Hooray for Our Team!

By Neil Cohen

Family owners who've become more savvy as promoters, and more aggressive as salespeople, are leading the comeback of minor league baseball franchises.

Watt Powell Park is an old concrete and steel ballpark that sits humbly on the banks of the Kanawha River, which runs through the center of Charleston, West Virginia. Beyond the center field fence loom the Allegheny Mountains. In their shadow, a freight train rumbles by, just as it's done everyday for each of the 80 years they've been playing baseball on this site. One story goes that back in the thirties the engineer would stop the train behind the outfield fence so his men could climb up on the coal cars to watch the game.

It's not Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, or Wrigley Field. But this is the field of dreams for Dennis and Lisa Bastien, owners of the Charleston Wheelers, the minor league baseball team that plays here. The Bastiens are among the new breed of an old-time species: the baseball family.

Upstairs, overlooking the parking lot, the Bastiens busy themselves in adjoining offices, the wood paneling covered with baseball paraphernalia. Although it's late January and opening day is still 10 weeks away, he works the phones, she the computer. Dennis is president and general manager, Lisa is executive vice-president. Their cat, Wrigley, is listed in the program as director of pest control. The Bastiens have an apartment nearby, but this is their home. "These days, you have to live, eat, sleep, and breathe baseball to be successful," Dennis says.

Baseball has always had a strong tradition of family ownership. The ballclubs that emerged from the primordial sandlot to become the major league's cornerstone franchises were family-run: the Griffiths and their Senators, later the Twins; the Stonehams and their Giants; the Yawkeys and their Red Sox; the O'Malleys and their Dodgers.

Back in the postwar forties, when minor league baseball was at its height with 448 teams, family ownership was the norm. "The family that owned the hardware store also owned the local ballteam," says Bob Sparks of the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, the minor leagues' equivalent to the major leagues' commissioner's office. "They operated the ballpark from April to September, then closed down and went back to the store."

They were mom-and-pop, or as likely pop-and-junior, operations. Pop was often a former ballplayer with a connection to a big league team that supplied him with players, but usually he was no businessman. Mom kept the books, and Junior tended the field in order to save a salary or two. They were not at all prepared for the severe slump that hit the minor leagues in the late sixties and seventies, when several factors — a decline in interest, the spread of televised sports, and major league expansion — combined to empty scores of local ballparks.

In recent years minor league franchises have prospered, even though there are only 157 of them left. Some say the recovery began when the 1981 major league players' strike led fans, desperate for America's favorite pastime, to rediscover their local minor league team (a phenomenon almost repeated this spring, when the Major League Baseball Players Association became deadlocked in negotiations with the owners' Player Relations Committee over salary arbitration). Others say that better player development contracts, the agreements that make minor league clubs part of a major league farm system, brought stability to the minors.

But everyone agrees that the rise in popularity of major league baseball since the 1981 strike has had a ripple effect on the minors. Nationwide attendance at minor league parks has increased 56 percent during the past decade. Teams that just a few years earlier could have been picked up for assumption of debt are fetching staggering sums. Within the last few years, record prices have been paid for clubs at all levels: $6 million for the Louisville Redbirds, a Class AAA outfit; $2 million for Reading, Pennsylvania's AA club, and $1.5 million for the Class A team in St. Petersburg, Florida. (There are 26 major league clubs, each with a farm system made up of one or more teams at the Class AAA, AA, A, and Rookie League levels.) Ten years ago, it was uncommon to see even a triple-A team sell for more than $100,000 to $200,000.

As sales prices have risen, so have the cost and complexity of operating a minor league franchise. Today, with the necessary investment getting higher, and competition for the family entertainment dollar more intense, minor league baseball has become big business, and many of the old-style minor league families that survived the lean years have cashed out (often at a significant profit). But in pockets around the country, new-style operators, with a fresh, exuberant approach to marketing and sales, are leading a late-inning comeback of family-owned franchises.

