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Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014

Lee Benson: Talking about life, Larry, baseball and the Bees with Marc Amicone

By Lee Benson, Deseret News

Published: Thu, Aug. 14 12:55 p.m. MDT

 Marc Amicone, general manager of the Salt Lake Bees, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Salt Lake City.

Marc Amicone, general manager of the Salt Lake Bees, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Salt Lake City.

(Tom Smart, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — He had just finished his schooling at the University of Utah where he played four seasons on the baseball team and had joined a fast-pitch softball team for the summer sponsored by Yates Industrial Park. A short while later, the team added a softball junkie — a pitcher — who had just moved back to Utah from Denver.

In the dugout, they introduced themselves.

“Hi, I’m Marc Amicone,” said the 22-year-old third baseman.

“Larry Miller,” said the 35-year-old pitcher.

There are more details to tell — and we’ll get to some of them in a minute — but all you really need to know to understand the relationship between the two men is that initial handshake.

In the summer of 1979, long before Amicone would become the first and only person born in Utah to be named Executive of the Year in both professional baseball and hockey, and long before the late and legendary Miller would build his auto dealership empire; buy the Utah Jazz, the Salt Lake Golden Eagles and the Salt Lake Bees; and add the "H.," they were teammates and friends.

“If he was your friend he was your friend,” said Amicone on a recent weekday at Smith’s Ballpark where he is maneuvering his way through his 10th season as general manager of the ball club. “Loyalty and friendship meant everything to Larry. It’s who he was.”

That loyalty and friendship is why Amicone was the only call Miller made in 2004 when he bought the Stingers, Salt Lake’s Triple-A minor league baseball franchise — he would later rename it the Bees — and needed to hire a general manager to run it for him. And that's why Amicone didn’t hesitate to leave a stable and enviable position as an assistant athletic director at the University of Utah to partner with him.

“We had an understanding,” said Amicone. “If he ever bought the baseball team I would run it. Neither of us knew if it would ever happen, but if it did we had that understanding.”

Amicone remembered Miller first talking about the possibility of owning a baseball team when they were softball teammates, first with Yates Industrial and later with a team sponsored by Engh Floral. It wasn’t serious talk, just dugout scuttle. It was something to help pass the time during a rain delay or between doubleheaders, but it was a dream.

Amicone was a good audience because, one, he loved baseball as much as Miller did, and two, he’d majored in sports management in college and fresh out of school he was already working for the Golden Eagles, Salt Lake’s minor league hockey team. He was in the sports business before Miller was in the sports business.

By the time Miller had sold enough Toyotas to purchase (with the bank’s help) the Utah Jazz basketball team in 1985, Amicone was the Golden Eagles general manager — owner Art Teece’s righthand man. The hockey franchise won four league titles while Amicone was there. In 1987 and 1988 he was named International Hockey League Executive of the Year.

Amicone left the Eagles after the 1988 season to return to his alma mater, where newly appointed athletic director Chris Hill hired him to be in charge of marketing. He was later promoted to assistant athletic director, the position he held when the call came from his old pal.

In a wide-ranging interview at the ballpark, Amicone, the 2009 Pacific Coast League Executive of the Year, sat down with the Deseret News to talk about life with Larry, baseball and the Bees.

DN: How surprised were you when you got the call that Larry H. Miller had bought the baseball team and wanted you to run it?

MA: It was always something I knew might happen but when it did it was a total surprise. Of course we’d chatted about the possibility through the years. I remember one time he said if we haven’t spoken for eight years — I don’t know where eight years came from — but he said if we haven’t spoken for eight years and this happens, you’re my first phone call and you can decide what you want to do. I was getting ready to start my 17th year at the U. when Larry called. He said he wanted to talk to me at his office. I didn’t know what he wanted, but I went there, walked in, sat down, and he said, 'I just made a deal to buy the Stingers, do you still want to do it?' He reached out his hand and I shook it and that’s how it happened. I was his baseball guy. For Larry there were no time frames. If he said something there was no expiration date.

DN: The camaraderie from sports is obviously a powerful thing?

