It happened at some greasy spoon in Lakeland, Fla., eight years ago in what was supposed to be a quick stop before work.
A photographer and I had arrived two days before. In town to cover the York Revolution’s first practices and scrimmages during Atlantic League spring training, we had stopped for breakfast. Our destination was the Detroit Tigers spring training facilities, where most of the Atlantic League teams had broken camp that week as they prepared for the start of the regular season.
Keith Lupton, sitting at a table by himself, waved us down.
Always friendly. Always available to talk. He told us how emotional the last 24 hours had been.
One of the key front office executives with the ownership group that planted teams in Lancaster, York and Southern Maryland. He had been a part of the group working to bring minor league baseball back to York for about a decade. The day before, he had watched the York Revolution finally take the field. Even though he had just built a league championship squad with Lancaster manager Tom Herr the year before, he couldn’t have been happier to see another team on the diamond.
It was the beginning of a team, something he knew worlds about.
“There were periods of doubt,” said Lupton at the time, then serving as the executive vice president of Opening Day Partners. “We had so many obstructions, but when you’re starting a new club you have to have patience.
“The cities that give up don’t get teams. Our key was simply having patience.”
Lupton couldn’t wait until June see the York open its new park. So he traveled to Lakeland to watch the Revolution in spring training.
First practices. First scrimmage. First time on the field.
He sat near the dugout when York took the field for its first preseason scrimmage.
“It’s like waiting nine months for a baby to arrive,” Lupton said. “Only in this case, we waited years.
“I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
So we sat there eating breakfast, and he talked about his background. He explained how he had survived a kidney transplant, joking how he was ruining our breakfast. He explained how he had a background in radio … and scouting … and eventually signing players. What was supposed to be a 10-minute stop turned into a half hour, but he gave us quotes for a story and some insight.
Lupton, 73, died in Dover, Delaware, Sunday.
In a business where executives tend to be guarded, Lupton never was.
Most nights, Keith Lupton sat in the back row of the press box. He knew everybody. And everybody knew him.
He turned a back seat in Clipper Magazine Stadium into the best seat in the house. Sit down beside him and meet somebody new.
Lupton knew who the scouts liked, and he knew what players were headed back to affiliated baseball and why. He knew baseball, and he knew how the Atlantic League worked.
It came from years of in-the-trenches work.
Lupton owned the Winchester Royals in the Valley Baseball League from 1979-81. The Royals won three consecutive league championships, and he had 35 players signed by major league organizations.
The way he told it, he thought he knew what it took to find ballplayers. So he sold the Royals and offered his services to major league organizations. How could they refuse?
Well, 23 major league clubs sent him rejection letters. Two more never responded. The Yankees eventually hired him to scout the mid-Atlantic region, but some days, Lupton figured, he didn’t come within 100 miles of a prospect.
He moved on — taking a job scouting for minor-league teams, including the Hagerstown Suns. He survived a couple ownership changes in Hagerstown. A group including Peter Kirk bought the Suns in 1986, and Lupton and Kirk developed a decades-long partnership with Maryland Baseball, its partner company, Keystone Baseball and, eventually, Opening Day Partners.
Lupton was usually the first man in the building. In what would become his real talent, he became the first general manager for the Frederick Keys from 1989 through 1993. He moved on to the same position in Bowie in 1993. And moved yet again when the Delmarva Shorebirds opened shop in 1996. At each stop, each league honored him as General Manager of the Year.
When Opening Day Partners decided to restructure their baseball operations, dissolving the company that had run the player procurement process for all their teams after 2007, Lupton returned to run baseball operations for the Barnstormers from 2008-10. He would fill in once again when ODP was in a pinch to hire a general manager to run the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs in 2012. Lupton returned as a general manager — once again — and won league honors as General Manager of the Year.
He was there for the big stuff, hiring Jon Danos — the man who would eventually become president of ODP — pulling out the resume of the recent grad who had submitted a picture of himself in front of a sports car. And Lupton sweated the little stuff, sitting through some losing seasons at Lancaster while trying to figure out how to improve a roster.
But he was also personable, friendly and a joy to be around. Each time I walked in the Lancaster Barnstormers press box where he often watched games, I could count on hearing Lupton booming out, “Jim-my!”
He was one of those people who always managed to make those around him smile.