Rock star treatment: Tim Ray makes you feel at home as GM of Grand Junction Rockies
Tim Ray doesn’t know a stranger.
“Hey, there, young man!” is the greeting a fan will likely receive from the general manager of the Grand Junction Rockies when he comes into the offices at Suplizio Field looking to buy tickets.
Ray sometimes doesn’t see much of the games, instead bouncing from section to section, greeting first-time fans, visiting with those who are at every game and making sure the concession stands are staying clean and running smoothly.
After a win, he’s handing out high-fives and fist-bumps as the players come off the field, then helps herd dozens of children who are lining up to run the bases with Corky, the team mascot.
During the day he’s at the office making sure things are ready for that night’s game and setting up appointments with would-be sponsors.
“Three things when it comes to Tim,” said Jay Alves, the vice president for communications and public relations for the Colorado Rockies. “For me personally, it’s his passion for people, his passion for minor league baseball and his passion for doing it the right way.
“His passion for people is evident from the minute you meet him. He’s not out there to be the lone ranger, he’s out to make things better and help bring professional baseball to Grand Junction. When you meet him, you know he’s in it for the right reasons.”
The many hats a minor league general manager wears makes him a carnival barker of sorts, exhorting fans of all ages to come one, come all to the ballgame, all the while looking for ways to pay the bills.
“It’s a lot of cost of doing business and doing it the right way,” Ray said. “What a lot of people don’t realize is Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball always have their hands open. We’re an affiliate, a Minor League licensee, so there are fees we have to pay all the time, ticket assessments, you name it, plus we have responsibilities within our contract. We owe money to the city, to Minor League Baseball and so on. It gets very expensive.”
Ray’s biggest responsibility is securing game partnerships, those companies whose signs you see on the outfield fence at Suplizio. During the Rockies season, only those main sponsors are allowed signage.
After the season, the contract with the city of Grand Junction stipulates that the vinyl signs during the minor league season come down to reveal the signs painted on the wall, which are sold by the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series to help fund that tournament.
Ray, 55, in a way fell into the world of minor league baseball. He graduated from Indiana State University in 1979 — yes, the Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson year, and he counts Bird among his good friends — and went into the radio business as a sportscaster.
He got a job in Sheridan, Wyo., doing a DJ shift in the morning, selling ads in the afternoon and calling high school and college games in the evenings.
“When you’re young, you’re really not gung-ho about going out and selling,” he said. “All I wanted to do is be a sportscaster. I don’t want to sell, but you’ve got to earn your keep. I spent a lot of years in sales and advertising and marketing.”
Part of his gig when he was working in Casper was to be the voice of the Casper Ghosts minor league club when the team moved from Butte, Mont., in 2001.
After 25 years in radio, he retired in 2007 and became the athletic director for the Natrona County School District in Casper. He still called the home games, and when the current ownership group bought the Ghosts in 2010, Ray was offered the job of general manager.
“It’s funny, sometimes you wonder why you’re doing what you’re doing when you’re doing it but had I not had that background in broadcasting, not had that background in administration, I would not have been a candidate for this job,” Ray said.
Alves said Ray’s diverse background landed him the job.
“We recognized that. It’s just that passion,” Alves said. “He has the sales background, the baseball background, broadcasting. It was diverse and that was going to be huge in Grand Junction. He was the right guy at the right time.”
When he took over as GM in 2010, Ray was asked if he would be willing to relocate. The owners weren’t sure when it was going to happen, or where the club would end up, but they were sure they wouldn’t be in Casper much longer.
It turned out that Grand Junction in 2012 was the destination and time, and Ray had to build the franchise from the ground up.
“The whole idea was extending (the Colorado Rockies) brand to the Western Slope and vice-versa,” Ray said. “Since we are the Rookie affiliate, these are junior Rockies, if you will. That just makes sense.”
Ray moved to Grand Junction, with his wife, Karen, staying in Casper. She’ll retire this May as an elementary school music teacher and move to Grand Junction, but she spent last summer here.
Ray’s task was to get to know people here and start selling a brand of baseball new to the Western Slope — professional baseball.
“I was like the answer man on the street,” he said. “I was asking people I didn’t even know, who’s the most respected car dealer in town, what’s the big restaurant in town, things of that nature,” he said. “We wanted, obviously, to partner with the best drivers of the community.”
As Ray sold a faceless team to Grand Junction, he was hoping a new city would breathe new life into what had been a dismal club in Casper.
He knew if the GJ Rockies weren’t competitive, all the sponsors in the world wouldn’t put fans in the stands.
The club sold 2,000 season tickets the first year and drew more than 5,000 fans a handful of times. In all, more than 100,000 fans watched games this summer.
Ray understands a baseball game is part sport, part social event, and minor league baseball has always latched onto that way of thinking.
Between innings there are games for fans, whether it’s a 5-year-old trying to toss a baseball into one of three cutouts to win a cap, shirt or a year’s supply of soft drinks, or guessing the fastest pitch for a Rockies’ pitcher and winning a prize.
And hey, if your seat is picked and a Rockies player hits a home run into a donut in center field, you win big money.
“Minor league games all over the country are great because they give you that experience,” said Sean McKinney, the CMU assistant baseball coach.
McKinney grew up in Laramie, Wyo., and has known Ray for several years. His father, Kevin, is the senior associate athletic director for external affairs at the University of Wyoming, and for several years Ray was the radio voice of the Cowboys.
“Guys that are prospects are trying to get to the major leagues, but in between innings they have games and contests that are fun and they give away prizes that are very important to the minor league game. Tim and his staff do a good job making that happen,” Sean McKinney said.
This year, the Rockies will add a “where are they now” board at the stadium, updating fans on the 2012 GJ Rockies as they climb the organizational ladder. They’ll be able to keep track of how David Dahl or Eddie Butler are doing in Tri-City, Asheville or wherever last year’s Rookie Rockies are assigned.
And Ray expects a celebration when the first Grand Junction Rockies gets the call to the big leagues.
“We already have an extremely loyal fan base,” Ray said. “People are very passionate about baseball here. For years Grand Junction has embraced an event and now for the first time they get to embrace a team.
“I think Grand Junction fans are excited to see our kids climb up the ladder and when that day happens, when we get our first alum in the big leagues, it’s going to be a celebration for everybody. They had a hand in it.”