him enjoy that, enjoy the community aspects as well as the competitive aspects of owning the New York Giants. 50% of the New York Giants with the Maras, who were obviously wonderful partners and remain wonderful partners to this day.

Jed: Larry, what’s amazing is when you come in, you’ve got a ballpark that’s really not a baseball-friendly ballpark. And you discover and figure out with your group that you’ve got to put in a new ballpark, that you’ve got to finance it a whole different way than ballparks have been financed, and you’ve built and maintained this incredible ballpark.

Talk about how that journey occurred, because that is incredible. And the way you talk about family and community and what you’ve done in terms of the Giants fans, and how they’ve come accustomed to your brand of ball and how you treat them, that’s special.

Larry: Well, Jed, as you know… Well, somebody once said to me — it really takes two things to be successful to optimize in professional sports. One is the product. And two is the image and the feeling you have about the team, your team.

And if you have one without the other, on a positive scale, you’re going to sub-optimize. If you have neither, it’s going to be a problem. And if you have both, that’s where you want to be.

I grew up going to Candlestick Park, and personally, because I was passionate about baseball, I didn’t have a problem going to Candlestick Park, but I was in that sort of hardcore fan zone that most people in the world are not in — and do not walk down the street memorizing batting averages and earned run averages.

So, how do we create an experience for people that cuts across the entire spectrum of a fan-avidity, if you will. Meaning, the casual fan on a date night, the folks that are coming from the office that want to enjoy a collective experience, families, can enjoy, whether you’re completely tied to the game or not. And Candlestick could not provide that, because of the elements, and the location, etc.

So when we came in, our group — Peter McGowan and I put together this group after the Giants had lost the previous ownership, had lost four ballot measures to build a new ballpark.

So we came in a little bit with the odds against us when we were able to acquire the team in ’93 and prevent it from moving to Florida. Because Tampa was about to, was about to be relocated to Florida, and the MLB owners voted down, allowing our group to buy the team.

And the really big thing for us was how do we create a ballpark where we can literally double the attendance? On a normalized average were about a million five. And can we build a ballpark privately? Not have to have a ballot initiative that’s for taxpayer dollars?

But to do that and break even, we would have had to double the attendance on an annual basis. And to do that, we had to get a much more broader group of fans — the fans that are going that may enjoy great food, a comfortable setting, there’s a mascot, a great place for children, a great family entertainment.

And so who are we competing against? We’re not really competing against the other team in town, the Oakland A’s. We’re competing against a trip to the park on a Sunday afternoon, Golden Gate Park, or the movies, or a drive to the wine country, or going out on a boat in the Bay. That’s what we’re competing against. And to do that we have to do it well.

So that was really our focus as we were building the ballpark privately, and did not have a measure on the ballot asking for public money.

Jed: You do that, though, and you move up in terms of responsibility and eventually become CEO and president of the organization. And during this period of time — I mean, you think about the history, as you mentioned, Willie Mays — you also had a very successful but controversial player in Barry Bonds.

Talk a little bit about what the thinking was between signing him and what that was like trying to manage him and his image in the media.

Larry: Well, initially when we signed him in 1993, it seemed like the perfect fit, and it was the perfect fit. We had to send a signal. And we thought it was very important to send a signal that this Group — and it was a consortium of very well known and respected business people — but we had to send a signal that we were also baseball fans, and we were there for… We wanted to be caretakers of this franchise in a serious, passionate and caring way.

And to do that, first two moves we made — we actually did this before we had a general manager — Peter McGowan and I did this because we had to, the timing was essentially, we got the franchise, and Al Rosen, the previous general manager had retired, Roger Craig, the previous field manager retired.

So what we did was we did two things initially, before we even hired Bob Quinn and Brian Sabean to run the baseball department. We hired Dusty Baker to be the manager, and we signed the biggest free agent out there at the time, Barry Bonds.

Barry was really family in San Francisco. His father was the great Giant, Bobby Bonds, his godfather, Willie Mays — the greatest of them all.

So bringing Barry in at that moment sent the message. And we have Dusty with us, who was a spectacular communicator, both internally and externally into the community, very popular. To have them as the leading faces of the franchise early on was spectacular.

As we went through it and Barry was setting records — and controversial — people in San Francisco felt loyalty to Barry Bonds. It was controversial and there were some difficult times. But we ended up signing him in four different contracts that extended from 1993 to 2007. And we stood by Barry. He meant a lot, still does mean a lot to the people of the community.

We’ve had a lot of popular players throughout our tenure here, now almost 30 years. We have a new generation of players. And Barry comes to the ballpark, is part of the franchise, and keep everybody engaged. Willie Mays is still part of the Giants franchise at age 90. Orlando Cepeda is as well. We lost Willie McCovey. We keep our heroes close to us. Will Clark still works for the franchise. Dave Dravecky. Can go on and on.