"In the old days, it really wasn't as complex as it is now," says Len Monheimer, 64, who has been a minor league operator since 1947 and an owner since 1977. He has had to bring in a partner and a staff to help him and his wife, Ann, run the Pittsburgh Pirates' Class A team in Augusta, Georgia. "You used to open the gates and fans would come to the ballpark. Now, you have to sell, sell, sell."

Bob Bavasi, 35, knew how to sell baseball. His father, Buzzie, was the long-time general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bob grew up hanging around Dodger Stadium; Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale were frequent house guests. One of his brothers, Peter, would become president of the Toronto Blue Jays and another, Bill, became director of the California Angels' farm system.

So when he and his wife, Margaret, got fed up with their jobs at fast-track law firms in San Diego, they purchased a defunct San Francisco Giants franchise in the Northwest Rookie League.

Buying a franchise gives the new owners the exclusive right within a geographical area to do business in a league. Usually they inherit player contracts as well, and often a ballpark lease, but the Bavasis got neither. Bob nonetheless soon found a home field in Everett, Washington, a picture-book seaside community just north of Seattle that desperately wanted a baseball team. He was there in time to start the 1984 season with the Everett Giants.

Bob and Margaret were equal partners in getting the franchise out of the batter's box. Bob was and is the chief salesman. With a ballpark that seats only 1,800, a shorter season than the other minor leagues, and competition for fans from the nearby Seattle Mariners, he has had to market the team by stressing its identity in the community. He is constantly out talking to local civic groups and "any other organization that will have me," selling advertising space in the team program and on outfield billboards, and arranging for promotional visits by the likes of The Chicken, a comedic baseball character who frequents ballparks, and a daredevil who calls himself Captain Dynamite. Margaret takes care of the bookkeeping, billing, and invoicing, and puts together the game program.

Owning a Rookie League team brings with it special demands not found at other minor league levels. Rookie League is a young ballplayer's first stop after he's been drafted by a professional team. The rookies arrive in June, right out of college or even high school, and need to be taken under someone's wing. "We tell them where to find housing, how to open a bank account, how to get a telephone hooked up," Bob says. "It becomes a kind of an extended family."

As a business team, the Bavasis complement each other very well. "I take care of the hardball stuff," Bob says, "like getting fans into the park, and Margaret adds the touches that make them comfortable once they get there — immaculate bathrooms, foil wrappers on the hot dogs, things like that In the first couple of years I was always telling her 'We don't need this,' or 'That doesn't matter.' Now that we've become a success [demand for tickets outran seating capacity last year, and Bob's expanding the stadium to hold 2,600, I say, 'Yeah, Margaret, that's great.'"]

A generation earlier, Peter Bragan was planning a career in baseball. Four of his brothers were playing professionally. One, Bobby, would go on to manage the Braves, Indians, and Pirates, and become president of the minor leagues' National Association. Another, Jimmy, is currently president of the Class AA Southern League.

Unfortunately for Peter, World War II upset his plan. When he got out of the service he was already married and in need of a job, and his father-in-law had this used-car business back home in Birmingham, Alabama.

"Thirty-six years later, the car business was sold," says Peter, a stocky 66-year-old who favors big cigars. "I told my brothers, 'Find me a minor league franchise and I'll take my best shot at it.' "

When a Montreal Expos AA team in Jacksonville, Florida, came up for sale late in 1984, he purchased a 90 percent interest (a local banker owns the rest) for $320,000, most of it from the sale of his car business. Peter, his wife, Mary Frances, and their kids dropped everything and moved to Jacksonville. His son, Pedro, was a former college ballplayer who had worked as a shrimp boat captain out of Mobile, and as a real estate agent in Birmingham. His daughter, Bonita, was working as a registered nurse and her husband, Larry Williams, as a medical technician.

No matter. "I made Pedro the GM, Bonita the office manager, and Larry the ticket manager," Peter says. "So I knew that in those spots I was gonna get the right count. You gotta do that in any business you're in."

