The Arkansas Travelers fired two front office employees last week, a move that's raised the ire of some fans who question the unchecked power wielded by the fan-owned team's executive president, Russ Meeks.
Firings are a common occurrence in professional sports, but the team has been uncommonly mum about the recent departure of general manager Pete Laven and assistant general manager David Kay. Team officials have barely acknowledged that Laven and Kay are no longer with the orginization. There's been no official statement from the Travs. Meeks hasn't returned calls from the Arkansas Times. When questioned, other team officials have repeated the same line, "It's the policy of the Arkansas Travelers not to discuss personnel matters."
The Times has confirmed that both were fired. Laven did not return a phone call from the Times. Kay refused comment. Friends say their severance is conditional on their not speaking with the media.
Laven, 42, had spent much of his professional career with the Travs. He interned with the club right out of college, left for 10 years to work for minor league teams in Georgia and North Carolina and then rejoined the Travs as an assistant GM in 2004. He was named Texas League Executive of the Year in 2006. When longtime GM Bill Valentine stepped aside to become executive vice president of the club in 2007, the year the team moved to Dickey-Stephens Park, Laven was promoted. Kay, who worked in game-day operations at Ray Winder Field from 1996 until 2002, rejoined the club in 2007 and was promoted to assistant general manager in 2008. His responsibilities included sponsorship, marketing and ticket sales.
Insiders say there was nothing awry with the team's financial health. Under Laven's leadership, the Travs had operated in the black. After drawing huge crowds in its first three seasons in Dickey-Stephens (a total of 372,475 in 2007, a total of 377,997 in 2008 and 346,635 in 2009), attendance had flagged (to 326,066 in 2010, to 300,594 in 2011 and to 308,109 in 2012). But according to Thomas Kayser, the president of the Texas League in which the Travs play, it's typical for attendance to go down in a new park before settling into a steady range. "Three hundred thousand is pretty doggone good," he said. "Arkansas never had that in Ray Winder."
The dismissal of Laven and Kay has upset John Crow, owner of 107 Liquor in Sherwood. Crow is a season ticket holder who has organized the Travs post-game concert series and advertised with the club. He sent an open letter to the Travs board of directors last week asking it to explain the move, and he's organized a Facebook group called Take Me Out of the Ball Park that had 700 members on Tuesday.
Crow has a track record of riling opposition. He helped build a Facebook group to oppose a plan proposed by the city of North Little Rock to sell the approximately 40 acres that make up Big Rock Quarry below Emerald Park. The group swelled to some 1,500 and the proposal was quickly squelched.
In theory, what Crow and other Travs fans think about the way the team is run matters. Like the Green Bay Packers, the Arkansas Travelers is the rare professional sports team owned solely by its fans. The team is owned by Arkansas Travelers Inc., a corporation formed in 1960 and made up of holders of $5 shares. Since they were issued, the shares' value has not changed. All dividends go back into the organization. According to the Travelers' website, there are approximately 2,800 shareholders.
A large, self-perpetuating board of directors represents the shareholders. During Bill Valentine's more than 30-year reign as general manager of the club, longtime Travs insiders acknowledge that he ran the club as if he owned it. An executive committee of the board of directors rubberstamped his decisions and those board members not on the executive committee merely served honorary roles.
The dynamics of today's Travs board are Byzantine by comparison though, by many accounts, the ultimate authority still rests largely in the hands of one man — executive president Meeks.
Meeks, a Little Rock lawyer, became president of the executive committee of the board in 2010. He leads a six-person executive committee that includes Bert Parke as president emeritus, Ben Scroggin as vice president, Dr. Charles Logan as vice president, Frank Thomas as treasurer and Bob Whisnant as secretary. Those six are part of a larger board that was recently winnowed from 26 members to 15 after a Meeks-appointed nominating committee determined that 15 was a more optimal number. Board member and nominating committee chairman Rex Nelson said many of those removed from the board were employees of the Travelers, and the nominating committee wanted to avoid a conflict of interest. Nelson said the membership of the broader board remains largely an honorary position. No board members are paid.
In a phone interview, Parke, who served as president of the executive committee for 30 years before stepping aside in 2010, said of Laven, "Pete did a good job, but not good enough." Pressed for what that meant specifically, Parke said the Travs hadn't booked enough events in Dickey-Stephens during the offseason. "It's important to use the ballpark."
But Parke acknowledged that attendance had been good and the financial picture was healthy. "This wasn't my thing," he said later, pointing a reporter to Meeks. Executive vice president Ben Scroggin, who said he's been a member of the executive committee for "probably 35 years," said he had no idea why Laven and Kay were fired. "I'm on the executive committee but not the personnel committee," he said. Executive secretary Bob Whisnant wouldn't comment on the firings, but said he wasn't on the personnel committee and didn't know who was. Parke, in a later interview, said he didn't know what committee he was member of. Nelson said he wasn't aware of a personnel committee. Executive vice president Dr. Charles Logan and treasurer Frank Thomas did not return messages left by the Times.
Insiders who are sympathetic to Laven suggest the firing comes down to ego. "Russ Meeks wants to be the face of the Travs," said J.P. Flynn, who has worked in various capacities for the Travs for 20 years. According to Flynn and another source, Meeks was livid after Laven offered quotes to the Democrat-Gazette in September when the Travelers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim agreed to continue their partnership rather than directing the Democrat-Gazette reporter to Meeks.
Flynn and others also suggest nepotism was at play in the Travs' recent hiring of Rusty Meeks, Russ Meeks' son, as director of merchandising, a newly created position. Asked precisely when Rusty Meeks joined the team, acting GM Paul Allen said by e-mail, "Unfortunately it is the organizations [sic] policy that we do not release details of employment."