Photo courtesy of New Haven County Cutters
WEST HAVEN - It wasn't so many years ago when Marie Heikkinen's idea of how she wanted to go to work after college was to wear a business suit to a large office building in a major city.
The Cutters have seen a dramatic increase in attendance under the direction of Marie Heikkinen Webb, one of the few female execs in independent minor league baseball.
Many days she wears shorts to work, frequently "running around the ballpark...getting dirty...and pulling tarp in the rain. We have way too much experience pulling tarp."
Do you have any clue what her job is?
Does it help to discover that this attractive, 31-year-old woman, who has gone by the name Marie Heikkinen Webb ever since she married Pete Webb, a golf course specialist, works in a man's world?
Ms. Webb is one of only six women with the title of general manager among 74 Independent Baseball teams spread from coast to coast. In her case, she is GM of the New Haven County Cutters of the Can-Am League. Actually, since this is her third season as general manager, she has more seniority in her current position than any of the other women.
A general manager runs the show, so to speak, so we asked this Livermore Falls, Maine native, what was the toughest part of the position as a woman? She didn't answer -- not because she didn't like the question, but because, well, she did not have much that she felt was more difficult than if she was a man.
"Baseball is a very informal atmosphere, and I have to be aware...," she tried explaining. It was much easier for her to say, "I have not felt discriminated against in all my years...not by anyone, media, sponsors..."
Ms. Webb did recount how, through a colleague, "I learned very quickly, you can be a girl in baseball, but that doesn't mean you get out of anything. If a truck comes in and it is loaded with baseballs, you help unload them."
It may have helped that in Bernie and Lois Heikkinen's family, "Growing up, we watched the Red Sox every night," she recalled. "I knew the roster and the statistics." And, as a date found out one time: "We were going to play catch. He wanted to teach me (how to throw) a pitch. I said ‘with the seams or across them.'"
"Wow", was his one word reply.
At 17, Marie learned that sports management was a career option. "I didn't know it existed."
She was headed to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, which happened to have one of the most well-known programs in the country. What a marriage of interests!
Attendance Climbs on Her Watch
"I love the interaction with people," she says today. "And the variety of people -- staff, media, players, other GMs, visiting teams."
Ms. Webb has her hands full with the Cutters, who play at what is known as "historic Yale Field." Historic, yes, because of all the famous names who have played there because of their association with Yale University, earlier minor league teams or to play in exhibitions. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, modern day major league stars such as Todd Helton or Alex Rios and countless others have spent many a day or night at the stadium that lacks some of the amenities fans like because Yale Field was built in 1927.
This youthful veteran of 12 professional baseball seasons, including the Class AA Eastern League office, the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, and most recently Triple-A Ottawa, where she spent three years as director of marketing and community relations, will never be heard complaining.
"Every market is different," she realizes. "Finding out what that city wants takes time."
Numbers back the personable young woman up. It was after a struggling first season after the Double-A New Haven Ravens vanished, leaving anguish and some tainted business relationships behind, that Ms. Webb was promoted from assistant general manager. Attendance climbed by 16 percent. A very minimal increase was all the Cutters had to show last season, but now, as Ms. Webb directs a fulltime staff of 10 and a part-time staff that can number 75 on a given night. attendance grew another 16 per cent in the first half of this season, with sponsorships and fence sign sales also on the increase.
With an average of nearly 1,800 a game, the Can-Am League team certainly isn't where it wants to be. But Marie Heikkinen Webb never veers off her optimistic path.
"I definitely see signs that we are figuring it out," she smiles. "We're making progress."
She leads by example", praised vice chairman and chief operating officer Rick Handelman, "and is a great ambassador for the team."
This article has been excerpted fom a column Bob Wirz writes on Independent Baseball. Fans may subscribe at www.wirzandassociates.com, order his newest book, The Independent Minor Leagues: 2006 Season in Review, enjoy his blog (www.indybaseballchatter.blogspot.com ) or comment to
. The author has 16 years of major league baseball public relations experience with Kansas City, and as spokesman for two Commissioners (Bowie Kuhn and Peter Ueberroth). He is located in Stratford.