Jay Miller Appreciation Night

Much, much deserved

“The best promotion in baseball is fireworks.” Over the past decade, I’ve interviewed Jay Miller, president of the Round Rock Express, a number of times for various articles, and invariably, he always included that observation about fireworks.

So it was only fitting that Jay Miller Appreciation Night at Round Rock’s Dell Diamond ended the evening with one of the impressive pyrotechnic displays that Jay so loves. And the Express provided a leather sofa at home plate so Jay and his family could gaze in comfort (above).

The date was September 3, 2010, and the team was honoring Miller because he had just left his position in the front office to become the Senior Vice President of the Texas Rangers. This completed a 12-year run as the backbone of one the Minors’ most successful franchises — some would argue the most successful. Miller arrived in Central Texas a year and a half before the Express’ first game, which was in April 2000. He was the team’s GM until October 2004, when he was promoted to President and Chief Operating Officer.

How did the Express fare during his eleven seasons at the (front office) helm? On the field, well early on and horribly later on, as the Astros’ organizational depth went from top-of-the-heap to dead last. But regardless of wins and losses, the turnstiles still hummed. The Express’ first five seasons saw five broken attendance records for all of Class AA baseball. With nothing left to prove in Double A, the Dell Diamond became home to the Pacific Coast League for the second half of Miller’s tenure, and the attendance figures remained strong.

The fact that the Dell Diamond was the home to such success was not lost on the rest of the pro-baseball world. The title of “Executive of the Year” was bestowed on Miller early and often: by the Texas League in 2000; by the Sporting News for all of Minor League Baseball in 2001; by both in 2003 and by Baseball America for all of the Minors in 2005.

And there was one more honor that caught Miller by surprise at “his” night. Right after the final out of the game, PCL President Branch Rickey told the crowd that the league’s owners had just voted Miller the Executive of the Year for 2010 (above left).

This was but one of the many emotional moments of the evening. The proceedings started with a video tribute that Miller was told he had to watch by himself (above right). He was then joined by his family, where he was presented with his own Express jersey (appropriately with the number 1) by the team’s manager and coaches. The Express’ booster club, represented by Rocky and Judy Bannach, then gave Miller a Texas flag that had flown over the State Capitol (below left). Other presentations included four spiral-bound notebooks with hand-written notes from appreciative fans and a framed article about Miller from the Round Rock paper.

And then it was time for Miller to hurl the ceremonial first pitch (above right). This wasn’t just any batterymate he was pitching to, either. It was Hall of Famer — and Miller’s past (as Managing Partner of the Express) and future (as President of the Rangers) boss — Nolan Ryan.

There was time for Miller to pose for a picture before the National Anthem, so he did so with two families of royalty, as far as Central Texas is concerned. In the shot below are (from left): Don Sanders (Co-Managing Partner of the Express); Don’s son Bret (co-owner); Reese Ryan (co-owner and CFO); the Ryan Express himself; Reid Ryan (CEO) and Miller. Standing in front of Nolan is his grandson Jackson, who interestingly was named for the city of Jackson, Mississippi, which is where the Texas League franchise was playing before it was purchased and moved to Round Rock.

Once the game started, it was extremely slow going for Miller as he made his way around the concourse. Because of his unyielding zeal to treat every person as a friend, there isn’t a single season-ticket holder who doesn’t feel a strong bond with him. As a result, hundreds of them wanted one more chance to shake his hand or give him a hug. I chased him around the stands, marveling at the outpouring of emotions from the fans.

He posed for countless pictures. He patiently signed autographs, like for the excited youngsters below center. In the left-hand photo below, Miller’s lovely wife Joy (far left in the shot) joined in the fun of greeting the adoring fans.

And although almost no one in the packed stadium knew he did this, when a fan was dinged by a foul ball hit into the stands, Miller rushed over to check on her (above right). I guess this only figures, since he is the very embodiment of putting the fans first, even on “his” night.

Because of the way he has always put the fans at the top of his priority list, those in attendance that evening sought out ways to show their love back to him. They gave him gifts. They wrote personal notes on large poster boards with photos of Miller (below left), and they eagerly shelled out $10 so they could wear the T-shirts made to celebrate his night (below right). Even the Express players rose to the occasion. They’d just completed their final roadtrip of this last-place season, a miserable nine-game stretch where they’d gone winless. But they played like champs for Miller this night, as they blanked the Albuquerque Isotopes, 3-0.

All through the evening there were tributes of every kind. Miller was presented plaques on top of the dugouts between innings. Numerous well-wishers recorded videos that were shown on the scoreboard. The ones I caught were: former player Brooks Conrad, now with the Braves; former pitching coach Mike Maddux, currently with the Rangers; the beloved former Express manager Jackie Moore, now the bench coach on the Rangers; Charlie Culpepper, the mayor of Round Rock when the Dell Diamond was brought to life; Express co-owner Don Sanders; even Pat O’Conner, the President of Minor League Baseball.

And after all of these tributes, following the surprise of learning that he was the Pacific Coast League Executive of the Year, following a gift of a vacation and a set of golf clubs from the Express, it was finally Miller’s turn to address the crowd. With Reese and Reid Ryan nearby (below left), there were no notes in sight as Miller spoke from the heart. With most of the sell-out crowd of 10,227 still present, he told the fans how much the years in Round Rock have meant to him. And because he’d already started his position with the Rangers, he had to return to town for this evening’s events. “I drove down I-35 from Arlington this afternoon, and when I turned onto 79 (the road in Round Rock that leads to the Dell Diamond), I just started ballin’!” He quickly added, “I’m glad there was no one else in the car with me!”

And then the tears — from the man of the hour and also from many in the crowd — turned to oohs and ahhs as the fireworks filled the sky. After all, fireworks are the best promotion in baseball.

And when the fireworks were over and the stands were empty — save Miller and his family as they were departing the field where they’d watched the overhead spectacle — one last video tribute was shown on the scoreboard. I’m glad I stuck around to see it.

It was from Spike, the railyard canine who has served as the team’s mascot from Day 1 (above right). In a personal message that referenced the Rangers’ mascot, Captain (a Palomino pony), Spike told Miller via captions that, “I doubt the Rangers’ horse gives you the love that I do!”

On this night, as he was about to enter his 30th year in professional baseball, Jay Miller had to feel the love from his peers, the team’s owners, the players, his fellow employees (including Spike) and, most of all, the fans. And this love was much, much deserved.

After all, he had loved all of them first.

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