American Association Daily provides insights and features on the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions going on with teams around the league. In today’s edition, St. Paul Saints General Manager Derek Sharrer is featured. The G.M. has been the Executive of the Year in the American Association the last three seasons and has been a model of success throughout all of baseball.
An Introduction to Derek Sharrer
One night as the St. Paul Saints prepared to take the field for another American Association contest, the weather report was that storms were due to arrive at any time. Both teams were trying to speed the game along as quickly as possible, trying to get in the mandatory five innings to declare this an official game, but before they are able to do so, the heavens opened and rain poured down onto CHS field like someone just turned on a giant faucet over the stadium.
The grounds crew and several of the Saints staff responsible for game operations ran onto the field to pull the tarp to protect the infield. Included in that group was one person who was fairly hard to miss. At roughly 6’1 and with a physique that makes him look more like a player, team General Manager Derek Sharrer grabbed one end of the tarp and quickly moved from executive running the most successful team in all of independent baseball to just another member of the organization needed to get the grunt work done.
In many minor league ballparks, it is odd to see the G.M. “serving” in this way, but that is what helps to make Sharrer a truly unique team executive. He has helped to build this organization into one where it is all hands on deck, and his leadership has been instrumental in making the St. Paul Saints the New York Yankees of independent baseball.
They Knew Talent When They Saw It
Derek Sharrer graduated from Indiana University in 1993 with a Bachelors of Science degree in Sports Business. A golden opportunity arose for him to come and work for the ownership group of Marv Goldklang, Mike Veeck, and Bill Murray, and the new graduate jumped at it.
“I began working for the Fort Myers Miracle as an intern in 1994, and so I kind of grew up in this industry with this ownership group. I’ve been fortunate to work for the best guys in the business since I graduated from school.”
Sharrer spent seven years with the Miracle, the final four of which were as the team’s general manager. He then was asked by the ownership group to take over the G.M. job with the Charleston RiverDogs, which he did for four years.
The General Manager was loving his job in South Carolina, but he was asked to pick up his family and take over the same position with the St. Paul Saints. This would require a big change for Sharrer and his family, but it was an absolute no-brainer to him.
“I had an opportunity to come to St. Paul and, in our industry, let alone in our ownership group, if you have an opportunity to be the general manager of the St. Paul Saints, you take it. It’s been the flagship franchise of the ownership group for years. We’ve always known it to be a special place. When I was at Fort Myers, ya, there were beaches and beautiful weather year-round. In Charleston we absolutely loved Charleston, South Carolina. It’s an amazing city with incredible history. Our first child was born there. We loved it. But all the while we looked at St. Paul as a special place. It’s just different from any other minor-league market and, given the opportunity, you jump at it.”
Finding a Personal Heaven
The move may have seemed the like the perfect situation for Derek Sharrer, but his wife, Kandice, was not so readily convinced. This is where the master salesman, Mike Veeck, did what he does best.
“Mike took my wife and I out to lunch with he and his wife Libby and the point of the lunch was to talk to my wife about how much we were going to love St. Paul. I couldn’t have been more excited about the St. Paul job, but my wife literally cried through the entire lunch thinking about coming to St. Paul. Now that we have been here 13 years, it’s home. She loves it here; our two boys have grown up here.”
While Sharrer understood what was required of a general manager, taking over the position with the St. Paul Saints was much different from affiliate ball. A difference, he came to embrace as one of the most special parts of serving in the role.
“There’s a lot in common. The player personnel side is the small change. I don’t get involved with the actual construction of a roster. There is a lot of administrative work and human resources work that I think goes behind the scenes that work with player personnel. Affiliate ball feels more like you’re running a movie theater. You bring them in, you put them up on the screen, and then they’re gone. Here, it feels like there your own guys that you are taking care of.”
Because independent teams have no affiliation, the only allegiance that organization has it to itself and its fans. That means that the players who are brought in are there to do their best to help the team win. In return, the organization does its best to help these players to return to affiliate ball in the hopes that they will have a Major League career or a return to the Majors if they have already been there before.
The Saints have been especially good at helping players reach all the way to the top level in baseball. Washington Nationals closer Brandon Kintzler was a Saints pitcher six seasons ago. Caleb Thielbar recently had his contract purchased from St. Paul time by an affiliate club for the third, and Mark Hamburger could easily be the next. Nearly 125 players have had their contracts purchased in the 25 year history of the Saints, and this has helped to make the team so successful.
“It benefits you to have a guy that’s gone, who has moved on. It helps you to get that next player if you have a story to tell. That you move them along, and that has been the commitment of this organization. You hate to lose one of your best players, but this is why we do business. We want to see our players fulfilling their ultimate dream.”
Doing It His Own Way
The role of the general manager can vary quite a bit in independent ball. Some actually build the teams, where others allow that to be the role of the manager. Derek Sharrer has chosen a role that he knows he will excel in, allowing Manager George Tsamis to put together the team that takes the field.
“From the outside looking in, people see the general manager as the guy who’s making the trades, the guy who signing players, the guy who’s constructing the roster. The reality of it is in St. Paul and in most places is that our job is more of a chief operations officer. We are relied upon by our ownership to run this business and, as part of running this business, is the overseeing of the personnel. To what extent general managers get involved varies. There are some organizations where, for the GM, that’s their primary function. There are others where they choose to be hands off, and that’s where I’m at.”