Just the same, Peter was a little surprised by the nature of minor league baseball. "I think Daddy was a bit disillusioned," recalls Pedro, 38. "He'd been thinking he was going to be an old-time owner like Connie Mack, sitting on the bench, buying players, things like that. After a mediocre first year, he realized, 'Heck, we ain't in nothin' but the entertainment business.'"

Pedro already knew this, having spent some time with Larry Schmittou, a successful minor league operator from Nashville.

After that first year, he found his father more willing to listen to what he had to say, which was not the case during the few years Pedro had worked at the family car business. But it wasn't always easy.

"Like when I said 'We gotta do a cap night,' he was skeptical," says Pedro. "But I put together a promotion schedule like this town had never seen and we were putting big crowds in here on Friday and Saturday night." A particular favorite was Used Car Night, something the elder Bragan could relate to, when the club gave away a car per inning during a Saturday night game. "After that year, he started looking at me a little differently," says Pedro. "He finally admitted to himself that, 'My boy has gotten to the point where he's confident be can run things.' "

Peter and his son are now the battery of the management team, since his daughter and son-in-law have returned to the medical profession. They've put together an effective dog-and-pony show to rope in potential advertisers. Father schmoozes them and son sells them. Thanks to Pedro's promotion schedule, the Jacksonville Expos drew a team record 220,000 last season.

To take a tour of Watt Powell Park with Dennis Bastien, 36, is to get a blow-by-blow description of every paintbrush stroke, hammered nail, and piece of sandblasted concrete that was necessary to convert the run-down stadium he and his wife found when they moved to Charleston late in 1987. Dennis would have done the grounds keeping too, if the city hadn't contracted for it. That was the deal he had in other minor league stops he'd made. "I used to get out of bed in the middle of the night if I was mad at myself, mad at the world, and go down, turn on the lights, and edge the infield," he says. "It was a release."

Driven is the word to describe Dennis and his 25-year-old wife, Lisa. They arrive at the ballpark at 8 a.m. this winter day. He'll be out making sales calls and she'll be here running the office until 6 p.m. Then they'll trade in their business suits for work clothes, and paint, scrape, and plaster to get the ballpark ready for opening day. She'll quit at 9 p.m.; he'll go until midnight. Although they have a staff of eight full-time people during the season, they essentially work as a two-person team the rest of the year. "We have a little trouble with turning things over to someone else," Lisa admits.

They met in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where he had built a reputation as a work-till-you-drop general manager at two minor league outfits. She was a 19-year-old college student, studying during the day to be a teacher and doing bookkeeping at night; she was on the lookout for more part-time work.

Dennis was ready to own a club. He had saved a little money. His father took out a mortgage on some farmland he owned, and Dennis took out some loans of his own. In October 1983, he paid $125,000 for a Winston-Salem franchise, a Chicago Cubs A affiliate; at the time, that was the second-highest sum ever paid for a Class A team.

"Since I couldn't afford to pay rent anywhere, I moved into the locker room," Dennis recalls. "I had unlimited hanging space, six showers, a washer and dryer- — it was great." Lisa and Dennis were married a few months later and she moved into the locker room too. At first, he felt that Lisa should get a job outside of the ballclub. "Dennis thought it would be too much for us to work together, being newly married and all," says Lisa. "I really had to talk him into it."

They were a natural team. He was the consummate salesman, relentlessly calling on local and regional businessmen to persuade them to advertise, to buy blocks of season tickets, or to sign up for one of his corporate nights (on which a company brings all of its employees to the park and has a pre-game picnic and softball game). At other times, he was sweet-talking the local TV and radio stations into sponsoring cap nights and T-shirt nights. She was the operations person, running the office, keeping the books, answering the letters, handling the phones, and even cooking the food to be sold at the games.

