JIMMIE LEE SOLOMON, MAJOR League Baseball’s executive director of minor league operations, has just done something remarkable, something he almost never does in public. With a long, deep breath, he has come, for a fleeting moment, to a complete and sudden stop.
Indeed, in the previous ten minutes or so of this May afternoon, from behind a desk in his small New York office on the seventeenth floor of a Park Avenue high rise, Solomon was such a mad flurry of nonstop motion he seemed to produce a slight breeze. Demonstrating perfect balance, he simultaneously chatted up someone on the phone, talking so quickly you’d swear he was creating a hybrid language; hand signaled to somebody sitting in front of him; flipped through several memos; and munched his way through a lunch of blueberry yogurt and a large fruit salad.
Solomon developed this type-A personality growing up on a hundred-acre farm in Thompsons (population: 200), a speck on the map in Fort Bend County. “My father, who was a cattle rancher all his life, believed two things: that laziness was a curse and that his sons were made to be farmhands,” says Solomon. “So I had this strong work ethic of making sure I was always doing something and getting a lot done quickly, but I also had this strong aversion to farm life. In fact, farm life is probably the biggest reason why I’m here today, because I ran from it as fast as I could. As a kid it was the motivation for me to play every sport I could and do well in all my classes—anything, than to come home and be at my father’s mercy.”
Since July 1991, the forty-year-old Solomon has been one of baseball’s highest-ranking black executives, of which, currently, there are still only a handful. And in both 1995 and 1996 he was crowned by Baseball America as the leading power broker of the entire minor leagues.
It hasn’t been easy. As the liaison between the majors and the minors (officially, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, or NA), Solomon is often in the precarious position of working for one while steering the other. He oversees fifteen leagues, 156 affiliated minor league teams, and approximately five thousand players, and he is the absolute final word on all transfers—which means no minor league team can be bought, sold, or moved without his approval. In fact, a few years back, when the minors wanted to expand to Puerto Rico and the majors didn’t want them to, the deal died on Solomon’s desk. “Unlike a lot of people in this game, I started at the top and came with a hammer,” he says. “I’m definitely somebody to deal with.” To some, though, he simply represents the majors’ flat-out control, if not bullying stranglehold, over its farm systems. “I think minor league people are wary of him and, to a large degree, don’t entirely trust him,” says a league insider. “He hasn’t really shown he’s out for them as much as he is for his major league bosses.”
Solomon responds to that with a sardonic smile and a twinkle in his luminous eyes. “Well, I’m paid by the majors. So, yes, I’m really going to consider their position very thoroughly. But the issue is, What’s for the better good of the game? And I think, bottom line, I’ve always tried to do what’s right.”
In a relatively short time, and mostly without the direction of a full-time commissioner, Solomon has done a lot of things right. His main claim to fame has been making peace between the major and the minor leagues. And he has been instrumental in shifting the minors from the quaint but outdated mom-and-pop operation with chicken-wire backstops to the big business of pristine, air-conditioned sky boxes; about 60 percent of the current minor league ballparks were either built anew or have undergone major renovations during Solomon’s tenure. Overall, minor league baseball is booming (the NA collectively is valued at between $500 million and $1 billion), with attendance up dramatically and a triple-A club now worth anywhere between $8 million and $10 million, double what it was when Solomon took over. “And my success,” he maintains, still seeming to react to the criticism that he’s a major league shill, “is based mostly on the minor leagues’ accepting me. Because if minor league owners stood up tomorrow and said, ‘Jimmie Lee isn’t fair’ and made a good argument, they could push me out in a heartbeat. The fact is, they demanded my presence in these current negotiations.”
The “negotiations” are the latest talks in a sometimes stormy one-sided relationship that dates back to 1903. Although major league owners don’t own any minor league teams, they completely subsidize the “star” product, paying the salaries of all the players as well as the managers, coaches, and trainers. In all, player development costs the majors nearly $200 million a year. And in recent years, as the minors have prospered, the majors have come not only to desire more control of their investment—from player movement to stadium upgrades—but also to thoroughly resent footing so much of the bill. The minors, for their part, don’t want to lose any more teams or leagues because of the majors’ cost cutting. Things got so ugly during the 1990 contract negotiations, before Solomon’s time, that at one point the majors threatened to walk away from the minors and start another league from scratch. “We do have other ways to develop players,” says Solomon. “And in light of that, the minors were forced to acquiesce.”
As the head negotiator for the major league side, Solomon has been consumed for months with trying to hammer out a new labor agreement that would make both sides happy. “Before 1990,” he says, “the two sides didn’t really know each other very well. They hadn’t had a knock-down-drag-out yet. They just sort of coexisted. I think the minors were shocked when the majors stepped in and had