As a young boy, Michael Lieberman played Little League baseball.
“I got one hit all season long and decided it was time to retire,” Lieberman says.
He didn’t, however, move on from the sport altogether – quite the contrary. He calls himself one of the lucky ones who knew just what he wanted to study in college, and the career he wanted to pursue – to become a baseball general manager. He started in the industry in 1993 as an intern, and has been a general manager for a total of 15 years in 12 different states. Now the general manager of the Kokomo Jackrabbits, a team for college players, this marks his 13th season as a general manager in summer collegiate ball.
Some of the best players in the country come to Kokomo when their college seasons have ended, to play for the Jackrabbits in a professional environment. The Northwoods League plays the longest season in summer college baseball with a total of 72 games (36 at home and 36 on the road) stretched across 10.5 weeks, between the end of May and the middle of August. Then it’s the playoffs, before the players head back to campus.
“It’s very much like a professional environment, which helps prepare those players who are looking for a pro career to see what it’s really like to live the professional life,” says Lieberman, who says he relishes game days.
“I love that feeling after working for days, weeks and months towards an event, and getting to open the gates and see the fans, the players, the sponsors and everyone come together as they wrap their arms around that experience,” he says.
He tells his interns every year, “If you open the gates, see the look on people’s faces, feel the energy, and watch everything that’s going on and that doesn’t do it for you, it might be time to reevaluate what you’re doing, because if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.”
This is not to say that one must be riveted to every play of each game to work in the industry. In fact, Lieberman notes that he’s been in meetings with potential sponsors who almost apologetically whisper that they don’t even like baseball. His answer is, “Fantastic, then you won’t get distracted by what happens on the field.”
The game experience surpasses the mere bat and ball. There are giveaways at the gate, promotions, contests, music, great food, and of course the mascot, Jax.
“If somewhere between parking your car and watching the fireworks after the game, you see something in baseball that you enjoy – whether it’s a guy who throws the ball hard or hits the ball hard or happens to look cute in tight pants – then maybe we’ll make a baseball fan out of you yet,” Lieberman says. “Honestly, we want people to come for the experience. We’re here to let you leave the rest of the world behind for three hours. If the team wins, that’s icing on the cake, but win or lose, we want to make sure you’re having a blast.”
Lieberman maintains that the best thing he could hear from an attendee is that they went to work the next day and raved to a co-worker about the fun they had the night before. If their co-worker asks if the Jackrabbits won and the person telling the story says, “I’ll be honest with you, I can’t even remember,” Lieberman says that’s a win in his mind.
“That’s the experience we’re hoping for,” he says.
Fans love the fireworks shows, each of which comes with its own unique soundtrack. For instance, one week was set to the music of Queen, and another week to “Star Wars.” The season typically ends with a show featuring highlights from the year.
“Fireworks are a blast,” Lieberman says. “Pardon the pun.”
During a couple of games per season, the team will wear a unique jersey made just for that game. At the conclusion of the game they give away some jerseys with a drawing, then auction off the remainder to benefit a cause. One such jersey celebrated the 50th anniversary of the original “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” film.
“Fans can get a game jersey right off the field worn by someone who may become a big leaguer or maybe a dentist,” Lieberman says. “Who knows? Either way, it’s your own unique piece of memorabilia.”
During every inning there’s something going on in the stands or on the field, whether it’s bringing fans down to do the Dizzy Bat race, or races with the mascot. After each game, fans are invited to come down to the field and run around the bases or request autographs.
“I don’t know who is more excited about the autographs, the kids or the players,” says Lieberman, who notes that sometimes baseball gets a bad reputation as being a regimented, slow-paced sport, but feels that in many ways it’s the most social sport.
“The pace of the game is different from basketball or football where you sit there on the edge of your seat, not wanting to talk to those around you for fear of missing something,” Lieberman says. “In baseball, you have a conversation, you pause for a moment to see the pitch, you wait for the play to end, and then you go back to your conversation. It’s a very engaging sport in that way.”
The team’s longtime hashtag has been #getjacked. This year the Jackrabbits added a new one: #letshavefunagain.
“That’s our goal,” Lieberman says. “If we can help people leave the rest of the world outside and just come in and have some fun, then we’ve done our job. For three hours, come eat, drink and cheer.”