Tom Garfinkel Retrospective, From My Perspective

Tom GarfinkelI wasn’t sure what to think when I first heard in April of 2009 that new owner Jeff Moorad was bringing Tom Garfinkel from Arizona as the Padres new Chief Operations Officer. This was probably because I have no idea who the Padres’ previous COO even was, though turns out it was former CEO Dick Freeman. Nor did I have much of an idea what he did. What stood out most about Garfinkel at the time was having his own baseball card.

Tom’s Story Begins in Breakfastown

It didn’t take long for Garfinkel to make waves, catching the eye of jbox from Gaslamp Ball by making declarative statements about a city in which Garfinkel had only been employed for a few months.

How long has Garfinkel been in San Diego? A few weeks?  He can definitively say that this is a “breakfast town”?  I’ve lived here all my life. Never once have I ever heard it referred to as a “breakfast town” and for some reason it annoys me that this is what a fan expert takes away from his research.

It wasn’t a great first impression, but Tom handled it well inviting the Gaslamp Ball crew and select other Padres bloggers to meet with him and schmooze. I say “select” bloggers because despite having been in the Padres Blogging game a couple of years at the time, neither Ray nor I received an invite. Our mantra for a long time has been “say what we feel and don’t worry about the consequences” so perhaps there’s an explanation in there.

In any event, Tom developed a good relationship with the blogging community from that point forward. After receiving one of the most legendary texts imaginable from Rick one afternoon last summer (“Hey, do you want to catch a game in a skybox with Tom Garfinkel and eat and drink free food and beer tonight?”), I spent about an hour with Tom and a small group of bloggers in a box in the right field light tower.

I learned a lot about Garfinkel that day. First and foremost he’s a charming, fun, likeable guy. It’s easy to see how he won over the other bloggers. He seemed both genuine, and passionate about the success of Padres baseball. He even went off on a few rants about other teams and philosophies that while perfectly respectful, were never the kinds of opinions you’d see published on Padres.com. It was refreshing.

Tom also had strong ideas about the team from the baseball operations side. At that point he was the newly minted CEO, so working with the GM became part of his job, but hearing him go on about player signings and the like threw me off as it wasn’t something I was used to from him. For some contrast, I look up to former Padres CEO Sandy Alderson, one of the true fathers of moneyball. While Alderson’s PR “skills” meant he had no business chatting with fans on sports talk radio, his baseball credentials were top notch. What were Garfinkel’s?

Garf’s Wheelhouse

firkin fridays padres petco park

Speaking of fan experience, this is where Tom really clogged up the bases. This is a good thing. The concessions experience before Garfinkel’s arrival was literally forgettable, I can’t remember a single food or beverage item worth mentioning. These days the Petco Park overflows with all kinds of delicious craft beer, a Hodad’s restaurant, a Ballast Point Beer Garden full of unique food in its own regard, and more local offerings. Those offseason additions were clockwork–we’d ask for more craft beer and it would be there. Then we’d say, Big Eye is great, but we want Sculpin–and the next year it would be there. The only tarnish is the mysterious disappearance of the Randy Jones BBQ.

I ‘d be remiss without mentioning what might be my favorite bi-annual event in all of San Diego, Padres’ beerfest, which combines craft beer, friends, craft beer, baseball, summer evenings outside, and more craft beer into two hours of pure joy. Plus I love the idea of yearly recurring events like the Wine festival (now called Winefest, though the team refuses my suggested name of CougarFest), and others.

Tom was also accessible, be it walking around games kissing babies or chatting with folks on Twitter. We’ll always remember him in his favorite spot, the waterfall at Petco Park, interacting with fans and  brightening people’s day with seat upgrades.

Another example of his concern for fans: a season ticket holder friend was unfairly engulfed by the team’s accounting bureaucracy. When Tom got wind of it, he invited the friend to meet with him at the ballpark (and Ron Fowler, as it turned out), fixed the issue, and offered, in the friend’s eyes, more than enough of some fun bonus items to make up for the poor season ticket experience.

Bridge Over Troubled Waterfall

At least a year after the Padres announced their 2011 uniform redesign, Garfinkel asked Rick when we’ll stop talking about them. The uniforms were something on which we never saw eye to eye with the team, and many other fans and bloggers I’ve gotten to know feel the same.

