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New Bucs president: 'I will never not talk to a fan'

In a Q&A, Travis Williams says the fan experience is a top priority
@adamdberry
February 19, 2020

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pirates president Travis Williams moved slowly through the group of fans gathered in the middle of Pirate City’s four main practice fields, and the speed of his progress had nothing to do with his recent back surgery. Every few steps, Williams was either stopped by fans or

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pirates president Travis Williams moved slowly through the group of fans gathered in the middle of Pirate City’s four main practice fields, and the speed of his progress had nothing to do with his recent back surgery. Every few steps, Williams was either stopped by fans or stopping to chat with them.

Williams officially took over as Pittsburgh’s team president on Nov. 1, with oversight of the club’s day-to-day operations now falling on his shoulders. In his first few months on the job, Williams -- a longtime executive with the Pittsburgh Penguins -- has sought fan feedback above all else.

“I will never not talk to a fan, if they want to talk,” Williams said. “I think the most important thing we can do as an organization is listen.”

This is Williams’ first trip to Spring Training, a special moment he’ll share with two of his children this weekend, but also an opportunity to see how the team is functioning. During the Pirates’ workout on Wednesday, Williams explained his view of the organization and further explored his role within the club’s new leadership group in a chat with MLB.com.

Coming off your first offseason on the job, what is your initial impression of where the Pirates are as an organization, and what’s been the focus of your work?

“This is my first Spring Training. I’m just grateful to be here, having a great time, really just trying to get my arms around, 'What is Spring Training?' Obviously, I come from a different sport and a different style of preseason, so this has been fascinating for me. My focus mainly has been on looking at how the team has come together, both from a front office staff and a baseball operations side -- and how the players have embraced that. And on the fan side, just engaging with the fans and understanding the dynamic around Spring Training.

“What’s fascinated me there has been the fact that so many people who are here today actually planned their retirements or their vacations around Pirate baseball and wanting to be a part of it. That’s really inspired me. I was already energized to deliver a great fan experience with our team as we go north, but the inspiration and the reinvigoration, if you will, of that spirit of what Pirate baseball means and what they expect of us going north will be certainly helpful.”

What were some of the things you wanted to learn, whether it’s from a front office or baseball operations standpoint, coming down here for Spring Training and seeing the team?

“For me, it’s just seeing how it all comes together. Obviously we’ve got a great general manager in Ben Cherington. I have complete faith in the direction and vision he has for the baseball operations side, and that’ll continue to further develop over time. Obviously Derek Shelton and choosing him and what he meant for clubhouse culture -- his passion and his desire to make sure these players get better and better every day. But then, to have that coaching staff be a blend of those who have been here before and those who are new, pulling all that together and seeing how that’s coming together, especially in a short period of time, really kind of just checking in on that. Then ultimately saying, ‘OK, that’s great. That’s a great vision, a great plan. They’re coming together really well.’ I actually think they act and interact with one another as though they’ve been together for 10 years.

“The real important part is how the players are responding to it. They’re all embracing change. They’re a part of change. One of the best things I can say is one of the leaders in the clubhouse today told me earlier today that he feels like he’s in high school again. He’s out there learning every day, and he’s having a lot of fun doing it. For me, that’s kind of the tell-all sign that it’s coming together really well.”

You said from the get-go that you’ll be more focused on oversight than day-to-day baseball operations decisions. What’s been your role in that oversight capacity, and what do you think of the plan that Ben has laid out for that department?

“I see my role as two-fold. One is making sure that [Pirates chairman Bob Nutting] and I and Ben are all on the same page, relative to what the plan is and the vision is and how we’re going to get back to a championship-caliber team. Just making sure that all gets coordinated and facilitated, and we’re all on the same page. That’s come together really well. Bob and I are both 100 percent comfortable with the vision and direction that Ben has taken this team from a baseball operations perspective. In addition to that, I’m here as a sounding board and a resource for Ben as well. If he wants to bounce something off of me -- a thought on staff, approach, message, things like that -- we’re always interacting day in and day out. And I’m learning from him. Things that he’s doing on the baseball side are things that could be and will be helpful on the business side as well, in terms of how we motivate, inspire and drive people to be their best. He’s doing it on baseball, and we ultimately want to be that across the entire organization. That’s my overall role; obviously there’s a lot more detail and intricacy to it, but as a general matter, that’s really where I see myself adding the most value.

“It’s really modeled after how the Penguins operate. [Penguins president and CEO] David Morehouse was not making lineup decisions or trade decisions. Jimmy [Rutherford] did that, but David was there as a sounding board, a resource when those things came about. Making sure that we’re making good fundamental decisions that fit in with the overall mission of the organization. That’s kind of the role I see myself having played so far, and continuing to play in terms of setting the overall direction of the entire organization and making sure baseball fits into that. … I’m not going to be the guy who’s going to comment on spin rates or arm slots or exit velocity or swing planes. That’s not my role, nor do I want it to be my role. I’m intellectually curious, and I’d love to learn about it and hear about it and understand it, but I’m not going to be the one who’s commenting on how we should improve that. We’ve got a lot of great baseball minds in this organization who can do that stuff.”

What would you say is your plan to win back the fans who may be disillusioned by how things have gone the last four years, especially last season, as well as the concerns about a lack of major offseason activity or spending?

“I think there’s a couple things that really go to fan happiness and engagement. The on-the-field product certainly matters, and we understand that as an organization. With the vision and plan that Ben and his team are putting together, we will get to that point where that is going to be a championship-caliber team. Not going to put a timeline on it; I think Ben can speak to that better than I can in terms of what that looks like. But we’re all on the same page relative to that. We certainly understand we need to move toward that. I can tell you this, though: Regardless of wins and losses and the record, this will be a team that is fun and exciting to watch -- and they’re going to work hard every day to put a ‘W’ in that win column, and we’re building something that Pittsburgh can be proud of. We understand that part of it. You want fans to come and be able to watch a product that’s fun and exciting.

“Having said that, we also have to work on the fan experience. While I think we have a wonderful ballpark, one of the best in all of America, and I think we already have a great customer experience, I think we can always strive to get better and enhance it. That’s a lot of what I’ve been focused on over the last four months: How do we get better at that? I start every meeting with our staff, ‘We’re not doing things wrong. We’re doing things well. But we can always strive to get better, and that should always be how we look at things.’ So, how can we improve it? How can we improve PiratesFest? How can we improve the CARE-a-van in terms of engagement? How can we improve the overall customer experience, ingress, egress, fan safety when they’re there? We are putting together a plan that we’ll be rolling out in the next 20-30 days relative to what’s new at the ballpark.

“Beyond that, the other part I’ve really been working on with the team is, it’s not just the ballpark experience. It’s also the engagement when people can’t get to the ballpark. There’s people who live further away or people who aren’t necessarily able to, for whatever reason, engage with us at the ballpark. We want to make sure that external experience is great. Working with AT&T SportsNet in terms of how we do the broadcast, the things we’re highlighting and making sure that they’re just as informed as the people who are in the venue. Working on our content packages and making sure that those are enhanced. We’re doing great work; we can always continue to get better and elevate it with more and better content that fans want and look for. We’re focusing across the entire spectrum of all aspects of our business, how we can get better for our fans, how we can get better for our staff -- but that fan-centric approach is really important for us.”

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.