Visalia Rawhide GM Brings New Perspective to Game

Visalia Rawhide GM Jennifer Pendergraft
Visalia Rawhide GM Jennifer Pendergraft

Few people know that there’s a woman making history in Visalia.

“I’m rare,” admits Jennifer Pendergraft, general manager of the Visalia Rawhide. “I know I’m one of only nine female GMs… I think its one of those things that after I’m out of it, I’ll look back and be like, ‘Dang, that was really cool.'”

Right now, however, Pendergraft is too busy working to dwell on her place in the history of professional baseball. As a general manager, Pendergraft has a lot of responsibilities, from managing the park facility to community involvement, to making sure the team’s vision for the future is kept on track. The job requires a lot of hours and commitment, whether you’re a man or a woman.

“Like other sports, baseball has traditionally been male dominated,” said California League President Charlie Blaney, “but fortunately, that is changing, thanks to the great work of people like Jen.” He added that Pendergraft was a very hardworking and loyal assistant general manager for several years. “Quite simply, she has earned the promotion.”

“Baseball is so traditional,” Pendergraft says. “So much of it’s been done the same way for years and years and years and years.” In some ways, she says, that’s been an advantage for her. “I’m very much an out-of-the box type of thinker and I read between the lines. I just kind of make judgment calls based on what I’m feeling and what I’m seeing and the big picture.” Sometimes, others look at her as if to ask, “Who’s this girl?” Many times, however, they find it refreshing. She can make changes because she’s not stuck in one mindset. “I think they see that, too.”

Blaney agrees, “In the short time Jen has been GM, she has earned the praise and respect from all those who have worked with her: her staff, fellow GMs and the umpires.”

Tom Seidler, president of the Visalia Rawhide, said gender was not an issue in hiring a general manager.

“Absolutely not. I hired the best person for the job,” he said. “She’s been the best employee I’ve hired in 20 years in baseball. I couldn’t be more proud of what she has accomplished for the Rawhide and as a leader in the Visalia community. She understands that a professional baseball team isn’t just a business, but also a public trust and a community asset.

“The ballpark,” Seidler added, “has hosted more events this year than any time in its 68-year history – truly the community gathering place.”

While women are still outnumbered in the industry, things are definitely changing from how they were 20 years ago, Seidler said. “Jennifer, and other women GMs today, serve as role models to future female executives.”

“I’m comfortable being a role model,” Pendergraft says, and she has advice for young girls looking to get into the field. “We have a lot more eyes on us, not that people are waiting for us to mess up, but because we are not a part of the tradition of this sport. It’s not traditional for a woman to be involved. So, for you to be embraced and accepted into this man’s world, it takes a lot. You have to have thick skin. You have to have a really high work ethic. If a guy has the same work ethic as you, it’s more natural for this industry to lean towards the male. It’s a better fit for them. Women have to work especially hard to get their feet in the door.”

Pendergraft enjoys going to schools on career days and offering advice to those interested in going into baseball as a career. This advice is something she wishes she had been given when she was in school. “I kind of stumbled into working into baseball,” she said.

Pendergraft grew up in Oregon and knew that Portland was the headquarters for sports companies such as Nike, Adidas, Columbia Sportswear and a softball-specific company called Ringer. So she majored in business with an emphasis on graphic design, hoping to get a position at one of those companies. “I wanted to work in sports in some way,” she said. When she was about to graduate from Lee University in Tennessee, she searched Google for positions that would allow her to work in sports.

“I just happened across a website called PBEO.com,” she said about the Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities website, where teams post their job openings. “Before I stumbled across that, I hadn’t even considered working for a sports team. When you go as a fan, you don’t really think about what goes on behind the scenes at all. And, the more I read though those job descriptions, I was like, you know that might be right up my alley.”

Pendergraft took a swing at it and submitted a resume. “I thought it was kind of a long shot because at that point I really had no true work experience because softball had been my job. I played that to get myself through school.”

Pendergraft played softball for Amity High School in Oregon, and Lee University in Tennessee.