To minimize re-hashing from previous posts, maybe the issue is something about San Diego’s culture that never connected with executives who hadn’t much time here. Maybe it was too many focus groups that created such a bland design.

As for me, I’ll just say that I think the Padres need to look unique and leave it at that.

Other Stuff

After nine seasons in Petco and Garfinkel at the helm as CEO, the Padres shortened the fences in right and left-center field. One of the goals was for players, fans, and the media to simply stop talking about the dimensions and focus on baseball. It worked. The team used the extra space wisely, adding a new advertising drenched party area in right field lovingly called the “whiskey deck.” The visiting bullpen previously cobbled together down the right field line moved next to the Padres’ in left-center, consequently making lots more sense. Both additions are well architected and fit in naturally with ballpark’s original construction.

padres youth baseball jerseys

There were more initiatives, the most visible of which was the program outfitting Little Leaguers in the area with various generations of Padres jerseys, the sense-making of which is off the charts. When kids wear team jerseys in little league they develop a connection with them. Ask any 30 year old former little leaguer which teams he or she played watch them rattled off immediately. Kids should be forming these connections with the Padres instead, early and often.

“Hi there, I noticed you bought tickets Padres tickets online recently. I’m calling to let you know I’ll be your personal liaison to the team.” Season tickets are an important component  for every team’s revenue, and the sales program was completely revamped under Moorad and Garfinkel’s leadership. Inheriting a lousy situation after John Moores’ departure, the new ticket sales staff gained a visible presence in the ballpark and on our answering machines. While the team reports the initiative successfully increased season ticket sales, other fans I’ve spoken with agree that some of their lead generation tactics push a little too hard.

padres season tickets sales

Under Tom’s watch, the Padres brought soccer and other non-baseball entertainment events to Petco.

Garfinkel worked on the Padres new cable deal as well, although I have no earthly idea how much he was involved.

The Garfinkel Era: A Sacrifice Bunt Perspective

How do I sum up Tom Garfinkel, Padres employee? I choose to do that the best way I know how, looking at the ways he did or didn’t make my life more awesome.

Tom treated bloggers in a manner that said a lot about who he was as an executive. He was, in only a small exaggeration, a pioneer regarding recognizing Padres bloggers’ mere existence. Not only did he pioneer mere existence, he made the Padres accessible. He opened himself up to us, and to fans, in a way far beyond any previous executive has.

Tom’s job was to make Petco Park a fun place to be, and he was great at it. His job was also to tell fans what we want to hear, and though he made a public gaffe with Zack Greinke comments and I’ve felt I was being spun by his characterization of some events, I don’t think there are enough zeros in the world for how many 1,000s of times better he was than Sandy Alderson at this. And Sandy is an idol of mine. I put Mr. Garfinkel in the mostly great column there. Tom Garfinkel was a great Chief Operating Officer.

There’s this other part of baseball that fans enjoy, and that’s watching their favorite baseball team win baseball games.

Figuring out Tom, the CEO gets murky. An opinion on Tom Garfinkel’s success, or anyone’s success as CEO is much more related to your opinion on how important he is to the process of winning at baseball.

To do that, we’ll need to chat about Jeff Moorad. Moorad wasn’t great at the job, and Tom is closely associated with him. We run into trouble trying to separate one performance from the next, especially as Garfinkel only held the title of CEO for about a year and a half. Plus only one of the two was in charge of the team’s purse. And we’re already 1600 words into a ridiculously long article.

While he was a likable, fan friendly guy, the long-term success of a Chief Executive Officer has to be tied to winning baseball. Circumstances never gave Tom Garfinkel that chance.

Tom had an impact on lots of fans in San Diego. What was yours? Share your thoughts on his actions or lack thereof in the comments or on Twitter @SacBuntMelvin.

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  • Padres360

    Enjoyed your article and agree with so much of what you wrote. Tom is a great guy and I believe he had a very positive affect on San Diego and the Padres experience … which at times, can be challenging … especially for us season ticket holders. For a bit more on our thoughts … here is a link to our “thank you” article when he left – hope you enjoy it as well: http://wp.me/p3lEZh-75