by Jim Riggs
Starting From Scratch
Lunetta, a former Jamestown Expos general manager, and Wren, a former player, coach and general manager for the Jamestown Expos, now have positions with the Florida Marlins, who will begin play in the National League next season. They have the challenge and luxury of having some extra time to do it.
Both were in Erie Monday night when the Sailors, a Marlin's farm club, got the expansion team into action for the first time ever as they opened the New York-Penn League season against Jamestown.
Wren, who spent 14 years with Montreal as a player, coach and scout, recalled being told by many baseball executives, "If you ever have the opportunity to be a part of an expansion team from day one, jump at it, no matter the circumstances."
The Marlins offered the opportunity and Wren jumped quickly.
Probably the two most exciting things that will happen to you in this business is winning a World Series and building an expansion club, and a lot of people aren't going to get that opportunity," he said. "I've got one now, building a team from scratch. When you look at all the things you have the potential to do in baseball, this is probably the only thing you can say is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Who knows when expansion will come around again."
Lunetta jumped at the chance, too.
"I had some discussions with Denver and Milwaukee," he said. "When Dave (Dombrowski) accepted the general manager's job on a Thursday, he contacted me on a Saturday. When it became apparent to me that Dave had an interest in me to come back with him, it was a slam dunk."
And what makes the opportunity better is Lunetta and Wren were hired last fall, almost 18 months before the expansion team is scheduled to begin play.
"I can't imagine having to start the major league team the same year as you're awarded the franchise," Wren said. "We've been almost non-stop since October when I came on board and there's no way we could have been ready to field a major league club. To have almost two years of lead time will make a huge difference in the product we put on the field and just in doing everything."
Lunetta, who has worked for the Buffalo Bisons, Montreal, Cincinnati and as general manager of the Rochester Red Wings as his last position before the Marlins, agreed.
"We need every day of that year and a half," the Jamestown native said. "The evaluation process alone to prepare for the expansion draft is a tremendous undertaking."
The other National League expansion team that begins play next season is the Colorado Rockies and Lunetta and Wren were contacted about joining them. The main drawing cards at Colorado were general manager Bob Gebhard, a long-time Montreal employee, and Scouting Director Pat Daugherty, a former Jamestown Expos manager.
"I had an in with both of the general managers, Gebhard and Dombrowski, and had offers from both of them," he said. "When it just came down to it, I figured I'm more of an East Coast type of person."
He's also a Florida native.
Lunetta would have considered a position at Colorado, "Had not Dave contacted me. I would have certainly jumped at the opportunity to be back with those guys (Gebhard and Daugherty)."
However Lunetta has known Dombrowski since his days with the White Sox when Lunetta was with the Bisons. They became close friends as well as co-workers.
Lunetta and Wren had a strong influence in the Marlins choosing a Class A team in the NY-P League.
"One of our criteria was the New York-Penn League," Wren said. "We wanted to be in the East and there were only two franchises open to us. – Erie and Bend, Oregon. We didn't want to go all the way to the west."
And Lunetta won't mind checking things out in Erie from time to time because he can stop here to visit family and friends.
Erie has been affiliated with numerous major league teams since returning to the NY-P League in 1981. The teams ended their affiliations mainly because of the Erie stadium – ancient Ainsworth Field.
"We knew there were some problems with Erie and the facility," Wren said. "Nobody knew that better than Dan and I. We just said we can bite the bullet for a year or two because it's the league we want to be with."
Lunetta said, "I think we're hopeful this opportunity can become a long-term arrangement, but the future of our relationship will certainly be predicated on the stadium issue here. (There is talk of a downtown Erie stadium to be built by 1994.) I think a lot of people in the community realize that professional baseball here could be on its last legs if the stadium issue isn't resolved."
But maybe a fresh start with a new major league team will be the answer for Erie.
"I think it's a perfect match," Lunetta said.
And it's perfect for the Erie players, who were drafted by a major league team that is yet to play a game.
"These guys are as excited as can be," Lunetta pointed out. "There is no one in front of them."
What lies in front of those players and the front office people, such as Lunetta and Wren, is looking forward to the Marlins beginning play next season in the National League.