PHOENIX -- Let's establish what is true up front: Jerry Colangelo is Phoenix pro sports.
He set up shop with the Phoenix Suns in 1968 with little more than ambition and saucer eyes. He was 28 at the time -- the youngest general manager in sports -- and worried that the franchise would flop in a "cow town of only 700,000 people."
In their second year, the Suns were in the playoffs. By 1976, they were in the NBA Finals opposite the storied Boston Celtics, capturing the imagination of a city that bathed in its first glow of the spotlight.
From the Suns' success sprung the America West Arena in 1992. Not long afterward, Colangelo was a driving force in relocating the NHL's Winnipeg Jets to the desert, relaunching them as the Phoenix Coyotes.
It was never his intention, however, to get involved with baseball. Sure, he was a former star pitcher at the University of Illinois. But he wasn't convinced that it was time for the national pastime when approached about the idea in 1993.
"My original thought was, 'No thanks,'" Colangelo admitted Thursday in an exclusive interview with MLB.com at Bank One Ballpark. "My plate was full and I had some concerns where baseball was. But after some due diligence, I concluded that maybe the pendulum was swinging and maybe baseball had a chance and maybe our marketplace was getting close to being ready. And also this would add so much to our quality of life in our city and state that I made a decision to go forward."
Because of that choice, Colangelo sits on the cusp of his first championship, his Arizona Diamondbacks crashing the World Series party against the New York Yankees in just their fourth year of existence.
Before the curtain dropped on the Fall Classic, the Diamondbacks' managing general partner talked about his history in the Valley, the impetus behind accelerating the expectations of the Diamondbacks and his desire to wear a title ring.
MLB.com: Talk about your journey to the Valley. How did you end up in Phoenix?
Jerry Colangelo: I arrived here on March 1 of 1968. The Phoenix metro area had about 700,000 people. It was a cow town, to say the least. It had no professional sports experience. Yet I was intrigued by what I saw and what I felt about the opportunity. And I thought it would be great as a young guy to start something on my own and be charged with that responsibility, having come from the startup of the Chicago Bulls a year and a half earlier. It was a tough sell to begin with, but fortunately we had some immediate success.
MLB.com: Outsiders don't realize how the Suns are at the epicenter of Phoenix sports? Can you explain?
JC: Suffice to say, it was the Suns that made it all happen. If the Suns wouldn't have had their success, if the Suns had never been, then none of this would have ever been. That's just the reality of it.
But it's kind of a neat thing to see it all come together. A few years after the Suns started, we found ourselves in the NBA Finals (in 1976). As the city and the marketplace were beginning to grow, the Suns were establishing themselves early on as a successful franchise. As you look at the history of the Suns in their 33 years of existence, they have the fourth-best record (winning percentage) in the history of the league. We've been in the finals twice, we've been in the conference finals a number of times. We have everything but a ring to show for it.
MLB.com: What role did the Suns play, in your opinion, in luring hockey and baseball here?
JC: It paved the way for the other sports franchises to come to Phoenix. And I was happy to be a part of making that happen. One was bringing hockey to Arizona, (relocating) the Winnipeg Jets (who are now the Phoenix Coyotes). And obviously when the decision was made to go after baseball in 1993 and being awarded a franchise in March 1995, that kind of closed the loop that we would be one of only 11 cities with all four Major League sports.
So we have evolved as a community, we have grown as a marketplace, we have grown to 3 million people, and downtown has been revitalized. We have two world-class arenas in America West Arena and Bank One Ballpark and this kind of takes it to a whole other level when you are talking about the World Series. You have something that's going to be seen through the eyes and ears of people everywhere. So it's a very exciting time for us.
|Colangelo embraces Curt Schilling after the right-hander's shutout against the Cardinals on Oct. 9.
MLB.com: You have a unique perspective in that you were steering the Suns when they made the NBA Finals 25 years ago. How does the Diamondbacks' accomplishment compare to that achievement?
JC: The Suns galvanized the community in 1976. It was a much smaller marketplace back then but it really did bring a lot of people together. The same thing happened in 1993 when we lost to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. But this is a whole other level. The magnitude is much greater here (in baseball).
MLB.com: It sounds like you believe that the Diamondbacks have succeeded on a larger scale, true?
JC: I really do feel that way. I think before this World Series is over that point will come across in spades.
MLB.com: Why get involved in baseball? It wasn't like you needed another business venture.
JC: First of all, when I was approached in June of 1993 about baseball by Joe Garagiola Jr., who is now the general manager, and Jim Bruner, who was county board supervisor at the time, they thought that the time was right for baseball and they tried to convince me that I was the person to make it happen. Ultimately, I decided to get involved.
But baseball has always been there for me in terms of interest and the desire and the love for it, because there was a time I was a prospect as a pitcher. So that was a very big part of my life early on.
MLB.com: Why make the commitment to win so quickly with the Diamondbacks? What happened to the days of expansion growing pains?
JC: When you think back to previous expansion, what teams did in the '70s, that was the archaic ages. We actually looked at Colorado and said we would like to model ourselves after the Rockies in the sense that if we would have a four-, five-year plan to kind of build our franchise with young players and that the people here would be excited about having baseball. We figured that there would be a honeymoon period.
That's what happened in Colorado. Well, it didn't happen here. So after one year I had to change that plan. And because of the loss of season-ticket base -- 25 percent -- and because our investment was 2 times that of the Rockies (in terms of the expansion fee), we had to protect that investment. And we went out and said that we had to get competitive right away. The good news is that is exactly what we have done.
And in two years of that four-year plan, we have won our division title twice and we now find ourselves in the World Series. So I have had two plans, one that changed after one year. And that's more important than anything else in these times -- you better have flexibility.
MLB.com: How much did your own personality motivate the change in course?
JC: Yes, the competitive nature in me transfers over all of that. But this was a decision to protect an investment.
MLB.com: You hear the criticism that your payroll is bloated. Do you feel your success justifies the financial means by which it was attained?
JC: The fact that we are in the World Series (in the fourth year), it makes everything worthwhile. We had originally hoped to build slowly and compete in five years. Not go to the World Series, but just compete. After one year, we adopted a new four-year plan. And that changed everything for us. So in the third year of the plan, we are fighting for the whole thing.
MLB.com: That you are in this position can be traced to new leadership. Can you talk about Bob Brenly, only the second rookie manager to reach the finals in his first year in the last 20 years?
JC: That was really my choice. I felt we needed an attitudinal change (from the previous regime of Buck Showalter). And Bob was exactly what the doctor ordered. And I couldn't be happier with the job he has done and about his future. We got to know him because he worked for us (in the TV booth). And I was very familiar with his history as a baseball guy. I knew him in terms of his character and his personality, and felt it would be a good fit.
MLB.com: You have paid your dues. How would you react to finally winning that elusive championship ring?
JC: I am not looking at it personally. In this time in our lives with what has happened and the fears that are out there and the uncertainty of our future, this is a tonic for our community, for our state. I want everyone to enjoy the moment and that's what makes me excited -- to see the happy faces and the sparkle in the eye and the excitement of people knowing that the World Series is right here in Phoenix, Arizona.
What would happen if it came to a great conclusion? Honestly, I have no idea. People have asked me how I would react. I am spontaneous person and I am a gut person. I am sure there will be a strong reaction. I can't concern myself with how I would feel if it happened. I am more concerned that we are here and that we have a job to do.
Troy E. Renck is a reporter for MLB.com.