So we’re very proud of that lineage, and feel it’s an important part of how we relate to our customers, our community, and our fans.

Jed: And then, Larry, you were able to string together three world championships in five years. Talk about what that was like. I mean, being able to hold that together and do that. I mean, not many teams in baseball are able to do that. And it was the first time the Giants in their long history had done that.

Larry: Well when we brought Brian Sabean in with Bob Quinn in 1993, Brian had built much of the strength of the Yankees farm system. He had signed Derek Jeter and Jorge Pasada, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, in his scouting department. So we knew Brian was a very savvy evaluator of talent.

And putting together a baseball department, what you have to do is get the very best people, and go with them. And as we had those successes in 2010 through ’14, three world championships, it was the product of a lot of hard work and an ability to do something that’s, I think, really hard in sports, and really hard in baseball as well — and that is win and develop at the same time.

Now, we had some off years, but we never really did a complete tear down. We were in the World Series in 2002, we went 100 games in 2003, then we had some years where we were close, were not successful in the playoffs or didn’t get to the playoffs.

But each year, we tried. Brian really tried with this group to win and develop, and not just completely fold the tent in a year to do a complete rebuild.

Now there have been many franchises who have done that successfully, and I’m not saying that’s not a way to do it, or perhaps in some situations, the preferable way to do it.

Before he won the championship in 2010, in 2008 and 2009 as Tim Lincecum was coming through the system, as Masim Bumgarner was coming through the system, as Buster Posey was coming through the system, we really tried hard to have a competitive team. So in 2009, we’d just missed the playoffs, we won 86 games and felt there was a coming together that could allow us with those young players in the farm system, sprinkled with some veterans to remain competitive during the season, that 2010 could really be a turning point. 2009 was really a turning point, and 2010 we were able to reap the rewards and keep it going.

Even though in the odd years we did make the playoffs, we had competitive teams, we didn’t make the playoffs in ’11 and ’13 — ’10, ’12 and ’14, we were able to win it and keep everybody together.

Jed: What do you think you’ve done and think that’s unique to continue to bring fans in? And to have the type of sellouts that you have? And the record crowds?

Because you talked about, you’re going to have to double that attendance — and you’ve done that, and you’ve done that consistently. And you have all different promotional programs.

There’s just something about the way you think about your audience that is unique to sports.

Larry: We’re really proud of the fact that I think we can… You have kind of the three, maybe the three legged stool, where you have the team itself, the product, the overall product — you’re winning or you’re at 500, or you’re losing. The fact you may have stars that you can promote, that people really feel engaged with. And then you have the ballpark environment, ballpark experience.

You can only truly control the latter. You can do a lot of things to make number one and two — have appealing stars — and you can do a lot to try to create winning teams. But you never know. You’re only a torn Achilles or a rotator cuff away from those first two maybe not working.

But the third you can control. So one of the things we did when we opened the ballpark that we really had felt we had to have a laser focus on was customer service. And that anybody that touched the fan at the ballpark was going to be trained specially and have an approach that would be, like, some of the best in breed at that time, and still — the Disney approach, Nordstrom, Ritz Carlton, the brands that treat customers special ways.

So that was a big part of it. And the fact we were able to hold 31,000 full season ticket holders for about the first 15 years of the ballpark, people buying all 81 games, 31,000 out of the 40,000, I think was a focus on absolutely those folks were gold plated. And we did everything possible for them.

And we’re in a bit of a different world now, so that the season ticket world is more challenging, because you can buy the quote-unquote “beachfront property seats” a lot easier than having season tickets, or in other ways besides being a season ticket holder.

So now you could almost have something to feel like more of a membership club. It could be a season ticket holder.

But you ask, Jed. I mean, it’s really customer service. And even as the industry changes and the demographics change and the platforms change, customer service is customer service.

And that’s true, not just for fans at the ballpark, it’s also reaching fans through their devices and at home and on the go.

Jed: You’ve also done incredible things with your sponsorship and TV partners and things like that. I mean, again, that goes back to your training. I mean, not that many executives in professional sports that have the background that you have. And I think that lends itself to some of the things that you do that are way above the average.

Larry: We feel very blessed that we have some really great partnerships. And I think it kind of all starts with partnerships and folks trusting one another.

When we made our deal with Jeff Shell and Comcast to create NBC Sports Bay Area in 2008, we shook hands and we made a 25 year deal, 30 year deal, and brought the lawyers in, and it’s worked well.

Regional sports network models are threatened these days. But we have one that’s pretty vibrant right now.

And the long term partnerships are critical to us. We had this amazing 23 years with AT&T, started as Pacific Bell, they were acquired and we kept going with them. Oracle has been there since day one.