“Nine was my softball number too,” she smiled, pointing out that as the ninth currently serving female general manager, the number has been lucky for her. “I’m not sure why I’m the chosen one but its pretty cool. Every time I think about it I just kind of get really humbled.”

After graduation, Pendergraft had two choices. She could take a position at Ringer, the softball brand in Portland, or take the internship at Visalia Rawhide.

“I chose this just to get into it and see what it was all about,” she explained. “I figured I would regret it if I didn’t. And, I’m glad I did, because I found my passion.”

Visalia was a perfect fit for her. “I’m from a really small town, really small town. I graduated with 65 people in my high school class. This is the biggest city I’ve ever lived in.” Combined with her love for hot weather and the high level of community involvement, Visalia was the perfect place.

“It’s such a small town feel and the community is so passionate for its organizations and its baseball team and everything so it’s easy to feed off of their passion and it was easy to get involved with the community and just dive in.”

After the one-year internship, she’d made up her mind. “I just fell in love with everything about it.”

Her parents, Jodee and Scott Pendergraft, she said, thought she was a little crazy. “A lot of it was because they were kind of like me. They didn’t really understand what it entailed and so to them it was more like, ‘How on earth can you make a career out of that?’”

“At first I didn’t really think it was going to be a career,” her father explained. “I know the pay isn’t that good, and she had some other job opportunities, so I assumed it would be a fun little adventure for a couple of years. Little did I know that it might turn into something more long term.”

He also admits, “Another feeling I had was a bit of jealousy. How sweet is it to have a ballpark as your office?”

He was never worried about her decision, however. At the worst, he considered it a short-term adventure before she got a “real job.” He would never try to talk her out of her dream.

“Jennifer is a very strong person, so I knew she could hold her own,” he said. “My perception of the baseball business back then was you had to be related to someone to really get ahead, so I feared she would hit some sort of glass ceiling at some point. Thanks to a kind and generous person like Tom Seidler; he’s rewarded her for the blood, sweat and tears she puts into her work.”

“Baseball is a lot of hard work,” Seidler said. “We frequently work 12 to 14-hour days, often seven days a week.” Working that close with people for long hours, you start to think of each other as family.

“There’s also a lot of times when you pitch in and help someone else in a different department, whether it’s receiving shipments of peanuts or distributing pocket schedules around the community, so we all ‘pitch-in’ and help out as members of a family would,” Seidler explains. “One reason why Jennifer got to her current position is she was always helping out others on staff and making us better as an organization.

“Another integral part of the Rawhide family is our host families,” he said. “Jennifer has managed and improved that program each year, to where it is now the best in the country. One hundred percent of players and coaches live with host families, and the relationship between local Visalia families and these professional baseball players continues as players move up to the major leagues.”

Being a former player, the players are nearest to Pendergraft’s heart. “I think the league has the potential to raise their minor league players not only on the field but off the field through community involvement and through public speaking and through all of these things they’re going to need to do at the major league level,” she says.

The Rawhide is the farm team for the Arizona Diamondbacks so the ultimate goal is to help them move comfortably into the major league environment. “They need to start learning now.” To help develop the players, Pendergraft started a player community outreach program.

The players are split into groups of five community teams, rotating them to give them exposure in five areas including schools, sports (like a baseball camp), business (speaking at service clubs), media (interviews for newspapers, radio and TV) and community service (serving food at the Visalia Rescue Mission). “I want them to get exposure in all this. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but they need to learn that.” Baseball, she said, is not all about what you do on the field.

“You need your players to be able to conduct themselves professionally and you need them to be able to speak to different crowds,” she says. “You need them to be a fan favorite so that they fill the seats, you can sell their t-shirts, they get votes for the all-star team, you know. It’s all part of the game.”

The program wasn’t met with enthusiasm with everyone in the ballclub, Rawhide Manager Bill Plummer admits. “We had a few clashes at the start.” Initially, players were being scheduled to be out in the community too close to game time. As the director of player development, that caused him some concern. “But we worked it out,” he said, adding that program has been great for the community. “Jennifer’s done a great job. I think she’s going to be an outstanding GM. She’s so energetic and has a lot of good ideas.”