MA: It certainly can be, and has been in my life. Playing softball is also how I first became associated with the hockey team. Chuck Schell, play-by-play voice of the Golden Eagles at the time, was on the softball team and that led to an internship opportunity before I finished school. That’s how I got started in hockey. And I met Chris Hill before he was athletic director at the University of Utah when he was basketball coach at Granger High School, where I went to school. I met him there the year after I graduated, and that’s how we got to know each other. Connections can be valuable in the sports world.

DN: Is it safe to assume that Larry H. Miller, who became a household name as owner of the NBA’s Utah Jazz, set his first sights on owning a baseball team, not a basketball team?

MA: He always liked baseball and I know as far back as we went he always wanted to buy the baseball team. Then the Jazz thing happened and everything went a different direction, but Larry loved baseball and softball. He was winding down as a player when we met but he was still extremely competitive. He just loved to play.

DN: The first pro sports owner you worked for was the late Art Teece, who owned the Golden Eagles and Salt Lake’s Minor League Baseball affiliate when they were the Gulls. What was it like working for Art?

MA: Art was fabulous. He was in his 70s and I was 23 or 24 or whatever and we just hit it off. I went through the Central Hockey League era when everything was going great, and then when that league folded I went through all the International League craziness when the only way they’d let us in is if we’d pay for everyone’s travel to come to Salt Lake. I saw the extremes, what you could do when you had the resources and what you couldn’t do when you didn’t.

DN: That experience and your work at the University of Utah exposed you to a lot in the sports business before you ever got to the Bees.

MA: I’ve seen plenty. At the U. I started in marketing, but I did a little bit of everything over the years and enjoyed the heck out of it. I did ticket sales, football team travel for a while, supervised baseball, golf and swimming. I was tournament director for the men’s basketball tournament a couple of times and did some gymnastics nationals and regionals.

DN: But you didn’t hesitate when baseball came calling?

MA: I’ve always loved baseball. When I graduated from Granger High School I had an appointment to the Air Force Academy — this was in 1975 — and I actually went there for a brief period of time, but all I wanted to do was play baseball and at the academy first you had to do basic training. Baseball was way next spring. I couldn’t wait that long, so I came home and went to Utah where I was going to go if I hadn’t gone to the Air Force Academy. Tom Kilgore was the baseball coach. I played ball there for four years, got my degree and started doing the hockey thing with Art. Then I went to work for Chris. I was away (from baseball) for quite a while, but when I had the chance to get back in, I couldn’t wait.

DN: The best part about your job?

MA: The fun I have at the ballpark during games interacting with fans. I walk around the ballpark pretty much every night. I love walking around the berm and seeing grandma and grandpa with their grandkids or moms and dads and young families. We get everything from business guys with their buddies in the suites to people on their first date. It’s an easy first date, kind of informal, relaxed. You’d be surprised how many people get engaged at the ballpark because that’s where they first met. I love that. And I really enjoy the baseball people I work with. The interaction with the other GMs in the PCL is great and working with the (Los Angeles) Angels has been fabulous.

DN: It’s been more than five years now since Larry H. Miller left us. Do you sense he’s still keeping an eye on things?

MA: Obviously it’s the Miller family now (that owns the Bees) and I want all of them to be proud of what we’re doing. Gail, Greg, Steve and Bryan have done a terrific job of keeping the LHM legacy in sports and entertainment in Utah alive and well. They care every bit as much as Larry did. What mattered to him matters to them. But yeah, pretty much every day I find myself thinking about Larry and what he’d be proud of.

DN: He was not a hands-off kind of owner.

MA: (Laughs) I used to tell people we had the world’s highest-profile meteorologist because Larry’s office was on the 10th floor of Jordan Commons and he would watch the clouds come into the valley and call me anytime there was any kind of weather issue. He’d say, 'OK, I’m seeing this and I’m seeing that and maybe you need to put the tarp on, I’ll call you back in 30 minutes.' We had all this sophisticated weather equipment, but I had the best of all sitting up there on the 10th floor.

DN: Did that kind of micro-management ever bother you?

