Q&A with Chanda Lawdermilk, Rays VP of baseball operations

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Chanda Lawdermilk grew up on a farm in Big Spring, Texas, feeding animals in the field before going to school each morning. In a football-crazed part of the country, she always felt a pull toward baseball fields. More specifically, Lawdermilk always knew she wanted to work in baseball.

Her journey began years ago as an Astros intern giving stadium tours in Houston. She reached a new level in December, entering her fifth season with the Rays, when she was promoted to vice president of baseball operations. In transitioning to that high-ranking job after serving as director of staff development and recruiting, a role she’d held since joining the team in 2018, Lawdermilk became the first woman in franchise history to hold a VP-level role in the baseball operations department.

“There’s certainly a close relationship between the strength of our staff and the success that we have on the field,” president of baseball operations Erik Neander said after announcing Lawdermilk’s promotion. “And regarding the former, there’s no one that’s been more influential in improving those efforts and the importance of them over the last few years than she has been.”

MLB.com: Can you explain your background and how you got into baseball in the first place?

Lawdermilk: I grew up in a very small town. Football was king in the Permian Basin in Texas. But I found my way to baseball fields and knew I wanted to work in baseball. I was an intern for the Houston Astros when they opened up their new stadium. I was a tour intern. So, shy girl — fresh off the farm — touring about 1,000 people a day, walking backward in the heat and learning how to build baseball fans and really engaging with that group. Through those relationships that I’d built in Houston, I kept in touch, kept my connections strong, because the people I worked with there were really, really great. I graduated [from Texas A&M University], there were no jobs, so I was in an accounts payable call center answering angry phone calls all day long. Moved to Houston, recruited in [the] oil and gas [industry] all the while still taking phone calls from the Astros every now and then.

The Astros [would say], “We have this position open. Would you be interested in that?” I interviewed four times and got told no before the position in the HR department as the recruiting coordinator opened. Took that role, was there for a decade, and then [Astros president] Reid Ryan calls me into his office and says, “Hey, the Rays are looking for someone. They’d like to talk to you.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m good.” We’d just done some cool things in Houston, and I was happy. And he’s like, “Well, Chan, it’s in baseball ops. You might want to look at this.” I’m like, “Tell me where to go. I will be there.” That’s how I ended up here.

MLB.com: Safe to say a job like this in baseball operations was always the goal?

Lawdermilk: I like the pace. I like the energy. I love the game, too. Being in this environment, the creativity, the innovation, the okayness with failing and failing fast with a new idea, but all the while, knowing 1,000 percent that everybody who’s here has the players’ best interests at heart and wants to make big leaguers and aren’t making decisions based on anything but that. It’s all about, as Carlos [Rodriguez, another VP of baseball operations with the Rays] says, ‘The player is our north star.’ And I really love that. It’s not the product or the asset or anything like that. It’s the human being.

MLB.com: What was your experience with the sport — you talked about finding your way to baseball fields — growing up?

Lawdermilk: My mom told us that we had a special connection to baseball, and she did that through her father, who always told her that we were direct descendants of [Hall of Fame baseball writer and inventor of the box score] Henry Chadwick. So we learned to do the box score, like, in the crib. That is something I always remember doing is scoring a game, whether it be our family softball game at Easter or what have you. If my mom needed to keep me still for a little bit, she would have me score a baseball game. I grew up in a town that had a pretty good junior college program. I would go there and sit behind scouts and listen to them break down pitching or talk about hitters. I thought that was fascinating. I didn’t realize that that was what I liked, that talent acquisition part of it. But I mean, they didn’t know I was eavesdropping on their conversations to kind of learn the language.

I was a little late to professional baseball in terms of fandom and the love, but once I got here, I was like, “I want to be here,” because it just feels good. I understand the game. I love the nuance. I love the life and the moments that the game creates, so I tried to find a way to be around the game as much as possible.

MLB.com: That’s an interesting comparison — talent evaluation and recruiting has some pretty direct parallels with this, right? Did you find that as you moved into baseball operations work here?

Lawdermilk: Yeah, I was scouting for talent, but it was just a different kind of talent. And the development of our staff is important because that ultimately develops the players better. And so the fact that this organization recognized that early, and wanted to put direct resources to it, was fascinating to me and got me really excited. And I was honestly kind of burned out on the recruiting aspect up until this opportunity. It just re-energized me to think about things in a different way and just apply the principles of our player development — and we’re not too bad at it — to our staff development, and having the freedom to do so has been pretty cool.