While Pendergraft has no say in whether a player moves up, she is able to see their potential as a marketing figure. “I can tell you if they have the skills to correlate, if they’re going to be a fan favorite, and if they have marketability. I wish, if it came down to choosing one player against another who has equal skills on the field, if the Diamondbacks would ask for some feedback and say ‘Hey, how does he interact with the fans and the community?’ I think that should be the element that takes a player one above another. That should be the deciding factor when it comes down to an even playing field. And, that’s never come up. I wish it would, because that’s the business side of it. There’s only so much that can be done on the field. There’s also off the field too.”

The host family program also encourages a family atmosphere at the ballpark. “If you go to games, our host families are everywhere and they feel like their boy is on the field. So they’re more than happy to share with you more about them and their personality, which helps everyone get to know these guys a lot better too because they are directly connected with the community. They’ve lived here with these families and they’re going to remember that for the rest of their life too. It’s given Visalia a really good name.”

The Rawhide has become a second family for Pendergraft. “I have people asking me, ‘How are you still single? Why aren’t you married?’ – I’m married to my job and I have 30 boys six months out of the year.”

“Beyond the 80+ hour weeks at work,” Seidler said, Pendergraft “is selfless with her free time. She has been involved with the community since day one, volunteers her time, helps out local charities and organizations.

“Whether it’s raising money for the Creative Center (she’s a two-time Mardi Gras Fundrasing Queen) or volunteering with Happy Trails, her Rotary Club, or the Miracle League, she’s a tireless champion and supporter of the Visalia community,” he said.

Although most of her “free time” includes participating in community groups such as the Rotary, this past year she joined the V Town Derby Dames, the local roller derby team. “I’ve had a blast just getting to know them and working with them.” However, she hasn’t been able to play a game with them yet because their games conflict with the Rawhide’s season. “The next home game I can participate in isn’t until October so I have my eyes set for that one.”

As a former player, being away from the competition can be hard for some to get used to but Pendergraft doesn’t miss it.

“I thought that I might. I direct my energies into a different path. Instead of working really hard on the field, I’m working really hard in the office. So, its just keeping that same pattern. It’s the same adrenaline rush. It’s the same emotions. It’s the perfect transition for me.”

Up until she took the job in Visalia, softball had been her entire life. “For me, the transition in this industry was perfect because I was on the same schedule.”

She’s seen players who get released having a hard time making a transition out of baseball. “Its so hard to give up something that’s been a part of your life for so many years and for these guys they did it professionally; they did it all through college, all through high school.” She makes it a point to talk to the players, even the coaches some times, to get them thinking about what they would do if they didn’t have baseball.

“Some of them have a plan and they know what they’ll do – a lot of family-run companies and what-not, but some of them just have no idea at all and they haven’t even thought about it and that’s dangerous,” Pendergraft says. “And so I’ll kind of drop suggestions. Working in baseball is pretty fun and its a lot of work, but at least in terms of your scheduling it doesn’t throw you out of whack and you still feel like you’re a part of the game.”

Pendergraft’s biggest frustration is that it takes a long time to make changes. “I like things to happen very quickly,” she says. “I make sure that things happen very quickly if it’s in my hands. But a lot of the time it’s out of my hands and you have to change the mentality of everyone that’s been in the game for years and years and years. I’ve come to find that its very challenging and sometimes its not even possible but, by golly, I’m still going to try.”

Pendergraft credits Seidler for giving her the confidence to make changes that she thinks needs to be made.

“He’s just always said, whatever you want to do run with it. Run it by me first to make sure I’m on board and its in that same direction we want the organization to go. But he’s let me take stuff and run with it. He’s never, obviously, never discriminated against my gender, my age, anything. And I know for a fact, I couldn’t have gone anywhere else and worked for any other team and gone on the same path that I have with him.

“I’m very lucky and I know that,” said Pendergraft about being one of the small group of women chosen to be general managers.

Her father, however, points out that it had nothing to do with luck. “When Jennifer sets her mind to something, she does not fail,” says her father proudly. “No one will outwork her. Whether she chose this occupation or any other, I knew she would be successful.”

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