But what we really tried to do is keep companies partners who have been with the Giants either since they moved to San Francisco in 1958, and that’s true with companies like Coca Cola and Anheuser Busch and Chevron, or companies that have been with us since the new ballpark was created and helped us build the ballpark. And it was those companies, and companies like Oracle and Salesforce.

We’ve gotten… New CEOs arrived, but I think the culture of partnership and what we can do together in the community is critical.

So for instance, where there was horrible fires in Northern California, the first set of them several years ago, Salesforce came to us, the largest employer in San Francisco, and we put together an amazing concert to raise money for the victims of the fires, and people who lost their homes.

And we’ve had ventures with Oracle. We’ve had ventures with AT&T, all in the community. And I think those are partnerships that really work well for us, have worked well for us, and have bonded us to the community and to the sponsors.

Jed: The next phase is how to go through a transition with your general managers or president of baseball stepping down, and having to bring in a new executive team on the baseball side, which was very different. That hadn’t happened since you’d been there.

Larry: As you well know, Jed, that’s very challenging. And I’d say for myself personally, that might have been one of the toughest assignments, next to actually acquiring the team and building the ballpark and getting the ball park built that we we all worked on — a close third was changing over the baseball operations department.

And I want to point out, Brian Sabean still works with the Giants. Bruce Bochy is still working with the Giants. So they’re still here and offering their wisdom and advice, and that’s wonderful.

But it was clear. Brian had a Hall of Fame run, in our view, with the club from — 1993, I put in his track record — from 1993 through 2018. I mean, you just don’t have that, right? You don’t have truly 25 years of somebody running an operation, essentially running an operation. And very proud of the fact that over those 25 years, we had a grand total of three field managers. We had Dusty, Felipe Alou, and Bruce Bochy. And I’m very proud of that and that consistency.

But as you mentioned, there does come a time when you have to look at changing it over.

So as we took a look at the best in breed in the industry, and knowing that clubs do not easily or willingly want to lose great executive talent, it takes a lot of effort and a lot of homework and grit to figure out how to rebuild and put together a new baseball operation.

And thankfully we were able to land on Farhan Asahdi, who, Farhan had just a remarkable track record with the Oakland A’s and the Dodgers, previously. And we’re looking at a competitor in the Dodgers, and getting him to the Giants from the Dodgers was not simple.

And then, as you know, when you have a leader in, really, any sport at the top of the baseball, basketball, football operations, they bring — by definition, they will bring folks with them.

So we had to look at that as well as folks that certainly deserve to remain with the Giants, and how to put that puzzle together.

And there were a lot of long nights spent figuring it out, and I couldn’t be more pleased with what Farhan and Scott Harris, who he brought in as general manager from the Cubs, and Gabe Kapler, who he’s brought in as our field manager.

We all feel very blessed that it’s all worked out.

Jed: I mean, here you are again in a very competitive race. It’s going to come right down to the last couple of games. I mean…

Larry: One of the things that Farhan said in the interviews, and I think you’ll remember this, Jed, is that — similar to what Brian Sabean had done for all those years is — we really never want to take a year off.

Jed: Right.

Larry: So Farhan, his first year was 2019, and though we didn’t make the playoffs, there were signs, and I remember in July of that year, I think we were 19 and 7, or something like that. So even in years that didn’t turn out to be winning years, you saw something, gave something to the fans that was intriguing. And then last year we missed the playoffs by a game.

And this year, as we speak, things have gone well, a long way to go. But we feel like the progress has been accelerated by just some great roster moves, and also some great on-field moves, and some great coaching decisions, and personnel that I can’t speak highly enough about in how it’s come together.

Jed: Well that’s part of your leadership. And you look back on your career, what are the two or three things you’re the most proud of accomplishing since you’ve been with the Giants?

Larry: You know, Jed, I think that the ultimate satisfaction — because you’re not going to win the World Series every year, I feel blessed that we have three times while I’ve been there — but I think the ultimate satisfaction, again, is something that you feel like you can have some control over, which is walking in the upper deck and seeing mothers and sons and fathers and daughters and grandparents, enjoying a wonderful experience together. That, you feel like you can have control over. Because ballpark’s clean. It’s beautiful. The people that work in the ballpark are incredibly friendly. To me, that’s a major, major part of why I’m in it. And what gives me the satisfaction is that experience in the community.

I also want to point out something we’re working on that keeps us all very motivated, is we have a large project in the shadows of Oracle Park, or ballpark in downtown San Francisco called Mission Rock.

We’re building this real estate, and essentially building out a neighborhood, and it used to be essentially empty warehouses. And while we’ve had the ballpark, a surface parking lot, 30 acres, including a big pier. And we’ve now converted that. We’re under construction on a $3 billion dollar mixed use real estate development called Mission Rock.

And Visa, another one of our partners with the Giants for over 20 years, is putting its world headquarters there. We’re going to have shops and stores.

