Major Minor

How far afield is Jimmie Lee Solomon from the southeast Texas town where he was raised? Today he’s the executive director of baseball’s farm system—and he may be swinging for even bigger fences.

August 1997By Comments

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 a vigorous negotiation. The minors were probably caught totally off guard because normally they’d have a couple of sessions, a cocktail party, call it a day, and then rubber-stamp it.”

This time the talks have gone smoothly—low-key, orderly, and civil beyond belief. Many point to Solomon as the single most important influence on the proceedings. “Unlike the last time, the minor league guys feel like they’re being given a voice,” he says. At Solomon’s urging, all parties agreed not to talk to the press. “I’m not even using the word ‘negotiations.’ I say, ‘We’re discussing and framing issues.’”

Baseball insiders believe that this deal, more than anything else, will be Solomon’s lasting legacy, if not his step up baseball’s political ladder, to president of either the American or National League, or maybe even being named the sport’s first black commissioner. The latter is something Solomon, who describes himself as “moody, emotional, and driven,” adamantly won’t discuss above a whispering “No comment” or “Let’s not go there.” But he adds, quickly and matter-of-factly, “I do know there are a lot of people watching how I handle this.”

“Jimmie Lee is definitely going places,” says Stephen D. Greenberg, baseball’s former deputy commissioner, who left in April 1993 and is now the president of the Classic Sports Network, “and I think the sky’s the limit with him. There are very few people who have his combination of intelligence, poise, work ethic, and people skills. In fact, if there was any real leadership in the New York office in the time he’s been there, Jimmie Lee would have been promoted at least twice already.”

Born in Sugar Land, Solomon was raised in Thompsons, a rural community 35 miles southwest of Houston. One of six children, he grew up “land poor.” Which means, he says, “that we had food and land but no money.” His father, Jimmie Lee Senior, a strict disciplinarian and a workaholic, thought a man’s worth lay only in what he could do with his hands. His mother, Josephine, who worked at a Houston Kmart, and his college-educated grandfather, Jeremiah, constantly encouraged him to do well in school. “I remember once overhearing my father and grandfather fighting over me, and my grandfather finally telling him, ‘Just leave that boy be. That boy’s got brains, and if you let him alone, he’ll make you proud someday.’ I never forgot that.”

During most of his childhood, Solomon would wake up as early as four in the morning, using the headlights of his father’s truck to work by. He put out the hay, ran fence, and picked cotton. Though he idolized Willie Mays and was a big fan of the Houston Colt .45’s first baseman Walt Bond, he played little baseball but says he was always the fastest kid in Thompsons. By the seventh grade he was a star running back as well as the first black to start for the Lamar Junior High School football team. “I was small and didn’t have good hands, but I could really fly,” he says. “My running is the first thing I remember making me feel special.” No slouch in the classroom, Solomon was an A-minus student in advanced classes.

At Dartmouth College from 1974 to 1978, Solomon earned a degree in history (“with a heavy emphasis on government and economics”), set a school record for the sixty-meter dash, and played wide receiver on a football team that “threw the ball only ten times a game.” He wasn’t drafted out of college but managed to get a tryout with the Houston Oilers in 1978. He caught passes, did drills with the team, ran the forty, but for the first time in his life he wasn’t the fastest player on the field. He ended up being one of the first players cut. Afterward, then—head coach Bum Phillips not only told Solomon he was especially weak on fundamentals but also provided the further sting by saying, “I understand you were accepted to law school. Well, if you were my son, I would tell you to go do that.”

“I was devastated,” Solomon recalls. “Everything I was hearing was just bouncing off my head. But on the drive back home I came to the realization that my talent had likely topped out and that I had to be a man now and come to grips that football had come to an end for me. But I’ll tell you something, I really hated that first year I didn’t play football.”

Solomon attended Harvard’s School of Law, graduating with honors in 1981. He immediately took a job in the Washington, D.C., office of the prestigious corporate law firm of Baker and Hostetler, becoming its first black attorney. “By that point, I started getting comfortable with that ‘first and only black’ thing,” he says. “In fact, it had become a challenge for me to succeed as that. I sort of wore it as a badge of honor. Although I think that after a while people forget that I’m black, which is what I strive for.” During his ten years at the firm, Solomon, among other things, advised the NFL Management Council, handled the NFL arbitration hearings, and represented several professional—albeit fringe—basketball players. “I thought I wanted to be a sports agent,” he says. “I eventually realized that I didn’t want my career to rely on the whims of an adolescent.” In 1990 Solomon reached his goal of making partner, then quickly looked for the door. “I was getting burned out,” he says.