In 1987, the Bastiens went deeper into debt to purchase a second club, a defunct Charleston franchise in the Class A South Atlantic League. They borrowed $150,000 to buy the outfit and another $50,000 to run it; they figured they'd operate both clubs themselves, even though the cities were four hours apart. "I told Dennis's parents," says Lisa, "that if we were still married at the end of that season, we'd be married forever." One season was enough. Winston-Salem was sold to an investor from New York for a sum Dennis will not disclose, but others estimate to be in the middle six figures.

The Bastiens say they like Charleston. Attendance has been good, the club showed a small profit last year, and they can both draw salaries that Lisa says allows them to be "comfortable." They're planning to build a house this fall, after the season, she says, although Dennis chides her: "If it were up to me, I can honestly say I'd never go home. I can't think of any place I'd rather be than at the ballpark, with that big yard to mow."

Later Dennis admits, "I'm a very lucky man. Lisa puts up with my baseball mania, but I think privately she'll admit that she's into it too. She wouldn't have it any other way."

Well, maybe she would, a little. Lisa credits Dennis with teaching her everything she knows about baseball, and was pleased that he shared the honor with her when he was named Class A Minor League Executive of the Year by The Sporting News. "But sometimes I think I would like to know what I could do on my own," she says, after Dennis has gone off to return phone calls. "I don't want people to look at what we've done here and see me as just Dennis's wife."

Of course, if you're going to play in the increasingly expensive arena of minor league baseball, it helps to have a $700 million family business behind you. In Buffalo, Bob Rich Jr. has turned a sinking AA team, the Bisons, into what may be the most successful family-run baseball operation in the country — with his wife, Mindy, at the helm.

Most of the Rich family's income comes from Rich Products, the largest privately held frozen-foods packer in the world. But they dabble in sports. They paid $1.5 million to have the football stadium where the Buffalo Bills play named after them; they own 10 percent of the Buffalo Sabres pro hockey team; and they recently added two other minor league baseball teams to their roster: the Niagara Falls Rapids, a Detroit Tigers Class A team, and the Wichita Wranglers, the San Diego Padres' entry in the AA Texas League.

Although Bob Rich Sr., the company's founder, and his son, now its president, are both sportsmen, they hail more from the golf and polo set. The desire to become baseball owners was not the driving force behind the decision they made in 1983, when Buffalo's mayor, James Griffin, called to say that the municipally-owned Bisons were in financial trouble and might have to be sold to out-of-town interests. "I'm a Buffalo guy," says Bob Jr., still athletic-looking at 49, as he stretches out on a leather couch in his office. "Our general feeling is that what's good for Buffalo is good for our family and our business."

His father chimes in from his office across the hall: "I told Bobby it was okay for us to buy the team, as long as he used lunch hours and his time after 5 p.m. to operate it."

That's the way it went. Bob Jr. ran Rich Products by day and held meetings with the team's general manager, Mike Billoni, by night. He upgraded the Bisons franchise to Class AAA, signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates. With the help of a state loan and a contribution from the family, the city built a new ballpark, Pilot Field, for the team, right in the heart of downtown.

But probably the best move Bob Jr. made was bringing in his new wife, whom he met at a ballgame in 1985. His resources (the family has a net worth of over $300 million) and business experience plus her advertising and marketing know-how have made them a formidable team.

Before marrying Bob, Mindy had run the ski school division of Aspen Ski Company, and had been an account executive for an ad agency in Buffalo and a product manager for a division of Bristol-Myers. A big baseball fan, Mindy "jumped at the chance to run our baseball operation," her husband says. "It became her full-time occupation, and the whole thing came together. Her credentials were just ideal."

Since the opening of Pilot Field in 1988, the Bisons have become the first minor league club to draw over 1 million fans in back-to-back seasons. Last year they outgrew three major league clubs.

"When you can't control whether you win or lose, you look at the elements outside the white lines and figure out how to manipulate them," Mindy explains. Among her marketing ploys is selling local food favorites at the concession stands. Family-style entertainment is also regular fare — a carnival in the parking lot in Wichita, theme nights in Buffalo.

