Concerns Over Future of Arkansas Travelers Prompt Controversial Shakeup

by Todd Traub  on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012 12:00 am  

Arkansas Travelers President Russ Meeks: “There are a lot of people that have difficulty with change.” (Photo by Michael Pirnique)

With that in mind, Meeks said, firing Laven and Kay was not a snap decision but the result of a series of overlapping, annual internal reviews and evaluations.

“For the future, we know that we need leadership that looks at changes from a positive, affirmative standpoint and never runs into the issue of ‘we don’t do it that way’ or ‘we haven’t done it that way,’” Meeks said.

But it is the break with the past that has alarmed many longtime employees, former board members and shareholders. Many are concerned there are no real “baseball people” running the operation.

‘It Was a Surprise’

“I’m very disappointed in terms of how this has been handled,” said John Breen, a Travelers shareholder for close to 30 years. “And I don’t feel good about the leadership and the direction of the Travelers at this point in time. I think it’s always been a very well-run and very well-managed baseball operation directed by people who understand minor league baseball and the community here in terms of what it takes to make minor league baseball accessible here.”

Kay, a one-time employee at Ray Winder Field who returned to serve as Dickey-Stephens’ ticket manager, and Laven were respected by long-time fans and employees. The ouster of Laven, general manager since 2007 and a former Texas League Executive of the Year, was especially unexpected.

“I think he was certainly universally popular within the league, both because of his demeanor and cooperativeness,” Texas League President Tom Kayser said. “If he told you something, you could depend on it, and that goes a long way.”

Laven, 42, an Illinois native, first interned with the Travelers in the 1990s. He spent 10 years with other minor league clubs and then returned to the team and became an assistant general manager under longtime GM Bill Valentine in 2004.

Laven was unquestionably Valentine’s top assistant, earning executive of the year honors in 2006 for his role in Ray Winder Field’s final season of operation, in which central Arkansas last hosted the Texas League All-Star Game.

Valentine relinquished his general manager duties to Laven and became executive vice president when the club moved to Dickey-Stephens Park in 2007. The next year, when Valentine semi-retired, Laven became the face of the club much as Valentine had been since taking over in 1976.

“I would say it was a surprise,” said Kayser, Texas League president since 1989. “I don’t think we’ve had — I can’t remember a dismissal of a general manager in the league for as long as I’ve been in the league. We’ve had people leave, but we haven’t had a change like this. So when it occurs it is always a surprise.”

Paul Allen, a former intern and now assistant GM and director of sales for the Travs, is serving as interim general manager. He has earned the chance to be a candidate for the job permanently, Meeks said, while the Travelers also sift through other applicants.



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