MLB.com: What was your reaction when they brought this position, VP of baseball operations, to you? Were you expecting it?

Lawdermilk: Absolutely not. Nope! I wasn’t expecting it. It was a very interesting moment for me. Because my life for the past however-many years has been focused on other people’s development. It’s really hard to turn that mirror around and make it your own, right? So hearing that conversation start and hearing the words coming out of his mouth, I’m thinking, “Oh! He’s talking about me.” Like there’s still room for me to grow, and there’s still room for me to do the things that I’m preaching every day. OK, now I have to walk the walk. I have to be the thing I’m saying. So it was a profound moment. Like, the room got quiet. My ears kind of shut down, and I knew he was still talking. It was a big, big thing.

MLB.com: How have your responsibilities evolved as you’ve gotten into this? Erik said they’d probably transition you into more “traditional” baseball ops-type work over time. How has that gone so far?

Lawdermilk: Drinking from a firehose, in terms of trying to learn more about how we think. Like the roster conversations, how players fit within the roster and what we value, what we don’t value — that’s going to be a learning curve for me. The nuts and bolts of it, the transactions, the rules and things like that, I’ve got enough in Houston that I’m pretty OK there. It’s just all the nuances of the Rays’ process that I need to get smart with real quick. But again, I know that I can go to [VP of baseball development] Will Cousins ​​and ask him to break things down for me, and he’s amazing at explaining things in a way that makes the information make sense to my brain. So we’re going to get more toward that, and then I’m really kind of protective over the space that I’ve had because I don’t want the impact to get less for the people. so we have [coordinator, staff development & recruiting] Erika Sperl now, who is working in the growth and talent staff development space, who I am so proud that she’s working with us.

MLB.com: What’s the thing that you’re most excited about, or a new challenge, moving into this role?

Lawdermilk: Working to help facilitate some more player-facing resources. We are having very strong and significant conversations around mental health right now and how we can provide world-class resources that are not only approachable for our players and our staff, but that kind of remove the stigmas and the hesitation around those conversations. So that’s something that I’m super stoked about.

MLB.com: You’re the first woman to hold a VP-level role in the Rays’ baseball operations department. What does that mean to you?

Lawdermilk: I’m not sure yet. I mean, it means a lot. I am proud. I’ve worked my butt off, so it feels good. But I want to make sure that the title doesn’t get in the way of the work, and my work has been so people-facing that I want to make sure that title doesn’t get in the way and that people know they can still come to me with their questions, their desires and know that I’m going to address it the same way I did six months ago. And I have six nieces that are watching and think it’s pretty cool that their aunt has this going for her. So I know it’s important, and I know that we have more than 20 women out here that also see a path for themselves too. With all that said, if it weren’t for [longtime Rays front office employee] Sandy Dengler, if it weren’t for others in the organization, if it weren’t for them being who they were, I wouldn’t have this opportunity. So I’m pretty thankful.

MLB.com: You’ve been a longtime advocate for women’s professional development, and you work with WISE (Women in Sports and Events) Tampa Bay. What has it meant to you to see the proliferation — knowing there still needs to be more — of women in higher-ranking, more prominent baseball jobs around the industry?

Lawdermilk: It feels awesome. Eve Rosenbaum with the Orioles, knowing that she’s out there making a difference is awesome. The recent hire of Liz Benn, I couldn’t be more excited. When you think about the first, Liz is someone who has spent a lot of time and effort and care elevating others and promoting others and sponsoring others to be the first in a field or be the first whatever. She’s been wonderful and sponsored women, and for her now to be able to herself hold the title of the first in an organization. We talk about baseball writing sweet stories, and that’s one for me. So disappointed I don’t get to work with her directly! But I’m still cheering for her. It’s hires like that and Sara Goodrum. Then looking out, we built this women’s clubhouse right before [former Rays executive/current Astros GM] James Click left — 14 lockers in it when we started. We’re overflowing now. And I’m OK with that. We’ll make space. We have potential here, and as [field coordinator] Michael Johns says, “We’ve got badass women walking out there every day.” That’s great, but I know they want to be seen as badass baseball people. Not chasing to be the first, not asking to be trailblazers. They just want the opportunity to be close to something that means a lot to them. And I feel like here is a great opportunity for women to do that.

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