North Park Grad Gaining Fame in Baseball Circles

Post a Comment » Written on March 28th, 2007     
Filed under: News
By Stan Friedman

SAN DIEGO, CA (March 28, 2007) – Across the country, millions of people are indulging their fantasies of winning the World Series by scouring the latest baseball scouting news, hoping to gain an edge against opponents in their mock leagues.

Mike Wickham gets to do it for real. The 1997 North Park University accounting graduate grew up in California and attended the Stockton Covenant Church. He now serves as general manager for five of the San Diego Padres’ minor league teams. His official title is assistant to the vice president for scouting and player development.

“I have a dream job, no doubt about it,” he says. “The down side is I’m very obsessed.”

WickhamWickham manages all of the team’s minor league operations and is in charge of player development. He sees roughly 200 games a year and consults almost daily with coaches and scouts about how to bring players along in the team’s system.

Just like the men he now scouts, Wickham started in the minor leagues. Before attending college, he was a batboy with the Stockton Porters, a Single A franchise of the Milwaukee Brewers in Stockton.

A prominent Chicago accounting firm hired Wickham when he graduated from North Park, but he longed for a future in baseball. That day came just months later in 1998, when the general manager of the Porters called and asked him to run the team’s business operations.

“It was about half the salary I was making in Chicago, but I really wanted to be in baseball,” Wickham says. The Brewers then sent him to a school for major league scouts. “Each team gets to send two people,” Wickham says. “When the Brewers sent me to that, it gave me legitimacy.”

Other teams quickly took notice, and by the end of the season, the Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals) hired him. He helped the team coordinate its scouting efforts and the draft.

“They were a bad baseball organization,” says Wickham, explaining that one of the problems was its tight purse strings. That proved to be a personal blessing for him, however. Because the team did not fill the front office with the number of needed people, Wickham’s expertise was forced to expand as he handled multiple roles.

Before the team moved to Washington, D.C., Wickham found his way to the Padres in 2001 after being encouraged to apply for the assistant director of scouting spot by Theo Epstein, who was the team’s director of baseball operations.

The job kept Wickham on the road. He frequently scouted games at multiple high school and college games in a single day. Now, other scouts scour the country, but Wickham will travel to see the more serious prospects.

Wickham says he depends heavily on the wisdom of the coaches and scouts, many of whom are veterans. Although he has learned much about evaluating and developing talent, he admits, “I’ll never be as good as the person who has played for 20 years. Because they’ve played the game, they can really see the things that no one else would notice.”

Still, he can talk all day about the mechanics of a pitcher’s arm, a base-runner’s first step, or the hand position of a hitter. For example, Wickham says that contrary to popular opinion, being able to hit or throw a change-up is more important than handling a curve ball. “The change-up is the biggest thing operationally that we look at,” Wickham says. “It looks like a fastball coming out of the pitcher’s hand, but it comes out 10 miles an hour slower.”

Wickham’s job also includes negotiating contracts. Although some negotiations can be complicated, the Padres have a set salary matrix for most players, which makes that part of his job easier, he says.

Although the public hears about the multi-million-dollar salaries, those are the exceptions, he notes. Only five percent of the minor league players make it to the major leagues, Wickham says. Salaries for many of them as they begin their climb through the ranks start at only $1,000 a month.

Sportswriters pick the Padres to be contenders this year for a National League Pennant, a goal they fell painfully short of the past two seasons. The Padres made the playoffs, but lost both times in the first round to the St. Louis Cardinals.

“It’s a lot more devastating to lose in the playoffs than I thought it would be,” Wickham says. “You work so hard all year to get to that point, and then it’s over.” And it’s another year spent getting trying to get back to the place 29 other teams hope to achieve as well.

Wickham’s name has been mentioned around the league as a possible future general manager, but he plans on staying where he is for now. “The longer I’m in the game, the more experience I realize I need,” he says. “Hopefully it will lead to being a general manager. I probably won’t be ready for a couple of years, though.”

Part of his growing process has been developing a thicker skin when sports radio jocks and fans are critical of a move the team has made. Pursuing a course that others take issue with can be difficult from a public relations standpoint, but Wickham adds, “You have a bigger picture and you have to stick with it.”

In September, during what he plans to be a race for the National League Pennant, Wickham will take time out from his obsession to receive the North Park University Up & Coming Young Alum Award during homecoming ceremonies.

Wickham says he applies lessons he learned in North Park’s accounting program to running the baseball operations. He compares the decisions he must make about players to properly diversifying an investment portfolio.

Managing that portfolio this year will involve overseeing the development of one of the feel-good stories so far this year in baseball. The Padres signed former U.S. Marine Cooper Brannan, 22, who served two tours of duty in Iraq, to a minor-league contract. Brannan lost a pinky finger on his glove hand when a grenade exploded on his second tour.

“It’s a great story,” Wickham says. And some say accountants lead boring lives.

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