The Riches treat their baseball franchise as just another company venture. What leads to success, Mindy says, is tailoring their product to the local market. "If you bring customers to the ballpark once and they have a good time, they'll come again," she says. "Once they've come a couple of times they'll become fans in spite of themselves." Now 31, Mindy is in effect running a division of Rich Products. There are nearly 60 employees for the three ballclubs, making theirs a larger front office than those of several major league clubs. Minor league baseball, including food services, has become a $15 million business for the Riches. It has never lost money, although "it's not keeping us in silk shirts," Bob Jr. is quick to point out.

Silk, no. Monogrammed, yes. The couple tries to attend all the home games of the Buffalo and Niagara Falls teams, and travels to Wichita about once a month. "We spend a lot of time talking about the business, about baseball," says Mindy. "Yeah," adds Bob, with a sigh, "mornings, dinner, when we're in bed at night."

Bob admits that there might have been a little friction when the "boss's wife" was installed as the person to whom the baseball people had to answer. "These guys had been taking orders from me; we were working nights, doing all that male bonding stuff," he says. "Then along comes Mindy as she going to be the owner's wife, just dabbling in this?' they wondered. If there was tension, though, there was a great desire by all parties to minimize it."

"Nepotism works," says Mindy, herself a scion of a family-owned wholesaler of baked goods in Cincinnati, where she grew up. Bob Jr. points out that Rich Products, a family business made up of family businesses, proves Mindy's point. "We've acquired 31 family companies since 1969, and 29 of those families are still with us," he says. "Our strategy has been to offer family-owned businesses the opportunity to avoid going public, to stay in an environment where family counts. And baseball still lends itself very well to a family operation."

In fact, the Riches have installed a husband and wife team to operate their Niagara Falls franchise. And that couple's son is busy computerizing the whole operation.

These minor league owners don't see their clubs as a passing fancy, but, like other business families, want their operations to grow and be handed on to the next generation. In Everett, the Bavasis are hoping to expand into related businesses, like their recently opened Giants paraphernalia store. The Bastiens are taking over another team, a Rookie League club 30 miles down the road from Charleston, which they will run on a contract basis for the Chicago Cubs. They are also considering a franchise in Lexington, Kentucky. All are linked by Interstate 64.

The Riches are lobbying Major League Baseball, the umbrella group of major league owners, to select Buffalo as a team site in the next wave of expansion; their ballpark is designed to be enlarged to meet big league needs, and they virtually have their own minor league system already in place.

And in Jacksonville, Peter Bragan is looking to upgrade his team to Class AAA. "I can sell it for $3 million now," he says. "But as long as Pedro here is young and likes it, I'm not gonna sell it." Adds Pedro, with a chuckle, "I may be the lowest paid GM in the league, but I'm the only one that stands to inherit the whole club some day."

As prices continue to rise, will there be room for families in minor league baseball? Miles Wolff, owner of the Durham Bulls in North Carolina (which inspired the movie Bull Durham) and a student of the minors, guesses there will always be a handful, especially at the lower levels. "After all," he says, "it's one of the few areas left in sports for the small businessman."

But there's another reason the little guys will hang in there. To know what it is, one only has to listen to Bob Rich Jr. go into a tirade when his Bisons go on a losing streak, or hear Dennis Bastien talk about the two championship teams he had in Winston-Salem. They may never get to the World Series, but in what other family business does the owner get to wear a championship ring?

The business of minor league baseball

The folks who run minor league baseball teams don't call themselves 11 owners." They prefer "operators." It sounds more hands-on, more gritty. They know that if they're not out there getting their suits dirty, they're out of business. "When I bought the Everett Giants," explains Bob Bavasi, "I basically bought myself a job."

Owning a minor league team has little to do with George Steinbrenner-like acts of trading players and firing managers. The team on the field is taken care of by one of the major league ballclubs under what is called a player development contract. This is the mechanism that makes the minor league team an official part of the big club's farm system. The major league club supplies the players, managers, coaches, and trainers and pays their salaries. It also pays a significant share of equipment and travel costs. The minor league owner focuses his efforts outside the white lines. Says Dennis Bastien, owner of the Charleston Wheelers: "Ninety-five percent of my job is selling."

