'We Can Build This Thing. We Can Grow This Thing'

We spoke to American Association of Professional Baseball Commissioner Josh Schaub about evaluating talent and measuring passion.

When Josh Schaub was interning with the Milwaukee Brewers nearly two decades ago, he received a critical piece of advice from the club’s director of scouting.

“Go to law school,” the veteran executive said. “This is a tough life.”

Schaub was admitted to the William Mitchell College of Law. But the burning desire to be around sports never dissipated.

So, Schaub tracked down a professor, who also happened to be the commissioner of an independent minor professional baseball league, to start a sports law class — and ultimately blended his two passions.

He’s since worked as an attorney at Gutwein Law in Minnesota, as the commissioner and general counsel of the Major Arena Soccer League, and is presently the commissioner of the American Association of Professional Baseball.

The Daily Coach spoke to Schaub about lessons from his early years in scouting, measuring passion in prospects and essentials for cultivating a loyal following.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Josh, thank you for doing this. Tell us about your childhood and some key lessons from it.

I grew up in a town called Minocqua, Wis., which is a very busy tourist town in the summer. It’s the most condensed lake country in the world. Growing up there was great for me because it created a work ethic. You were expected to work as a kid. At 14 years old, I had two jobs. They ranged from being a garbageman for the town, a lifeguard, putting in docks, taking out docks. I ran a miniature golf course, umpired baseball games, lawn mowing. You were expected to do that culturally in that community.

The other part that was influential is my dad has been extremely involved in amateur athletics for 50 years. From a very young age, I was getting carted around to towns in northern Wisconsin where he was officiating games. He ran the long jump pit at the state track meet, the officials at the state volleyball meet, security at the state baseball meet. I was the ballboy chasing down all the foul balls. I traveled with him, watched sport administration, and I observed for many years. We didn’t have iPads to stare at or cell phones. I was forced to sit in the stands and just watch. That was a very influential part of my childhood.

You end up going to Wisconsin-La Crosse and interning with the Brewers. What type of work were you doing?

This was when we were doing rudimentary analytics, and I had media guides all over my desk and Excel 2004 spreadsheets. I was banging away doing studies on where athletes come from, where professional players come from, height and weight of typical positions.

We had a scouting director named Jack Zduriencik, who went on to become the general manager of the Seattle Mariners. There were times he asked me to do studies to disprove his scouts about an opinion of a player. A scout may say, “I love this kid from Dry Fork, Va.” Jack would come to me and say, “I need stats to back up why that’s not a good opinion.” He tried to take the subjectivity out of it. There were other times he’d say, “Forget about the numbers. I know this guy.”

I did a study called “The Sunshine State Study.” We grouped populations of California against populations of Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma against Florida, Georgia, Tennessee trying to figure out where players come from and where we should focus our assets. Sometimes, it was to prove a theory using analytics. Sometimes, it was to disprove a theory using analytics.

What’d you learn about evaluating talent through that experience that you still apply?

Evaluating talent physically was one thing, but the other part that nobody talks about with scouts is figuring out the makeup of players through interviews. In the fall, we’d meet with players and start asking questions. “Tell us about your family.” “Do you love baseball?”

You started to figure out that the players who make the big leagues are, one, world-class athletes. Two, they love the game. If you didn’t feel the passion of, “I’m a competitor. I want to win. I love this game,” it gave you great doubts. I think that translates to business, too. What we do is hard. If you want to work in this industry, you have to be super passionate about it because it will beat you up, chew you up and spit you out.

How do you gauge passion in an interview?

It’s objective and subjective. I teach at University of Wisconsin Law School, and my students often want to work in sports. One thing I’ll say is, “it’s interesting. You’re 24 or 25 years old, but you’ve never done anything in sports. You’ve never even volunteered.”

The objective part is what have you done to show me you really want to do this? There are volunteer opportunities everywhere in sports. Have you sacrificed? They’ll say, “Well, I can’t afford to.” Yeah, you can. Just figure it out. You measure passion in that way. What have you done to this day?

The subjective is you have to read people and figure out whether it’s genuine or not. What else are you passionate about and what have you done with that passion?

What are some of the grittiest things you’ve done in your career to distinguish yourself?

I scouted from 2007-2013 for the Brewers primarily in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I’d spend hours in the Metrodome from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. scouting when no one else wanted to be there. Being in Egan, Minn., at 4:30 on a Thursday when it’s snowing out to go watch Jacob Esch, who became a second-rounder. The only other person there was Terry Ryan, the general manager of the Twins. That’s gritty for him. The GM of the Twins going up to scout a kid in his backyard is scrappy as hell. That was a grind. I wanted to earn respect. I met so many people through that sacrifice.

My first career in law out of necessity was to practice bankruptcy. It was 2009. There was nothing else to do. All of my friends from law school got furloughed or never got a job in law and went back to work at Target or Wells Fargo. I practiced bankruptcy to make a living and keep my foot in the door in sports and keep scouting. It was gritty and dirty and a horrible time.

You’ve worked for several different leagues now. What are the essentials for building a loyal audience?

Leagues are only valuable if they do three things. One is the brand. What stadiums do they play in? How good are the players? Do they have protocols and project bigger than they are?

Two is the equal distribution of talent. Is there parity in the league or are teams dominating? I think dynasties are actually O.K. for sports, but what you can’t have is on any given night a team’s fans know they will get their teeth kicked in. They have to be able to compete.

The last is an equal application of rules. Is the strike zone the same on the East Coast as the West Coast? Are we applying the same roster rules to one team as another?

Those three things are attractive to fans. Outcomes in doubt, equal enforcement of rules, a great brand.

What do you do to distinguish the American Association from other baseball leagues?

One thing is we call ourselves “professional baseball.” We are not Minor League Baseball. We are a professional league. What differentiates us from affiliated baseball is they play to develop players. They’re not worried about winning games. We play to win.

We market our games as mini professional baseball. We’re an autonomous professional baseball league. The talent level is also far beyond what everyone perceives it to be. Sixty-five percent of our players have played AA or above. Twenty-five players last year on Opening Day had been in the big leagues in recent years. I think those points are really important.

Why do you enjoy the challenges of building up slightly lesser-known leagues as opposed to working for the bigger ones?

I’ll be honest — they’re not that much different. The same issues they have on the Major League side, we have too. I was just on with Major League Baseball earlier this morning talking about field conditions. They struggle with teams doing events and having baseball there after and managing whether the field is ready. I see people at the big-league level as colleagues, and they see me as a colleague. It’s not big league, small league. We’re all selling baseball.

Could I go for a job at Major League Baseball? Yeah, I probably could, but I like the romantic side of being in a smaller league. There’s autonomy, control, less bureaucracy. We’re more nimble. We can go do a TV deal and not blink. Truthfully, Major League Baseball has been around for 100-plus years. How much upside is there?

With the American Association, on the other hand, we can build this thing. We can grow this thing. Being able to build something and have tangible growth is so cool.

And it feels good.

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