Interview: Dustin Morse, Twins manager of baseball communicationsby Brandon Isleib
March 19, 2009
This week is my year anniversary as a THT writer (and many thanks to all those who have commented and read—I hope it’s still worth your while). My first article was on Bert Blyleven, and not too long after I put it up, Dustin Morse sent me an e-mail that led to communication straight from Bert which, like it would be for any baseball geek, was quite the thrill.
Dustin and I have touched base a number of times on other things, so of a year at THT, I thought getting an interview with a rarely-interviewed segment of an MLB front office would be appropriate. Thanks to Dustin for being a great interviewee. We talked on the phone while he was watching batting practice prior to the Twins-Pirates spring training game yesterday. (Yeah, I was jealous. I can be honest.)
Some answers may look a bit out of place, but that’s only because I got so much good stuff that I had to put it all somewhere.
What’s your background in public relations, and how did you get to here?
It’s kind of funny, because I started where everyone wants to end up: the Hall of Fame. I interned there in 2001, which led to an internship with the Cubs in 2002. I was hired full-time by the Rangers in 2003, but budget cuts led to my dismissal, at which point the Padres picked me up. I grew up in Minnesota, and as a PR guy the other teams’ PR departments are like your co-workers, so the Twins had their eye on me for when a position opened up. When one did, the Padres granted permission to the Twins to talk to me, and I switched over in spring training of 2006.
It’s been good for my professional development to move around a lot. I learned something different from each place: the history of the game from the Hall, tradition from the Cubs, and the business end from down in Texas. Kevin Towers included me in everything while I was with the Padres and provided a good role model in the business. It was hard leaving San Diego, but I love what I’m doing in Minnesota.
Is your department mostly comprised of straight PR people, baseball people with PR skills, or somewhere in between?
Somewhere in between. When we look for interns, we’re usually hiring ones with journalism or communication backgrounds, so they come in with experience, but knowledge of baseball language is a definite plus, obviously; baseball PR is a different universe and you have to familiarize yourself with the language and the writing style. That said, the Twins are very big about promoting from within, both on and off the field; this is one of the few organizations where I feel really secure in my job. I’m one of the only people in the front office who was hired from outside the organization, which makes it interesting if you have a different mindset on something, but everybody gets along really well. You have to love this game to be working in it, so it’s not like you hire someone straight from another PR world, but since we hire interns with that background, we’re somewhat in between.
What parts of your job are unique to baseball clubs and more specifically to the Twins?
Being more of a small-to-mid market, we’re not going to have the same relations needs as, say, the Yankees. We get about the same amount of requests as the Yankees’ department for sponsorships and events, but our requests are more within our market than on a national scale. 2006 was an exception, though, because we had Johan Santana winning the Cy Young and Justin Morneau winning the MVP. With Santana, the entire country of Venezuela was wanting to talk to him, but he was down there already, so it didn’t have much to do with us. With Morneau … all of Canada wanted to talk to him, even the prime minister. It was nuts.
We’ve got a unique opportunity in that “Twins territory” is primarily five states: Minnesota, some of Wisconsin, Iowa, and North and South Dakota. That means we do events in some markets that might be different than most teams’ markets, like Sioux Falls. Our annual TwinsFest is also different than any other team’s conventions in that we bring the entire 40-man roster up for it, so there’s a lot of coordination for something that big.
What’s your busiest time of year? Is there such a thing as a public relations offseason?
There’s always something to do. You’ve got the normal set of things to do in-season: player appearances, working with the media, sometimes feeding them a story or player angle you want to hype up, and on. Offseason, you’ve got those things, but you’ve also got media guide production, the annual awards banquet, and TwinsFest, so it doesn’t slow down. When a ballpark opens up, as Petco did when I was in San Diego, you get a lot of requests from all sorts of places. If your team’s making the playoffs (or, in our case last year, playing a 163rd game to see if we do), there’s a lot around there too.
Because of TwinsFest, the third week of January is probably our busiest time, along with the first couple of weeks around spring training. The rest of the time, I’m researching different angles to promote players. Even if a guy’s hitting .212, you can find some positive thing about it and maybe tell a guy a thing here or there. Especially since we’re coming off a season where we lost by an extra game that was decided by a single run, we’re all in it together trying to do any little thing we can just that extra bit better.
What is the Twins’ brand, and what is your department’s role in creating/sustaining it?
Our region is pretty easy to please; if you work hard, try your best, and give back to the community, they’ll appreciate you. Our job is to communicate that to the players and get them on board as much as they can. Twins President Dave St. Peter and GM Bill Smith set a lot of it and then leave it to us to implement it. We’re not micromanaged in any big way; they trust us to do our job. We want to be known as family-friendly and accessible to the public; we want people to come out and just have a good time at the game. With our upcoming ballpark, that park’s going to be a part of the community, so we’re focused on our community relations, although my job is more player relations than strictly community-oriented. If we put a bunch of hardworking players on the field who don’t cut corners and want to be part of the pulse of this area, then we’ve done what we want to do, and our fans are loyal to us if we give that to them.
Name one thing about your job that nobody would expect you to be doing.
Well, it’s kind of a hard job to talk about with your family members; like I said, you have to be part of baseball to really understand what’s going on. But I guess the most surprising things are what you might do for the players and coaches sometimes. Maybe it’s helping a player find a bed that he likes, or maybe a player wants to do an event for a specific company, like Best Buy, and you work with him on it. To me, the 25th man is as important as the superstar in meeting their needs and figuring out what works best for them, and that can take some interesting turns. This spring, our department made sure to get cherry juice to our coaches by the time they showed up for spring training; they love drinking cherry juice to help with aches and pains. You score points with your players and coaches just for doing little things like that.
What do you love most about your job?
Getting to see so much of what goes on in baseball at ground level. The fans may not see why this guy went 0-for-3 tonight, but maybe that guy’s having problems with his girlfriend and I can do whatever I can to help him out going forward. I get to see the humanity of the game every day, and it’s great to be involved that deeply. The best PR departments are the ones who stay behind the scenes and help others do their jobs, and I love being in baseball from that angle.
A job in baseball is one where you can learn something new about the game or an individual everyday, and everyday there is a new challenge or something you have never seen before. It’s a demanding profession but it’s very rewarding if you respect the game, its history and how it connects generations.
Brandon Isleib is a lawyer and writes about stuff sometimes. He can be reached via the electronic mails.