By Simon Gonzalez
The other day, Wilmington Sharks general manager Pat Hutchins drove to Holly Springs to pick up balls and bats. When he got back to town, he and assistant general manager Courtney Wright hung “Welcome to the Shark Tank” signs at Buck Hardee Field at Legion Stadium.
Such is life as a front office executive for a baseball team in the Coastal Plain League.
“We’re the janitor, the accountant, the organizer, everything,” Hutchins said.
While their major-league counterparts are thinking about trades, evaluating minor-league prospects and preparing for the upcoming draft, Hutchins and Wright are hustling up sponsorships, trying to find host families for the players, persuading local restaurants to pony up free meals — whatever it takes.
“What don’t we do?” Wright said. “It’s just Pat and me here. Everything that goes into a baseball operation, we handle. People call up and say, ‘how can I sign my kid up for kid camp?’ That’s us. People say, ‘how can I do a sponsorship?’ I’ll say you’re talking to the right guy. We handle sponsorships, marketing, promotions, everything.”
That means long, hectic days as they gear up for another season of what they’ve dubbed affordable, family-fun baseball. Time is growing short. The players will begin to arrive on Saturday, May 28. Opening Day is Tuesday, May 31. It can mean increased stress levels with last-minute details still to be taken care of.
But it doesn’t matter, because this is truly a labor of love.
“We have a ball doing this,” Hutchins said.
The Sharks play in the Coastal Plain League, a collegiate summer league with 16 teams across Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. The players are amateurs, playing after just finishing their freshman, sophomore and junior years in college. They have dreams of playing professionally someday, and have hopes of attracting the attention of scouts.
Hutchins became the club’s GM four years ago, mostly by chance. He is the president of Financial Data Systems, a medical billing agency on Military Cutoff close to Wrightsville Beach that he started in 1997.
“A friend came to me about four years ago and said the Sharks are looking for a new GM,” he said. “My business had been built, and practically runs itself, and I was looking for something to do. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, who would not want to do that?’ I interviewed and took the job.”
The excitement of being a baseball general manager quickly gave way to another emotion.
“I had absolutely no idea what I was doing,” he said. “It was Opening Day in two weeks, and I was terrified.”
It helped when Wright showed up to spend her summer working as an intern.
“It was the blind leading the blind,” she said. “We figured it out. That 2013 season was one for the books.”
Wright was hired as assistant GM before the 2015 season after graduating from James Madison University with a degree in sport and recreation management. Now the management team works on building the fan base with promotions like hot dog Mondays, taco Tuesdays and thirsty Thursdays.
“It’s affordable family fun,” Wright said. “We want everybody to come out here, have a cheap beer, a cheap hotdog, and just have fun watching the game.”
Unlike big-league GMs, Hutchins is not responsible for player procurement. That job falls to Scott Wingo, the new head coach after serving as an assistant last year. Wingo, a former all-conference second baseman at the University of South Carolina and a member of the coaching staff at North Greenville University, relies on his college contacts to recruit players.
Hutchins just has one request.
“Courtney and I feel strongly that we have to have some local flair,” he said. “So we always tell them, when you’re picking your squad we want at least two kids from UNCW, and we want some kids that played high school here locally.”
This year’s roster includes Ryan Jeffers, a catcher from University of North Carolina Wilmington; Clark Cota, a pitcher from UNCW by way of Topsail High School; Ward Coleman, a corner infielder from New Hanover High School who hit .526 in 19 at-bats his freshman year at Davidson; and North Brunswick High School products Chris Graham, an outfielder playing at University of North Carolina Greensboro; and Shelton Perkins, who now pitches for East Carolina.
“We’re looking forward to another great season,” Wright said. “We’ve seen so much change in the past four seasons. We’re proud of that and we want to continue to see it grow.”