KST Cover



Class A Act

Class A Act
C.J. Knudsen manages Burlington's baseball boom
in the country's oldest minor league park.

The stands at historic Centennial Field are empty. But with the grounds crew working diligently on the field, and the aroma of fresh-cut grass in the air, a feeling of anticipation hovers around the park. Baseball season is less than a month away, and, in the city of Burlington, Vt., that means just one thing, the return of the Vermont Expos – the city's Class A minor league entry in the 14-team New York-Penn League.

C.J.Knudsen photo by Justin CrossIt's a busy time for C.J. Knudsen '96. Making one of his frequent trips to the field during final preparations for the team's home opener on June 20, Knudsen points out the many fan-friendly aspects of Centennial, the oldest minor league park in use in the country, which welcomes over 100,000 fans through its turnstiles every season.

"I remember coming here as a Little Leaguer," recalls Knudsen. "Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would even be working in the same ball park as the general manager."

C.J. Knudsen quoteBorn in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and raised in Burlington, Knudsen had the same major league aspirations as the thousands of players who have taken their first tentative steps in the world of professional baseball on Centennial Field. When Knudsen realized his arm wasn't going to get him into baseball, he decided to make his way to the big leagues via the office.

His first steps toward the majors began at Keene State College, where he majored in physical education with a concentration in sports management and a minor in business management. "At the time sports management was a relatively new field," says Knudsen, crediting recently retired professor Kay Saucier – who taught one of his first sports management courses – for her strong influence. "It worked out great. The more classes I took, the better I liked it."

Like many of his present front-office coworkers, Knudsen advanced in the Expos organization after serving an internship. Appropriately, Knudsen now sifts through hundreds of internship applications each season looking for talented young enthusiasts hoping to start their move toward the majors. It takes persistence and luck to break into professional baseball. Knudsen credits his 1995 internship for getting him in the door.

photo by Justin CrossAssigned such jobs as traveling around the state delivering pocket schedules and ripping tickets, Knudsen hoped his hard work would make an impression. It did.

After graduating in 1996 and briefly moving with his family to Houston, Knudsen got a surprise call from then-general manager Kyle Bostwick telling him he was accepting applications for an assistant general manager position. Two weeks later, Knudsen had moved into the Vermont Expos front office and within three years was promoted to general manager.

Unlike the general manager in major league baseball, who is involved almost exclusively in player transactions, the G.M. at the minor league level must wear many hats with responsibilities that include the business, public relations, and marketing aspects of the franchise. "Never did I believe that at 25 I would be G.M. of a professional baseball team," Knudsen told Sean Toussaint in a story for Business People Vermont.

Expos autographs photo by Justin CrossThe cold winter months of Northern Vermont give Knudsen and his staff plenty of time to come up with promotional ideas to add to the Expos experience. "When people come to the ball park, it's our job to make sure they have a great time, they're entertained, and they want to come back," he told Toussaint.

Planning for the next season begins soon after the last pitch is thrown. Knudsen, along with five full-time employees and a few interns, works in a Winooski, Vt., office decorated with a plethora of Expos memorabilia, including a huge stuffed replica of the team's eight-foot green sea monster mascot named "Champ," named for nearby Lake Champlain. They begin mapping out a 38-game home schedule. Marketing packages are put together; advertisers are contacted in a never-ending job to raise revenue for the team.

With in-house concessions and ticket sales during the season, the payroll jumps to over 70 part-time employees. Waking up at 6 in the morning for radio interviews and closing down the park after midnight on game days, Knudsen works over 90 hours a week during the summer.

"My job entails everything; that's what I love about it," Knudsen says. "One minute, I could be talking to a visiting manager, another, moving traffic around the parking lot, or the next, I could be filling the ketchup dispenser."

Expos's Centennial Field photo by Justin Cross

Knudsen doesn't have to worry about procuring players for his team. As an affiliate of the Montreal Expos, the Vermont version is provided players and a coaching staff by the parent team. Ranging from 18 to 22 years old, and either right out of high school or fresh off a college campus, the players are surprised to find such a young general manager at the helm.

photo by Justin Cross"Everyone has that image of a person in my position being a little older," Knudsen said. "So they're a little shocked. But in a way they may be a little relieved. Being younger, I can relate to them a little bit more."

But minor league baseball is about the fans, who flock to quaint Centennial Field throughout the summer. Centennial doesn't have the amenities of many modern parks, but it does possess its own history. The current grandstand was built in 1922, but baseball has been played on the site since 1906 by teams from the University of Vermont, which owns the facility. The first UVM hockey game was played on the field and the ample foul territory comes courtesy of a running track that at one time circled the park.

Welcoming their 1,000,000th fan last season and celebrating their 10th anniversary this summer, the Vermont Expos have hit a home run not only in the Burlington community, but in the surrounding areas as well. Much credit goes to team owner Ray Pecor for bringing minor league baseball back to Burlington. "The support is second to none," Knudsen said. "People drive two and three hours to see a game."

Offering family entertainment at an economical price, and adding their own promotional flavor to the mix, the Expos are an example of why minor league baseball has become so popular throughout the country. People are almost guaranteed to come away with something tangible. Whether it's a prize from the Vermont Teddy Bear Slingshot or the Windjammer Flip contest or an autograph from an appreciative player, fans and clients walk away happy.

"The best thing about minor league baseball is that anything you think of, you can pretty much do," Knudsen told Business People Vermont.

Possessing the same dreams as the players on the field, Knudsen still has his eye on bigger venues.

"I would love to work in major league baseball," says Knudsen. "This job has allowed me the opportunity to make a lot of contacts throughout baseball. Hopefully my time will come. It would be a fantastic experience."

Stuart Kaufman is Keene State's sports information coordinator.