John Higgins '79

May 4, 2009Duke Law News

Fun. Exciting. Exhilarating. Nerve-wracking.

Each word could apply to the Tampa Bay Rays' 2008 baseball season, which included a seven-game victory over the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series and the team's first World Series appearance. Instead, John Higgins uses the adjectives to describe his emotions prior to tossing the ceremonial first pitch at Tropicana Field on Oct. 2, 2008, at the outset of the team's improbable playoff run.

Higgins, the Rays' senior vice president of administration and general counsel, took to the field prior to the opening game of the American League Division Series along with 51 other employees who had been with the organization since its first game in 1998. As the team's first hire, Higgins got the first pitch. "I was really proud to represent that group of very hardworking people," he says. "It was a great honor."

The possibility that Higgins would work for the Rays initially seemed as unlikely as the team's success in 2008. The franchise did not exist when Higgins, a St. Petersburg native, returned home following law school to work at Fowler White in Tampa. He anticipated building a business law career and, in hindsight, estimates he would have had "a snowball's chance" of working in professional sports. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the area's lone professional sports franchise at the time.

"I was very much a sports fan and hoped through my career I could end up doing some sports and entertainment-related stuff, but it wasn't on the top of my list of things," Higgins says. "If I had wanted to go the sports direction I probably would've gone to one of the bigger cities and tried to connect that way. It was more about the area than what I was going to do."

Higgins, who earned his CPA prior to attending Duke, made partner after three years in Fowler White's tax and corporate department. He was later asked to split time between Tampa and St. Petersburg, where he was charged with helping develop a commercial practice. Higgins ultimately transitioned to a full-time role in St. Petersburg and used the local Chamber of Commerce to make connections, including the one that led him to the Rays.

In 1992, Higgins represented the city of St. Petersburg and a group of investors in litigation surrounding Major League Baseball's refusal of an agreement to relocate the San Francisco Giants to the Tampa area. The group's continuing efforts eventually contributed to Tampa Bay being awarded an expansion franchise in March 1995, at which time Higgins became the team's general counsel.

In his current role as senior vice president of administration and general counsel for the Rays, Higgins handles a diverse array of tasks involving, for example, staff and player contracts, trademark and intellectual property issues, sponsorship agreements, arbitration cases, and human resource matters. The team employs approximately 175 full-time front office personnel, more than 300 players and coaches, and 1,000 part-time employees, to include event staff.

"At least once or twice a week I work with every department in the organization on some aspect of their job. There are very few of the employees that I don't work with on a one-to-one basis," Higgins says. "It's been very rewarding to learn the different aspects of the organization."

"In a lot of ways it’s a perfect job for me," he adds. "I grew up on the baseball fields of St. Petersburg playing baseball, scorekeeping games, umpiring games. Baseball is just a love of mine, so the combination of baseball and the diversity of work this particular job has brought me is something really special."

Before 2008 the Rays had never enjoyed a winning season much less a playoff appearance. Higgins admits that the continual losing was difficult, but those experiences made what happened last season that much more meaningful.

"The first year of success is one that you'll never repeat," Higgins says. "It can never again be the surprise that last year's magical season was. Because of that, 2008 is something that, no matter what happens from this point forward, is going to be really, really special."

Higgins' only complaint happens to relate to his ceremonial first pitch.

"I should have gone fastball up instead of the slider down and away," he jokes.
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