‘Quite the honor’: Wisconsin Timber Rattlers president named minor league executive of the year

Rob Zerjav has been with the Timber Rattlers for 27 years

Rob Zerjav (right) is Baseball America’s 2023 Minor League Executive of the year. Wisconsin Timber Rattlers

Rob Zerjav doesn’t remember exactly how or when he first fell in love with baseball, but it’s always been part of his life.

Some of his earliest memories are of the sport — he’ll never forget his first time watching the Milwaukee Brewers play at County Stadium in 1983, sitting rows behind the right field foul pole.

Now, nearly 30 years after starting his own baseball journey with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, he’s been named Baseball America’s 2023 executive of the year.

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“Honestly, it’s quite the honor,” Zerjav said on WPR’s “The Morning Show.” “When I got the message from Baseball America, I was a little shocked.”

Rob Zerjav grew up a baseball fan in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Timber Rattlers

In a news article announcing the award, Baseball America said 2023 was a “banner year” for the Timber Rattlers, who are based in Appleton and are a minor league affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Last year, the club completed a $12 million stadium renovation at Fox Cities Stadium, which included the clubhouse and suite section. Zerjav, the president and CEO of the club, also said the team saw a 10 percent bump in attendance last year.

“It was great to see attendance take a big jump,” Zerjav said in an interview. “It was just a fantastic year and great to see people coming out.”

‘I fell in love with everything that minor league baseball is all about’

Zerjav grew up in Green Bay and started playing baseball at the age of 8.

“I’ve always been a baseball fan,” he said. “Growing up in Green Bay, I was a baseball guy in a football town.”

After attending the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, he started his life with the Timber Rattlers as an unpaid intern in 1997.

“All my friends thought I was crazy, because you go to school to get a paid job, and here I am graduating and taking an unpaid job,” he said.

But he quickly fell in love with the team and with minor league baseball.

“I fell in love with everything that minor league baseball is all about — the community aspect, the family friendliness, affordability,” Zerjav said.

After his internship, he worked in ticket sales for the team, and then quickly moved into the general manager position at the age of 27.

Rob Zerjav was named general manager of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers when he was 27-years-old. Wisconsin Timber Rattlers

Timbler Rattlers journey with the Brewers

In 2009, the Timber Rattlers began an affiliation with the Milwaukee Brewers.

“Growing up a baseball fan — I grew up as a Milwaukee Brewers fan — being a part of their organization as well and tied in with them, it’s been fantastic,” he said.

There are 120 Minor League Baseball teams across the U.S. and Canada, all affiliated with a Major League Baseball club. There are four different levels — the Timber Rattlers are the High A-affiliate for the Brewers, the third-to-last step before players get to the major leagues.

Many current Brewers players played with the Timber Rattlers on their way to the major leagues. Some current players also perform rehab assignments in Appleton when they get injured. In recent years, that’s included fan favorites like Jonathan Lucroy and Ryan Braun. Last year, starting pitcher Brandon Woodruff also spent time on the team while rehabbing from an injury.

That’s special for fans, Zerjav said.

“It brings excitement to the ballpark,” he said.

Woodruff also praised the fans following an appearance he made in Appleton last year.

“The people here are great. They’re awesome, so I had a bit of fun tonight,” Woodruff told The Post-Crescent after a game he pitched in.

The Timber Rattlers also had Venezuelan-born Jackson Chourio on the club in 2022. Chourio, the Brewers’ top prospect and the second top prospect in baseball, signed an $82 million dollar deal with the Brewers last year, the largest contract ever signed by a player who hadn’t yet played in the major leagues.

Minor League Baseball also often includes many different special events and activities for fans. In Appleton, that includes the “Bratzooka,” a giant cannon that launches brats into the crowd during the game.

“I think I’ve seen it over a thousand times, but every time I hear the music that intros the Bratzooka, I stop where I am, and I watch it,” Zerjav said. ‘”It’s something that never gets old to me.”

The team also rebrands some games and wears special uniforms, including “Wisconsin Udder Tuggers” uniforms.

“It’s a focus on Wisconsin and the dairy industry and how much that means to our state,” he said.

Zerjav said most seasons, around 500 game-day employees work at the stadium, doing jobs that include selling tickets to working in concessions and at the team store. The team also has a front office staff of 30 employees, including 13 employees who have been with the team for at least 10 years.

The close connections among employees, the community and the teams are just part of what makes minor league baseball special, Zerjak said.

“Just the memories that we make, it’s just something to me that there’s nothing like it, and I’m so proud to be part of it,” he said.

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