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Zerjav named Baseball America’s Minor League Executive of the Year

The Third Base Ventures president, CEO and managing partner has been with Wisconsin Timber Rattlers since 1997

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January 9, 2024

GRAND CHUTE – What started as an unpaid internship in 1997 with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers – the Minor League Baseball (MiLB) affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers – has turned into much more for Rob Zerjav, the president, CEO and managing partner of Third Base Ventures.

Zerjav moved into his current role with the organization in December 2020 when Third Base Ventures purchased the Rattlers (Midwest League), Fond du Lac Dock Spiders (Northwoods League) and Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium.

Recently, Zerjav’s efforts in the role were recognized by Baseball America – naming him its Minor League Executive of the Year.

The recognition, which Zerjav said he’s honored to receive, highlights him as the best in his role of the 120 full-season MiLB affiliated teams across the U.S. and Canada.

“I’d say it was surprising (to be chosen) because it’s from Baseball America – the bible for MiLB,” the Ashwaubenon High School graduate said. “To get that recognition means a lot. There are probably many minor league executives out there who are just as deserving.”

Craig Dickman, chairman of the Timber Rattlers, said Zerjav is “very deserving of the award.”

“We are extremely proud of Rob,” he said. “His passion for ensuring a memorable experience at our ballpark for fans, players and partners alike has been a driving force behind our success.”

Zerjav said in chatting with the folks at Baseball America, he feels there were several reasons why he received the award.

“We had a fantastic year as an organization,” he said. “All of our revenue metrics were up – all-time highs – and our attendance was up 10% (to 227,000). But in talking with Baseball America, it was looking at the big picture from the COVID-19 pandemic moving forward at the success we had in 2023. What we had to do as an organization to get through COVID – being a community-owned team – and then figuring out the sale of the team, the sale of the ballpark, etc. We had a lot going on in the 2020-21 year, and because we came out so strong in 2023, that played a part, too.”

Other changes
Zerjav said there were also changes made to the home of the Rattlers before the start of the 2023 season – major renovations that he oversaw, from conception to construction to completion.

“A 360-degree concourse, outfield suites above the leftfield wall, a premium group space behind home plate, wider concourses, improved handicapped seating and a fan-accessible slide were added as amenities,” he said.

For on-field personnel, improvements were made to the visiting team clubhouse and umpire locker room, facilities for female staff were added and new padding was placed on the walls surrounding the playing surface for safety, Zerjav said.

“A new clubhouse of more than 22,000 square feet for the home team was built with batting cages, a workout facility, an agility field, a commissary, meeting rooms, video rooms, offices and a spacious locker room,” he said. “It’s funny how quickly you forget about all we’ve done.”

Rob Zerjav was instrumental in a major stadium renovation project from conception through construction to completion before the 2023 season. Submitted Photo

As part of Major League Baseball taking over MiLB in 2020, Zerjav said stadiums had to upgrade their amenities for both the home team and the visiting club.

“It was a $10 million-plus renovation,” he said. “In my eyes, it made our home clubhouse the best in all of MiLB – we have great facilities now.”

Zerjav said the improvements to the stadium have been “very well received.”

“That’s an understatement,” he said. “It was a lot of fun when the team arrived (for the 2023 season). It was a tight timeframe, but (The) Boldt (Company) did a fantastic job getting it all done. To see the (players) come in and see their reactions was fantastic. They hadn’t seen anything like it in Appleton, or probably any other clubhouse they’d been in.”

Zerjav said the Brewers organization was also impressed by the updates.

“To have Brewers General Manager Matt Arnold walk through and be wowed by it was something special,” he said. “We also had former Brewers players Rickie Weeks and Jonathon Lucroy come through. To have them see it and then relive the days of when they were in MiLB and compare the facilities – they said it was night and day.”  

Zerjav said even some more current Brewers players – pitcher Brandon Woodruff (free agent) and shortstop Willy Adames – did rehab assignments with the Rattlers in 2023.

“Both of them said the same thing – they couldn’t believe how nice things were,” he said. “That was the reaction we were hoping for from the Brewers, and we got it. The same thing can be said for the fans. You always wonder if you did things right, but based on the feedback we’ve gotten, I’d say we nailed it out of the park.”

Zerjav said other highlights of the 2023 season include:

Non-sporting events held in the Timber Rattlers banquet space, like wedding receptions, Christmas parties and meetings, that were back to pre-COVID levels and set franchise records for revenue.Corporate advertising took advantage of new signage opportunities made available by the renovation to Neuroscience Group Field to have its best year on record with revenues up 15%.
The Midwest League had previously recognized Zerjav as its Executive of the Year in 2007, 2012 and 2018. 

Baseball America also recognized the Timber Rattlers as the High-A Minor League organization of the year in 2022.

An unconventional path
Zerjav’s rise in the baseball ranks isn’t something he’d describe as conventional.

“It does have that storybook feel to it,” he said. “I was always a baseball fan – where that came from, I’m not sure. I was the baseball kid in a football town.”

After graduating from Ashwaubenon – where he played baseball for the Jaguars – Zerjav said he attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

“During my senior year of college, my career advisor said to me, ‘you live in Green Bay, but isn’t there a new baseball field right off of (Interstate 41)? Did you ever think about looking for a job there?’” he said.

With that in mind, Zerjav said he did something many of his friends didn’t necessarily agree with.

“Don’t most college graduates take an unpaid internship?” he laughed. “My friends thought I was crazy. You go to school to get a paid job, but here I am graduating and taking an unpaid internship. My parents were fantastic and supportive, though. They said, ‘hey, it’s your dream, now go and get it.’ It’s funny to chat with those same friends now who say, ‘I wish I had done what you did – follow your dream and passion.’”

Zerjav said during his internship, “I did anything and everything.”

Rob Zerjav started with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers as an unpaid intern in 1997. Submitted Photo

“There were four interns at the time,” he said. “I was in the ticket office most of the day, but then it was random things – moving boxes, receiving deliveries, helping clean the stadium, being in the mascot costume, a little PA work, during games I’d be on the promotion crew throwing giveaways into the stands, working with the grounds crew, etc. I loved it because I got to take in as much as I could and learn about the organization.”

After his internship, Zerjav became president and general manager of the Rattlers after the 2002 season.  

“That was very fast,” he said. “When I was an intern, my boss at the time was Mike Birling, and he was like 23 or 24 years old – not much older than I was. I said to myself, ‘wow, if he’s running things at this age, maybe that could happen for me.’ That was an inspiration for me to learn as much as I could.”

Zerjav said when Birling moved on to the Durham Bulls – where he remains today – that opened the door for him.

“It was always my goal to be a general manager of a MiLB team, and it happened much sooner than I thought,” he said. “MiLB is very transient … oftentimes, you stay at one position for a while and then move on to something bigger and better. Every time I was looking for that next challenge, it came from the Timber Rattlers. God had a plan, and I think he wanted me to stay here in Appleton.”

The future
Though the organization did so much in 2023, Zerjav said, “you always have to look at what’s next.”

“People always ask me that – ‘what next?’” he said. “I want to take a breath, but I’m also excited to build on what we’ve done.”

As an organization, Zerjav said they never want to rest on their laurels.

“We always want to get better at chasing perfection,” he said. “We’re in a small market in Appleton compared to Durham, Charlotte, Las Vegas, San Antonio, etc. What we’ve accomplished is proving we’re getting noticed – we want to continue to grow and bring more to the community of Northeast Wisconsin.”

The Rattlers open the home portion of their season April 5 when they host Peoria.

TBN
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