This has not always been how Sharrer envisioned his career in baseball. When he first entered the Fort Myers organization, he saw himself reaching the Major Leagues one day. Now, he can’t see himself in any place other than St. Paul.
“I think when I first stepped into a minor-league ballpark in Fort Myers, I probably thought that what I wanted to do was to work for a Major League team one day. I think everybody when they say that they want to be a GM that they are thinking that they are going to make trades, they’re going to build a roster. I’m sure when I got into the business that’s what I thought also. Having the opportunity to work with guys like Mike, Marv, and Bill and so many of the other guys that I’ve worked with it has evolved. What I really learned in this side of the baseball business is that it is about the relationships that you have with fans and with the staff, with your front office staff. I learned that I have really felt that this side of the business is where I belong. I love working for the guys who gave me my start.”
At one point, the Saints General Manager was wanting to help build a championship team on the field. That pales in comparison to his desire to help those who work with him to become champions in their everyday lives.
“After 23 years, I think of myself more as a teacher and I hope I will be remembered as somebody who helped people in their own careers. I take a lot of pride in the fact that the folks who have worked on staffs where I have been the general manager, a lot of those folks have moved on. I have been just as happy about the folks I’ve been able to keep with me for years, but guys who have been able to go on to be general managers, marketing directors, broadcasters, that’s something that as a 22, 23-year-old coming out of school I don’t think I would’ve ever understood. But now, having done this for as many years as I have, it’s one of those things I take the most pride in.”
Letting People Be Successes in What They Do
Former Chrysler President Lee Iacocca once said, “I hire people brighter than me and I get out of their way.” That is the kind of sentiment that can turn any business into a success, but few managers and executives either hire the right people they can trust, or trust that others can do the job without their constant intervention. Not only does Derek Sharrer embrace Iacocca’s belief, he knows the St. Paul Saints could not succeed doing it any other way.
“I don’t feel like I’m doing anything other than being myself. If there was any formula, its empowerment. It’s just trusting people and trusting that they’re going to make good decisions. These are all things that I’ve learned from the guys who have taught me, like Mike and Marv. You hire really smart, talented people and then you let them do their jobs. You trust them and give them the right resources to make good decisions. When you do that I think you find that people have a much stronger sense of belonging in that place and they feel like they are part of that success. I have seen operations where the general manager has his checklist every day when he’s calling in each individual, one by one, telling them what they need to do today. I think it’s my job to help create a vision, a direction, and work with our leadership to put together a plan in and rely on those guys to make the plan a reality.”
The success of the Saints goes way beyond hiring smart people and letting them do their jobs. Sharrer has built the organization so that every person plays a role in the success of the business because everyone matters.
“When we are interviewing to bring people on board, I always tell people I don’t even like organizational charts. We’re not so big that we need some big organizational chart that describes who answers to who. I always tell people our organizational chart is a lot more horizontal than vertical.”
That way of thinking starts with a commitment from every employee to help get the job done. The Saints are just as much of a team off the field as on, and this shows in how every person rallies to the support of others when needed.
“It is everybody on our staff’s responsibility to help the other person do their job. There are certainly departments, and we have people who have responsibilities to that department. We have folks that have primary focuses, like Chris Schwab and Sean Aronson but, at any given moment, everyone knows that they need to help somebody working on their project. To me, it’s the nature of our business. If we ever become too corporate that’s kind of the end of who the Saints are. Everyone wants to say that it’s a team environment and, here, that’s the only way we can survive.”
Making St. Paul Heaven for the Staff as Well
When you have a chance to sit down and talk to Derek Sharrer, it is easy to see why he is the first guy onto the field to pull tarp during a rain delay. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him picking up garbage around the stadium after a game. You even have to wonder if the general manager has donned the Mudonna costume to help out a time or two.
It is simply the philosophy that has become part of what makes the St. Paul Saints one of the best five organizations in all of sports. One where those who the Saints employ feel more like part of the team than simply a person who cleans the bathrooms, serves beer, or sells tickets. It is why many of those employees openly say that the primary reason that they work for the club is because of the General Manager.
The Saints staff are not the only ones who recognize the amazing job that Derek Sharrer has done in his 13 seasons as the club’s G.M. In 2017, he was named the Executive of the Year in the American Association for the third straight season. The team drew over seating capacity in all but three games last year, and drew over 400,000 fans total.
The success is something that owner Marv Goldklang explains is due in large part to the work of his general manager.
“Although he may not always get the media attention he deserves, everyone in the League, certainly all of us associated with the Saints, know that Derek truly is our franchise player. His work ethic, combined with his exceptional leadership and motivational skills, have enabled us to assemble a front office staff that is second to none in the industry, minor or Major League.”
As the 2018 American Association season nears, the St. Paul Saints will be as ready as any to make a run for the championship. They have not won a league title since 2004, and there is no doubt that many within the organization are hankering to pop the champagne. There is one thing for sure, however. Even if the team does not win the title this season, they have already proven to be the league’s best organization and that is due, in large part, to the tireless work of the team’s General Manager. He may not have a halo over his head, but there is clearly no bigger Saint than Derek Sharrer.
Featured Image by DAVID BREWSTER/STAR TRIBUNE • dbrewster@startribune
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA