Milwaukee Talks: Brewers Senior Director of Media Relations Mike Vassallo
Brewers Senior Director of Media Relations Mike Vassallo didn't grow up rooting for Milwaukee. The Long Island native was a Mets fan who first worked for the Yankees, then traveled to the Reds, and finally arrived with the Crew in 2006.
As a fan, you probably don't know Vassallo personally, but you've heard his voice in the background of radio broadcasts, announcing player's milestones. Or you're one of the almost 7,700 people who follow him on Twitter. Or maybe you've seen him on the field at Miller Park, pointing players to the right interview.
Day in and day out, Vassallo is embedded with the Brewers, working incredibly long hours, and not just during the baseball season. Here's his story.
OnMilwaukee.com: What was your path to Milwaukee?
Mike Vassallo: I'm from Valley Stream, Long Island and I moved to Huntington, Long Island when I was in 11th grade. I was in college in 1995, at SUNY Oswego, and whenever I'd come home for the summer, I'd try to get a job at Pfizer. My whole family worked there at one point or another. One night I had tickets to the Yankees game, and I was going to take the subway there, but I wasn't that familiar with the city. There was an older gentleman named Andy; he used to greet people in the lobby and press the elevator buttons at Pfizer, but his night job was doing the same thing at Yankee Stadium. I went over with him on the train, and I brought a baseball with me, because I was a big Phil Rizzuto fan – I wasn't really a Yankees fan. I went in with Andy, and Rizzuto went up the elevator and signed my ball. I overheard Phil tell Andy that his assistant never showed up anymore. I remember it like it was yesterday. I raised my hand and said, "I'll do it for free."
Phil was taken aback, but Andy vouched for me. For the rest of the summer, whenever the Yankees were on WPIX, I would get a credential and be his gopher, getting coffee for him and keeping score for him during the innings he didn't announce.
When I went back to school, I put on my resume "personal assistant to Phil Rizzuto," which is still on there to this day. That lead to an internship with the Yankees in '97, and they hired me after that. I went to the Reds as assistant director of media relations in December of '99, and then to the Brewers. My first day with the Brewers was the day before Opening Day in 2006.
OMC: In a market like this, is it unusual for a team to bring in someone from the East Coast? And did you have a hard time acclimating to the Midwest?
MV: Not really, because Cincinnati is very similar. It was more of an adjustment going from New York to Cincinnati.
OMC: Who did you root for as a kid?
MV: The Mets and the Twins. Then, I was for whatever team that was going to hire me to go to the next level.
OMC: Did this job turn you into a Brewers fan?
MV: Oh, of course. I rooted for every team that I worked for.
OMC: What's it like to work and interact with professional baseball players every day? They must live in an entirely different kind of world than people like you and me.
MV: Honestly, I don't look at them any differently than I do my good friends back in Long Island. They make a heck of a lot more money, but they're normal people, pretty much. I'm not awed by them, and if I need to, I tell them what's on my mind, whether it's positive or negative. I think they appreciate that.
OMC: Spending so much time with players, have you developed friendships with any of these guys?
MV: You rarely become what I'd call friends, necessarily. There are a few, though. Dmitri Young and Sean Casey are good friends of mine to this day. There are some guys on the team that I'm close with.
OMC: Does it work the other way? Are you friends with the members of the media that you work with?
MV: Oh yeah. Tom Haudricourt and Adam McCalvy, I would call two of my closest friends, not only in Milwaukee but overall. You spend so much time with them and get to know them as people. I value the relationships that I have with our beat reporters.
OMC: I don't know if people understand the long hours you guys work. What kind of toll does that take on you, personally?
MV: People realize that we work long hours, but I don't know if they know to what degree they realize how much we work. People ask me what this city is like, what that city is like. I mean, I have an idea, but not as much as I should after going to all these places all of these times. For me, it's pretty much go to the hotel, wake up, go to the ballpark, then go back to the hotel. A lot of guys don't realize – including the players – that the day doesn't end when the game ends. When I get back to that hotel, I'm working on the game notes for the next day, which takes a couple of hours every night. Right back at it the next day.
I get asked all the time, "What do you do in the winter?" They think that I'm off. Granted it's not as many hours, but it's still a 9-5 job.
OMC: What were the playoffs like in 2008 and 2011? I know it was an extra month of hard work, but was it thrilling for you?
MV: I got spoiled early, because we won the World Series in 1998 and 1999 with the Yankees. But it was extra rewarding to experience it at the director level with the Brewers. I have very few memories from '08 or '11, actually, because it was such a grind.
OMC: You got a promotion recently, right? What changed?
MV: A nicer title and a raise, but also it showed that they appreciate the work that I've done. The job, itself, really hasn't changed all that much.
OMC: Speaking of things that have changed, media relations must be an entirely different beast than when you broke in. Facebook, Twitter, fan blogs. You, yourself, have almost 8,000 Twitter followers, so you're part of the change. It used to be that only the beat guys had a voice. Now everyone has a voice, right?
MV: It's good and bad. Rumors about trades have always gone out, but never this quickly. At the touch of a button, thousands or millions of people can see these rumors, and most of them aren't true. So that's a negative. But a positive is that I'm able to get out information about our team to our fans.
OMC: I know you're engaged, so you must have a little time for life outside work, right?
MV: Yeah, I try to make as much time as I can for my fiancée, Jeana. She works for Kohl's corporate, so she's very busy, too. Not the hours that we do, but she's understanding of what I do. It's a good thing that when I met her I was already well into my career, so nothing was surprising. But it's still a challenge. I can't imagine how it will be when kids get into the picture.
OMC: Have you ever seen a Brewers game from outside the press box?
MV: Yes, maybe once a year. I took Jeana to Wrigley a couple of years ago. I went with her and her family to Target Field – she's from Minnesota.
OMC: And you're a wrestling fan?
OMC: A serious wrestling fan?
MV: Uh huh.
OMC: Like, old-school '80s wrestling?
MV: Big time. I always rooted for the heels, the bad guys. I found that most people outgrow it at 12 or 13-years-old, but I've always found it entertaining. I understand that it's not "real," but I don't really look at it any differently than someone watching a soap opera or any other TV show.
OMC: Does this explain why I've seen the Honky Tonk Man at Maryvale?
MV: Yes. When I was with the Yankees, it must have been a boring day, because I e-mailed the PR guy for the WWF, as it was called then, and I asked him if he could get me Honky Tonk Man's theme song on a CD. A couple of weeks go by, and my phone rings at Yankee Stadium. The PR guy from the WWF says, "Hey, it's Jay. I'm here with the Honky Tonk Man," and then Honky says hello. I thought it was one of my friends pranking me. I didn't believe it at first, but after a while they convinced me that it was really them, and I got to talking to him. I did my impersonation of him, and he said I did it better than he does. He lives in Arizona and told me, "If you're ever out here, look me up."
A year or so passed, and I was with the Reds. I made the trip to Arizona with the team, so just for the heck of it, I emailed him and reminded him of that call with the Yankees. Sure enough, he sent me back a message, and we ended up going out for lunch that day at California Pizza Kitchen. We've been friends ever since. I have him to Spring Training pretty much every year.
OMC: So, would you say you'd be more star struck around, say, the Iron Sheik or Hulk Hogan, than Ken Griffey?
MV: I hated Hogan, but if the Iron Sheik and Hank Aaron walked in here right now, I'd be walking toward the Iron Sheik (laughs).
OMC: I guess you can get used to being around baseball players, but is there room to grow in this job? Can you be with the Brewers for the rest of your career, or is the plan to be the Tyler Barnes for another team?
MV: I don't want that position. I'm doing exactly what I set out to do from day one with the Yankees. I wanted to be director of media relations for a team. I respect what people do above me, but I'd miss the day-to-day interaction with the players, the banter with Rock and B.A. (Bill Schroeder and Brian Anderson) on the planes and on the road trips. I shouldn't say I couldn't, because if I have kids someday, I might not have any choice. But ideally, I'm doing exactly what I want to do.
OMC: And I bet your best stories are the ones you can't tell me.
MV: Most of memories over the last 17 years of being in the game, have nothing to do with what happened on the field. I have very few memories of actual games. It's just the people that you remember.
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