Selling is the way the owner makes his money. The operating budget of a minor league team can range from $150,000 a year for a small, short-season Rookie League team to $500,000 for a Class A club, $800,000 to $900,000 for Class AA, and up to several million for Triple A. The revenue comes from three principal sources: ticket sales, concessions. "The trick is not just getting people to pay to come to the park," says one general manager, "it's getting them to pay to leave."), and advertising (in the team program, on outfield walls, and by sponsoring special events). The three contribute fairly equally to the bottom line, although a Class A operator with a small ballpark (and thus fewer ticket sales) will have to hustle up more ad sales.

An owner's expenses range from the exotic, such as bats and balls, team photos, and promotional activities like a night with baseball clown Max Patkin, to the mundane: payroll for the staff, food for the concession stands, and stadium upkeep. Like every other entrepreneur, baseball owners have to worry about rent (most clubs lease their parks from the city or county, paying from $20,000 to $30,000 a year on the A and AA levels) and the electric bill (a couple of thousand a month, depending on the number of night games). They know how to be thrifty. "Some operators on the lower levels turn off the lights right after the third out in the ninth," says the Buffalo Bisons' general manager, Mike Billoni.

Minor league baseball can be a profitable business, debts and acts of God permitting. The Bastiens cleared about $50,000 last year, enough to make their loan payment. Peter Bragan showed a $100,000 profit last year when his Jacksonville Expos drew 220,000 people, after barely breaking even in 1988, when rain washed out two big promotional weekends. Those would have been good for $40,000 a pop, his son, Pedro, says.

In this business you make your real money when you get out of it. Record sale prices have recently been hit on all levels. "You hope the club goes up in value, so you have something to show for your work," says Everett's Bavasi. "So you reinvest. If my wife and I were to take from the business each year what we should be earning in salaries, we'd still make a modest profit — but we'd have been better off putting our money into a CD."

— N. C.

Selling the public

Minor league operators love to talk baseball, but marketing it is their livelihood. Those who succeed do so because they excel at selling the public on their product. Here are some tips from them that might work elsewhere as well.

Become visible in your community.

Join civic groups, work with the chamber of commerce, speak to as many organizations as you have time for. "Not only does it make you feel good, but you also get to meet the movers and shakers," says Everett's Bob Bavasi. 'Then, if you're looking for a sale, they'll always see you. It opens doors."

Keep prices low on the low end and high on the high end.

"We don't want to bust the lady who has three kids on general admission tickets, hot dogs, and sodas," says Pedro Bragan, of the Jacksonville Expos. "If we can get one fan to say to his friend, 'I had fun, and the prices aren't bad at all,' that's the best advertising we can get. On the other hand, for the model who lives over in one of the high-rent neighborhoods and drives the BMW we have fancier box seats that cost a little more, and a fancy barbeque sandwich for $2.75."

Leave potential customers with something to remember you by.

For Dennis Bastien of the Charleston Wheelers that means leaving his business card stapled to a bag of ballpark peanuts. "We tell them, 'We wanted to bring you a bag to get you thinking about baseball in the dead of winter.' The clincher is that everyone who signs up to advertise with the club does so with an official Wheelers baseball bat pen."

Cultivate the media.

This is a lot easier to do when you have a baseball team rather than a landscaping business. Nevertheless, says Bob Bavasi, "Find out what's unusual about your business and get the media to write about it. Every article they write about you is like gold."

Maintain the personal touch that lets your customers know yours is a family business.

"After our first year with the Buffalo Bisons, we had just a couple of hundred season ticket holders and [owner] Bob Rich Jr. sent a signed thank you note to each of them," recalls Mike Billoni, the team's general manager. "Now we have 9,000 season ticket holders and he still sends them a note."

—N.C.

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May 1990

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