She didn’t love baseball growing up. In fact, it was her least favorite sport.
Now, Michelle Skinner’s livelihood revolves around baseball. She’s the general manager for the Fayetteville Woodpeckers, a job that involves making sure everything goes smoothly for the Minor League Baseball team on game day and keeping fans entertained and engaged year-round.
“It comes down to keeping everyone moving in the same direction, balancing the entertainment side and the community side and the baseball side,” she says. “Seeing people having a good time here and providing that entertainment … that’s what I love, just seeing people enjoy the ballpark.”
Skinner joined the Woodpeckers a year ago after 13 years in upstate New York with the Tri-City ValleyCats, formerly an affiliate of the Houston Astros, the parent club of the Single-A Woodpeckers. It wasn’t where she thought she’d be growing up, assuredly, but a college internship with the Vermont Lake Monsters — formerly of the New York-Penn League — changed that.
“I absolutely loved it,” Skinner says. “The community aspect of minor league baseball and how pure it was at that level and watching the fans have fun, I had the best time there. I love minor league baseball and the connection that we have with our community.”
Minor league baseball is a unique expression of sports. The leagues and teams are filled with players trying to make their way to “The Show” — to the roster of a Major League Baseball team — traveling across the country with various teams on multiple levels in varying sizes of cities. The Woodpeckers, as the Astros’ Single-A affiliate, are four rungs below the Houston club on the hierarchy in the sprawling entity known as Minor League Baseball, or MiLB.
The Woodpeckers have been home to many MLB players since its inception in 2017 and its move to Cumberland County in 2019. Shortstop Jeremy Peña, the MVP of the Astros’ 2022 World Series victory, played 43 games with the Woodpeckers in 2019, alongside fellow World Series winners and pitchers Cristian Javier and Luis Garcia. Outfielder Jacob Melton — currently Houston’s No. 1 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, a news outlet that covers baseball prospects — played 12 games with Fayetteville in 2022. And outfielder Drew Gilbert, now the No. 2 prospect of the New York Mets and MLB’s No. 52 prospect overall, suited up for the Woodpeckers in six games that year.
Baseball is obviously a draw for sports fans, especially with the opportunity to see athletes who might one day play for a big-league club. But minor league baseball, as often the biggest sports draw in towns that don’t have a top-tier professional or college team, must cater to all — the diehards, the families with kids, the couple looking for a date night, and Skinner is responsible for making that happen.
She describes her job as balancing the entertainment and community aspect of game day with assisting the baseball side of player development and building winning teams. She doesn’t have anything to do with roster construction or who dons a Woodpecker uniform, but, she says, those on the squad have a lot to do with her role.
That means, on a typical game day: connecting with sponsors and big groups attending games, ensuring both teams and game umpires have what they need, checking weather forecasts, scanning tickets when gates open, and making sure everything is working well at concession stands. It’s a lot to do, but it’s that time, when the fans are at Segra Stadium, that Skinner enjoys the most.
“It’s a very community experience,” Skinner says. “A lot of people when they leave, they don’t remember the score, they don’t know if we won or lost. They’re here for the entertainment side.”
Segra Stadium has a lot, objectively, to offer sports fans. The facility is well-regarded — Groundskeeper Alpha Jones won the Carolina League and Single-A Groundskeeper of the Year Award last November — and as already discussed, the team has been home to World Series winners and potential All-Stars. MLB Pipeline named Woodpeckers lefty Trey Dombroski the Astros’ Pitching Prospect of the Year after he led the Carolina League in strikeouts and finished second in Earned Runs Average.
But Skinner says the non-sports fan will enjoy Segra experiences as well. The team regularly hosts themed nights — Star Wars and Harry Potter nights among them — as well as military-themed celebrations.
“The hope is that if you hate baseball, you can still come here, have dinner, have a drink,” she says. “It’s that social event where you’re just chatting with your friends and something happens and you cheer.”
Providing for the community goes beyond game day (or night). The Woodpeckers’ Community Leaders Program allocates funds to youth sports and military charities, with the Woodpeckers Sports Fund in particular distributing $10,000 per school year to Cumberland County Schools’ high school athletes who need help with fees, uniforms, and other costs associated with sports.
Skinner herself has a long history of community involvement. In her prior role with the Tri-City ValleyCats, she was a board member of the local Salvation Army and president of the local Kiwanis Club. In addition, she oversaw the team’s ‘Cats Care campaign, which racks up a yearly community impact of more than a half million dollars through direct donations, charitable partnerships, and more.
Robert Van Geons, the president and CEO of the Fayetteville Cumberland Economic Development Corporation, says Skinner has “set a very high bar when it comes to community engagement.”
“She and her staff give back to our community by partnering with organizations such as Operation Inasmuch, Salvation Army, Cumberland County Schools, and many more,” Van Geons says. “Under her leadership, Segra Stadium has established itself as one of the first places we think of when planning an event to promote our community to industry leaders, policymakers, or potential investors.”
That’s the goal, especially this year, Skinner says. She and her staff have adopted the slogan “Seize the Fay” (like “seize the day,” get it?) with the goal of being visible and a part of the community. She wants it to be a lifestyle, not just a job.
“If it’s a lifestyle and you love it and are a part of the community and become family with the co-workers and the fans, then it’s not like you’re working,” she says. “That’s where we’re trying to get in the mindset with the Woodpeckers.”
That’s where Michelle Skinner got to with baseball, the sport she liked the least growing up. She referenced a line from the film “Moneyball” when Brad Pitt’s character, an MLB team general manager, asks, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”
“As a non-baseball person most of my childhood, it’s that summer night and that cool breeze and the atmosphere of it,” she says of minor league baseball. “You can’t beat that. It’s a little slower, it’s more relaxed and you can really sit back and relax and enjoy it.
Michelle Skinner on…
…coming to Fayetteville from New York
It’s been a whirlwind. We’ve learned a lot, I’ve learned a lot. It’s unique coming from [that] market. I knew all the season ticket-holders, I knew all the corporate partners. Coming here, [it’s like] being the new kid again.
…how she ended up with the job
I got a call from one of my former interns. I wasn’t really looking for a change, but you always want your name to come up in the conversation. I talked to them [the Astros] for a month or so and I flew down to Fayetteville. It was a no-brainer. The ballpark here is top-notch. Be nice to your interns, the moral of the story.
…the philosophy to weather and game day
Our goal is to play baseball, and that’s from the baseball operations side. We have to try to play baseball if there’s any window to do that. The worst days are when it’s supposed to rain around game time and then it pushes back.
…being a woman in a mostly male-dominated sport
For the most part, I don’t think about it a ton. This has been my career and that’s what I’ve done. I’m lucky enough to have had people who have supported me that it hasn’t been a thing. It’s just natural to me.
…the history and spread of minor league baseball in North Carolina
I knew [coming in] that North Carolina has a plethora of teams and history. You don’t talk minor league baseball without talking about the Durham Bulls. They do a great job and they’ve done a great job for years. The climate has been great.
…honoring veterans during military-related theme nights
Those [are the] touching moments that make you think, “This is what I get paid to do.” We’ve got 4,000 people here enjoying this and we did this.
…the baseball side of her job
If they’re here, we’re going to make sure they’re treated well and we’re working with Houston and that it’s a good place to play and develop. We take the roster that we’re given and make the best of it.
AWARDS & RECOGNITION:
Two-time recipient of the New York-Penn League JoAnn Weber Female Executive/Staff Member of the Year Award (2014, 2018)
Named to the Albany Business Review’s 40 Under Forty list (2019)
Finalist for the United Way Capital Region Philanthropist of the Year (2020)