So the other thing I would say is that the neighborhood is going to be transformed — blink your eyes from when we first looked at the site in the mid ’90s to a couple of years from now — we’re going to have this amazing real estate development and neighborhood created around the ballpark.

Jed: I can tell you, from my time when I lived in San Francisco and had a chance to visit and be your guest for games, I’ve never experienced that type of customer service, whether it was getting a turkey sandwich that was specially carved. It was just… I think about that back in the early 2000s, and it was remarkable.

Larry: Well, I remember you like the garlic fries and the crab sandwich. Right?

Jed: No, no, no…

Larry: [laughs]

Jed: That wasn’t part of my diet.

Larry: [laughs] Well, thanks. I mean, you know, I think of so many people at the Giants who do so much for everyone.

I guess one of my greatest memories also, I would say, great moments for all of us that are full time workers at the Giants, is when we’ve had each of the World Series parades, the three World Series parades, leading the first float, if you will, of cars going through the parade, and the first group that marks the parade with a million people on the streets were the ballpark workers in their Giants uniforms. So it’s the ushers and the security guards and the vendors, and the ticket takers and the parking lot attendants. And they were all wearing their Giants orange and black, waving to the fans, and they feel part of it.

And it gives me chills remembering those moments. Because that’s really what you can try to control, and try to offer to a community.

Jed: Well, they’ve tried a lot of times to get you to run for Mayor, Larry, because of your political savviness. Is that ever going to happen?

Larry: Honestly, Jed, I would say I have a better job.

Jed: Okay. [laughs]

Larry: I feel very blessed doing what I’m doing. And we have a wonderful ownership group.

That’s the other thing is that none of this can happen if we didn’t have… Through the years, I mentioned Peter McGowan, but we’ve also had Bill Newcolm and Charles Johnson and now his son Greg Johnson, at the top of the giants ownership chain. Rob Dean. And we have 30 investors, 35, really, in our group.

But that group started with 18 civic-minded folks that we recruited, and that group did it. There was no business plan to support, particularly, because it was last minute and it was — do you want to save the team from moving? — and they just led with their hearts, and they still do, and I think it shows.

The group wants to win, they want to be community-minded, and they want to do what’s right for Giants fans everywhere.

So I couldn’t be more blessed with the group that I’m part of.

Jed: I think, as you talked about the continuity, one of the things I’ve found as I’ve worked as a coach and across multiple industries, is alignment is critical — with ownership, the front office, both on the baseball business side. And you being the CEO, you kind of bring all that together.

So talk if you would, at the conclusion here, of how important alignment is.

Larry: I think it’s really important in terms of… We try to communicate this without being too over the top. But this is a little bit more than just another business, right? Or maybe a lot more. I think there’s a lot of mission-driven elements to our culture. My direct reports, seven or eight of them, have been with the giants over 20 years, 25 years. And as I mentioned, we’ve had four field managers in 30 years. And we’ve had the same ownership group now for 30 years.

So it’s a lot easier to align values if there’s mission-driven elements. We’re really careful before we bring somebody into the organization, because — do they care about the customers? Do they care? Do they really want to operate the Giants in a way that’s going to make us all proud? — and we find that when you have a team working together that way, it gets very sticky in the sense that people don’t want to leave.

And we’re well aware, we have to have succession planning, we have to have people throughout all departments to have strong number twos and threes and fours, and develop folks. So that’s the balancing act.

But I think the continuity has been around values. For Brian, for 25 years, and now hopefully Farhan will do it for 25 years. I think it means a lot. And I think the fans have come to depend on the Giants. Even though we may not be in the World Series every year, they’ll depend on us to do the right thing and attempt to do the right thing, both on the field and off the field in the community, and with the neighborhood we’re building, and with the work that the players…

I also wanted to say one other thing, Jed. The work that the players do in the community, we started way back in 1993 with something called Until There’s a Cure Day, to create a profile around AIDS Research and Education. To this day, 2021, we have players, every player in the Giants uniform commits themselves to some cause through the year. It’s personal to them, or we will suggest causes if they’re not from the area, that will impact, create positive change in the community.

So that’s that’s been a huge thing and I think the fans see that as well. Buster Posey and his wife, Kristen, have created a foundation around raising money for pediatric cancer. And I can go through a lists of players doing all sorts of wonderful things.

Jed: Well, your leadership has been unbelievable. And being a friend, I appreciate your participation and sharing with our audience this incredible journey that you’ve been a part of. So thank you.

Larry: Well, thank you so much, Jed, and thanks for all that you do to bring to light all the issues in our industry, and look forward to seeing you back at the ballpark having a turkey sandwich real soon.

Jed: Thank you.

Listen to the full Larry Baer podcast on Apple Podcasts: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-59-larry-baer/id1519798486?i=1000532093432

 

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