By Stephen Burnett
It may not have his name on it like a famous New York City baseball stadium, but Whitaker Bank Ballpark has been home to Andy Shea for almost eight years.
In another universe, Shea might have himself been a professional baseball player. For years the Pennsylvania native and marketing/human resources student had dreamed of going playing for more than the enjoyment of his favorite sport, but a shoulder injury at Boston College sent him to the sidelines.
But beyond those sidelines lies the world behind the scenes of baseball, which Shea has been enjoying with the Lexington Legends just as his playing days.
“I love my job,” Shea, the Legends’ president and chief operating officer, said. “It’s almost crazy for me to think that I’ve been working for the Legends — well, this is the end of my eighth season. … I love being able to do so many different things, work with so many different people.”
Shea’s job takes him from discussions with bank presidents and financial advisors about seasonal business promotions to conversations with companies like SimplexGrinnell, Kentucky Utilities and M&M Sanitation regarding the ballpark’s upkeep.
Andy Shea. (Lexington Legends photo)
In September, the minor-league team will finish its 12th season, and shortly after that, Shea will finish his first year as president and COO. Shea, whose father William Shea Jr. is the Legends’ principal owner and chairman of the board, arrived in Central Kentucky eight years ago, knowing no one in the area, when he was pitched headlong into selling season tickets for the team. Without that work, growing the team from the turf up, the Legends would not be so successful and their ballpark would not be a popular venue for other events, Shea said.
The Legends played their first game in 2001 after decades of hopes and several unsuccessful attempts to start a new baseball team or recruit an existing one. Lexington is an excellent sports-oriented town, Shea noted, but until that year, it had no outlet for Major or Minor League Baseball — one of the few large American cities that did not.
“It is a great, great sports market that takes a lot of pride in their teams and in the culture,” he said, pointing to UK basketball and football and equestrian sports as other examples.
Numbers for playing
It was that market opportunity that drew Shea to Lexington after his 2004 graduation in Boston and his baseball-related shoulder injury.
“‘Okay, if I can’t be playing in it, the next-best thing is working in it,’” he recalled thinking at the time. “I didn’t know anyone in Lexington, never been to Lexington. … But it was a successful team and a successful company. … It was really just a cool, fun, different opportunity, and I went in with my eyes wide open and my options open.”
In January 2005, he started his Legends career as a season tickets sales representative.
“I had never had a sales position before,” Shea said. “But being thrown right into the fire helped a ton.”
He and another salesperson went to Winchester, with only this direction: “Go into the businesses, give them this folder and talk about season tickets.”
“At first I’m sure I was … super-shy, super-unnatural,” he recalled with a laugh. “But when you’re put into that situation, you learn pretty damn quick.”
Shea and his sales colleague became friends, and during the next few months, before the season began, they visited many businesses in Lexington and surrounding areas. He learned to underscore the games’ fun atmosphere, both for families and for businesses’ customers and employees. You can likely attend a Legends game for less dress, effort and expense than a business lunch or dinner, he said.
“You dress down, you don’t have any dead time because there’s always a baseball game going on, but it’s not as crazy as other sports events where you can’t talk to each other, either.”
For two years Shea also did more than sell tickets. He duties even included working in the ballpark’s parking lot.
“My third season, I was assistant general manager,” he said, noting that job involved moving up to doing corporate sales and Legends finances. “I really have done virtually everything in the business.”
In 2008, Shea was promoted to general manager and in October 2011, he was picked to follow Alan Stein as the Legends’ president and COO. Stein led the charge to bring professional baseball to Lexington and had been with the team since its founding.
Team changes during Shea’s time with the Legends have been in the front office, not on the playing field. Shea has little to do with the actual games, players and wins or losses, he said. His job is to promote the team and the playing venue, including events such as the recent state high-school baseball championship tournament, or Red, White & Boom. Staff stay involved with local chambers of commerce and charity organizations and make sure to keep the upcoming Legends games in people’s awareness even during the offseason while other sports make headlines.
“The Legends season [this year] has been going really well; we’re right about the same in terms of attendance numbers,” Shea said. By the year’s end, about 450,000 people will have been to the stadium for Legends games or other events. Those other events have grown more successful, he added, drawing crowds to the high-school tournament, concerts and charity fundraisers.
The Red, White & Boom event on July 7, with country music stars and local celebrities, was the park’s most popular event this year. About 27,000 people came for the high school tournament, and more crowds are expected for the W.I.G. Walk & Run 5K event on Aug. 25.
“It really is starting to be branded as an entertainment venue, not necessarily only a baseball stadium,” Shea said.
Improvements in the office — such as altering the ticket sales structure or clarifying managerial responsibilities — are also coupled with clearer changes for ballpark visitors, Shea continued.
“We really made a heck of a difference on our kids’ area,” he said. “Being able to have a beautiful, safe, clean kids’ area was a huge priority for us last season.”
Moreover, they keep ensuring that people outside Lexington know about all the ballpark’s events.
“We really have been able to develop a lot, definitely in Fayette County, but also a ton in outer counties.”
Now, as this year’s baseball season ends, Shea will again feel like he is ending one job and starting another. In the summer, work is less formal. From early October to late March, tasks gain structure, suits and ties and stronger promotion. Autumn events are coming, including the 5K and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night Walk on Saturday, September 22. Ballpark organizers will also assemble other concerts and events, he said.
Their message: the Legends are Lexington’s baseball team, but their home field offers much more than that. Even when UK fans are watching large orange balls, not small white ones, “[we’re] constantly striving to have the Legends brand, logo, mascot, everything, out in the community as much as possible,” Shea said.