TICKET OFFICE TO FRONT OFFICE OF THE INDIANAPOLIS INDIANS
Metaphorically speaking, it’s certainly correct to describe Cal Burleson’s career in professional baseball as “a home run.” Taking it a step further, one could rightly say it was a “called shot” by the 63-year-old Fishers resident. “I learned early on that I couldn’t play shortstop,“ Burleson shared during a recent coffee shop conversation. “But, I always knew I wanted professional baseball as a career.” And, for 39 years, off-the-field baseball management is the only job he’s had. “I’ve been grateful for the opportunity,” he added.
Burleson is vice president and general manager of Indianapolis Indians, Inc., the city’s first professional sports franchise. In 1975, he joined the team as Indians ticket manager. Over the years, Burleson rose through the ranks as business manager, marketing manager, assistant general manager, and in the fall of 1997 was named general manager. He joined the publicly owned team’s board of directors about a year and a half ago. “I’ve never asked for the next job. I just tried to do what it was time to do,” said Burleson.
Cal’s love of baseball began in his hometown (Akron, Ohio) where he played the game until age 15. “Usually third base. I wasn’t very good,” he conceded. As a kid, Burleson listened to radio broadcasts of the Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians. “My first memories go back to the two World Series between the Milwaukee Braves and New York Yankees in 1957 and ’58,” he recalled. “I can still remember driving a car when I heard that Roberto Clemente had died. I had to pull off the road. Clemente and Al Kaline were my favorite players. I met Kaline a few years ago – that was a real thrill,” he smiled.
When hitting curveballs became too challenging, Burleson jumped at the chance to be batboy and manager for his high school baseball team. He earned a business degree, and a master’s degree in sports administration at Ohio University in Athens – a college choice that was intentional. “It’s still regarded as the premier sports management [academic] program. That’s why I went there,” he said.
As general manager, Burleson takes four road trips with the team each season. Otherwise, he’s in a ballpark office that doesn’t overlook the pristine playing surface of Victory Field. “It faces west toward the parking lot!” he laughed. He busies himself with “bigger picture things” including a focus on civic activities to ensure that the Indians are engaged in the community. Burleson also represents the Indians at International League meetings, and is on the marketing committee for AAA baseball. His time also is taken communicating with the Pittsburgh Pirates front office (the Indians’ major-league affiliate) about business issues. “The major league team provides the players, manager and coaches, and pays their salaries,” he explained. “Bats and balls are a shared expense.” The Indians turn over a portion of ticket revenue to Pittsburgh, and Internet revenues are shared.
Burleson said he flirted with a call-up to the major leagues but, “That was more than 30 years ago. I’m where I want to be, doing what I want to do,” he said, contentedly. “I still enjoy watching the game. It’s what pulls you through the day. [You’re] working on other things, but there’s always attention to the upcoming game that night.”
Of primary importance to Cal is the fan experience at Victory Field. Burleson said he has a terrific staff that works hard to ensure the franchise fulfills its mission of providing affordable and memorable family fun. And, he’s quick to acknowledge the vital role that Victory Field plays. “The ballpark has given us an important base. It’s been a big part of our success,” he enthused.
Refreshingly, Cal Burleson takes a winning isn’t everything approach. “The team isn’t going to win every year, [but] it’s important to provide competitive baseball,” he acknowledged. Indeed, the Indians have won multiple championships during his tenure and as of this writing, the Tribe is in first place with the best winning percentage in all of baseball, including the majors. However, not everything that happens between the lines is covered in the rule book. “We had a challenge with ducks earlier this year walking across the field while the game was in play,” he laughed. “Right between the mound and home plate – three or four ducks. They flew off on the own. We didn’t shoot the ducks,” he smiled.
Burleson said he’s not thinking about retirement and intends to continue building the team’s brand and attendance, with little concern about tomorrow. “Baseball has a great future. People love it, they’re emotionally connected,” he said. “People love to go to games and have a good time. The most consistent thing I see is they’re smiling.” There’s no question Cal Burleson called his career shot, and that he knocked it out of the park.
To learn more about the team visit www.IndyIndians.com.