MA: No, never. Every time we had a conversation it was amazing how much he wanted to know about the team. He knew what was up, and with Larry it was always about how the team was doing. He just loved the game. I remember one time we had Bartolo Colon come down for a rehab assignment and Larry sat right behind home plate and spent the night looking at Colon through his binoculars. He was looking to see how he was holding his hand, how he was hiding the ball, where his hips were in the delivery, those kinds of things. That is what he loved. It was the game. And he always knew the baseball team had a different niche in the community than other sports teams. Being affordable, family friendly, all those kinds of things, were important. It’s outside, it’s green grass, it’s healthy. One of the great things about baseball is the timelessness and no clocks and you and I can be visiting and if we miss a pitch we miss a pitch. It’s OK. You’re not on the edge of your seat all the time. So it’s different that way. One of the great social events I think ever.

DN: What about the big leagues? Could Salt Lake City support a Major League Baseball franchise?

MA: I really think we have enough baseball fans and it’s now enough of a market, but I think it would be a Wasatch Front kind of a team just because of the numbers involved. In baseball, you play twice as many home games as the Jazz, 81 compared to 41, you have twice as many seats, at least twice as many suites and boxes that you have to fill, so the numbers are all a lot bigger. I believe people would just get ecstatic over it. I think it helps that we’ve established a solid baseball tradition here. This is the 20th anniversary season of this franchise in Salt Lake and we’ve been able to touch the lives of millions of people with the ballpark experience. Professional baseball is not a stranger in Salt Lake. That bodes well for the MLB potential.

DN: How about pro football?

MA: I would be the first in line for season football tickets. I think the NFL would be awesome. And I go back to what I just said about Major League Baseball and 81 games. In the NFL you’ve got 10 games, maybe, counting preseason. That’s an easier number.

DN: Best item at the Smith’s Ballpark concession stand?

MA: Oh, man, right now there’s two or three. Probably either the all-star dog or the nacho dog. The nacho dog is brand new this year, and it’s basically a big thing of nachos with a dog in the middle. But my favorite right now is an item in our fresh express lineup called the panini Cuban sandwich. And we may have the best milkshakes in town. People don’t know that. Everything at the ballpark is good. It’s better at the ballpark, that’s what we say all the time. It’s better here.

Email: benson@deseretnews.com

Recommended
1. Uncle Gadianton
Salt Lake City, Utah,
Aug. 14, 2014

Weren't the Bees called the "Buzz" when Larry Miller bought them? He changed the name to reflect the old Salt Lake Bees, but also to avoid an infringement action brought by Georgia Tech.

2. ExDixieIte
Salt Lake City, UT,
Aug. 14, 2014

Close. The Buzz name was the initial name of the team under Joe Buzas. Georgia Tech gave notice that they had a trademark on the name and an almost identical logo. The Buzz then changed to the Stingers.

When the Buzas family decided to sell to LHM, he reopened the long stalled talks with a team somewhere in the midwest (Missouri, I think) to license the name Bees and bring back the name that was SLC's minor league team for so many years. LHM agreed to run a full page ad in every Bees program for free plus kick in some money I would assume and the deal was done bringing the name Bees back to Salt Lake City.

3. Cherrycoug
Taylorsville, UT,
Aug. 14, 2014

I dont think Salt Lake will ever have a MLB team. Payrolls for MLB teams can be in $100's of millions of dollars annually and I dont think we have the corporate presence to support the Jazz, RSL, and a MLB team. SLC is well positioned as a AAA town and we have a great relationship with the Angels. Also, the NFL is looking internationally to expand and SLC wont ever be more desirable for the NFL than London, Madrid or Berlin.

We have a great thing going with college football in the Utes, Aggies and Cougars. Barring an unforseen population explosion, we are what we are and I love it. We are lucky to have a NBA team. We are lucky to have gotten RSL when we did. NYCFC paid a $100 million dollar expansion fee. If RSL was to try to start today it would be very tough for an owner to spend that kind of money. I admire Mr. Amicones enthusiasm but I think we have all the sports teams we need right now. Lets grow what we have and not worry about what we dont have.

4. CKS007
Clearfield, UT,
Aug. 14, 2014

Wow, this is the first article where the question about an NFL team in Utah was asked and the immediate answer wasn't "won't work because of Sunday". I'm glad to hear that IF a team were to land in Salt Lake that it would have a shot. I know it's a long shot, but I'd LOVE to see an NFL team in Utah. Put us in the AFC West with Denver, Oakland, San Diego and KC and there would be a lot of rivalries.