Coincidentally, around this time Major League Baseball was looking for someone to fill the newly created position of director of minor league operations, someone to act as a problem solver for disputes between the two levels as well as smooth over the acrimonious feelings created during the 1990 labor negotiations. William Schweitzer, a managing partner at Baker and Hostetler and the general counsel to the American League, recommended Solomon—even though Solomon’s previous baseball experience amounted to nothing more than a pair of memos he wrote on behalf of his firm to the American League.

During the initial interviewing process, the late Carl Bargar, the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the chairman of the owners committee, wasted little time before asking Solomon the touchiest of questions: “What are you going to do when you go into areas where blacks aren’t welcomed?” Solomon replied, without flinching, “Look, there’s no stronger group of tobacco-chewin’ good ol’ boys than the ones I grew up with. And I dealt with them very, very well. And I think they ended up respecting me, and I also think I may have even helped enlightening them a bit.”

About a week after the interview Solomon was hired by Commissioner Fay Vincent. And that first year he went out of his way to visit as many minor league ballparks as he could. “Since I was such an unknown, I wanted minor league people to clearly see, hear, and touch me,” he says. Observes Stephen Greenberg: “Frankly, with two thirds of the minor league guys coming from either the South or the Southwest, Jimmie Lee’s Texas background gave him the ability to communicate in a fashion that someone from New York or Chicago probably couldn’t. He talked their talk.”

“When I tell people I’m just a little ol’ country boy from Texas, they’re convinced I’m putting them on,” Solomon says, laughing, his face pinched into his usual infectious smile. “It’s like ‘Puh-leeze, Jimmie Lee, don’t hand us that stuff.’ But then I tell ’em, ‘Hey, listen, I grew up in a place with one beer joint and no post office. And that’s just a fact.’”

These days Solomon, who lives in Washington, D.C., doesn’t go home to Thompsons very often, especially since his father died at 64 of a heart attack last February and his mother is living in a nursing home in Richmond. But he still makes it back about once every other month. “In many ways,” he says, “I feel like I’ve outgrown Thompsons, but I go back to reminisce. And I guess I’m still a Texan at heart. It’s still the only place where I can kick back, put my jeans and boots on, and really be me.”

Two weeks after we met in New York, Solomon took a rare break in his schedule to watch a game between the Astros and the Mets at Shea Stadium. Dressed in black—from his tailored suit and his cotton mock turtleneck to his Bally shoes—he sat about two dozen rows back from the Mets dugout at field level, tightly squeezed into the commissioner’s box of reserved seats right behind a metal railing. Eventually, between his frequent whoops and hollers at the game’s action, his discomfort got the better of him, sparking a favorite rant: all minor league ballparks, at all costs, should be fan friendly. “If you were more comfortable, you might have a better time. And if you had a better time, you might buy season tickets to the games,” he said. He paused, took a swig of springwater from a plastic bottle, then said softly as he turned to one of his three guests, “I don’t suffer mediocrity or foolishness well. It’s something I’m working on.”

In the sixth inning, with the game locked in a scoreless tie, Solomon suddenly picked up to leave as he attempted to avert yet another fan inconvenience—traffic. Tonight especially, he explained, he couldn’t be late; the next day he was scheduled to fly to Houston for a major powwow about the agreement. Solomon’s gut instinct was that the whole thing was winding down, finally, to a resolution.

And, in fact, less than a month later the agreement was quietly and amicably done—a ten-year contract with an option to reopen negotiations after six. The majors got the minors to pay for umpire development (a $4.75 million annual expense) and some equipment costs; the minors got to keep their existing teams and leagues. The press conference to announce the agreement hardly made a ripple, lost in all the commotion about the major leagues’ experiment with interleague play. When the deal was done and Jimmie Lee Solomon went home, you have to imagine that he took a long, deep breath and came to another absolute stop. Briefly.

Michael P. Geffner is a contributing writer at The Sporting News.

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