Sports guru plies his trade in D.C.


For the Review

When Jeff Klein was in the fifth grade, he had a moment of revelation.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be the next Mickey Mantle, but I still wanted to get into games free,” he said. “So working for a team has always been a dream of mine.”

It’s a dream that Klein has been living for well over three decades.

The 53-year-old island resident is currently manager of operations engineering for the Washington Nationals, a job he has held since last February. It’s the latest stop on a circuitous journey – including stints with both the Mariners and Seahawks – that has enabled him to see thousands of games for free.

Klein is spending the holidays with his family, the only time besides a four-day stint in June in which he hasn’t been on the job at Nationals Park. His career began with a stroke of luck. Klein was attending American University in Washington, D.C. The school fielded a football team as a club sport.

“The backup quarterback lived on my floor,” Klein said. The player recruited Klein – not to play for the team, but to run it. For the next three years, “I did everything from washing uniforms to hiring and firing coaches.”

That experience led to an internship with a local television station. Klein quickly became a member of the Redskins’ statistics crew.

“I was on the headset with Howard Cosell or whoever else was announcing the games,” he said.

By luck, a minor league baseball team was being formed in nearby Alexandria, to play in the Class A Carolina League. “I was the assistant general manager,” Klein said. “There were just two of us in the office, the general manager and me. It was the ultimate startup.”

A year later, he moved to Waterloo, Iowa, to become general manager of the Waterloo Indians in the Class A Midwest League. “We lost the pennant on the last day when our Spanish-speaking left fielder and English-speaking center fielder collided,” he said.

Waterloo also came with a major fringe benefit. He met future wife Cindy there.

The next stop was Portland in the AAA Pacific Coast League, where Klein worked for two years as ticket manager.

He joined the Mariners in 1982, where he began in community relations. He had his work cut out for him.

“It was like Moses in the desert,” he joked, “in the vast wasteland of the American League West.”

One of his main responsibilities was simply getting people to come to the games. One of his first projects was a fun run that began at the Northgate Mall and ended at second base in the Kingdome. The entry fee included three good seats to the game that followed.

Another project came when the Dairy Farmers of Washington purchased a large block of tickets. Klein’s task was arranging a pre-game milking contest at home plate. He had a willing Mariner in Ron, but the visiting Baltimore Orioles were problematic. Finally Rick Dempsey stepped forward.

“Is there any money?” Dempsey asked.

“No, but you can keep all the milk,” Klein replied.

The incident created a lasting friendship. “He’s one of my all-time favorites,” Klein said. “He really got me off the hook.”

Dempsey is just one of myriad friends Klein has made over the years. Former Mariner catcher Dave Valle is another. Their wives were pregnant at the same time, which helped to cement the bond.

During one game, Valle was furious when he made an out. He stormed into the clubhouse and banged on the carpet so hard with his bat that the friction caused some damage.

“Dave, you’re hitting .220,” Klein chided. “Where’s the surprise?”

He is also fond of Dave Niehaus. “In the early 1980s, we did a lot of caravans. It was me, Niehaus, a couple of players. We’d travel all over the state and do clinics.”

Klein was particularly close to Ken Griffey Jr. “Junior handled all the attention really well for someone so young. And he always remembered my kids’ names and asked how they were doing,” he said.

Not everyone was so accommodating. An opposing manager once smashed a phone in the dugout that connected to the bullpen. Klein duly sent him a bill.

When the manager returned the next time, he unleashed a profanity-laden tirade against Klein, accusing him of reinstalling the broken phone. Aware of the likelihood that this very event of re-occurring, Klein raced to his office, retrieved the original phone, and triumphantly displayed it. The bill was paid.

After rising to director of stadium operations, Klein left the Mariners in 1991 when he moved to Missouri to assume a similar post with the Kansas City Chiefs, which played in 80,000-capacity Arrowhead Stadium.

The shift involved more than changing sports, as Klein went from a win-starved team to one that was in the playoffs every year.

But he moved again when Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke asked Klein to come work for him. He played an instrumental role in opening what is now FedEx Field.

After Cooke’s death, Klein joined a company that performed mechanical services for sports facilities. In a six-month span in 1999 and 2000, he helped open Cleveland Browns Stadium, Pacific Bell Park (now AT&T Park) in San Francisco, and Enron Field in Houston (now Minute Maid Field).

In 2001 he returned to Seattle as vice president/facility general manager for the new Seahawks Stadium and Exhibition Center, leaving the Seahawks in 2004.

When he joined the Nationals, it was the seventh major facility that he played a key role in opening.

In his current role, Klein is responsible for “all the things that can break – mechanical equipment, plumbing, carpentry.”

When the team is home, Klein routinely works 15-hour days, with more than 20 people reporting directly to him. Starting around 8 o’clock in the morning, he does his day job until about 4 p.m. Then he heads up a roomful of people in the command post.

“Every stadium has one,” Klein explained. “Our main focus is on ensuring safety and enjoyment for the fans, which they take for granted. We monitor more than 10 different channels – ballpark operations, security, housekeeping, emergency, food and beverage and so on. We deal with things like the press box is too hot, suites are too cold, no towels in a bathroom.”

It’s a job he has grown to love.

“There’s always something to do,” he said. “No two days are the same. I just enjoy being at the ballpark.”

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