Rooting for the Home Team
In this sport, even the soil, marbled with red clay, is sacred. And that’s just how Rich Gedman treats it as he wields a wooden rake as broad as his bullish shoulders, grading the dirt in circular strokes and erasing the divots and scuff marks around home plate. His strokes fan out symmetrically in a network of small grooves. He’s so meticulous, Gedman could be brushing a fresco on the wall of a Tuscan chapel. He could be smoothing out the ceremonial last five yards of cement on the Big Dig.
It’s a technique Gedman may have picked up from the Fenway Park grounds crew during his 10 seasons as catcher for the Red Sox. And it’s come in handy since he became manager of the Worcester Tornadoes early this year for the team’s first season. That’s because, when workouts at the practice field at Quinsigamond Community College are over, Gedman becomes chief groundskeeper.
“This is the grass roots,” says Gedman, in the same hesitant, reflective voice that earned him a reputation as an introspective sort during his 13-season major-league career. “I have some help, though,” he adds, nodding in the direction of an assistant coach who is watering the pitcher’s mound. “It’s not bad.”
“This is the grass roots.”
Shortly after tickets went on sale last winter at the team’s downtown office, Bradly Michals, the partner who now enthusiastically balances his “civilian” duties as owner of a Newton insurance agency with a new role as the team’s director of baseball operations, slipped into a line of ticket buyers—$6 grandstand, $18 for “executive” seats directly behind home plate—and introduced himself. The response he got from the group, which appeared to have its share of former den mothers, had the warmth of a church picnic.
“I know Richie’s mom,” said one woman. Several others claimed to have seen Gedman when he played Little League baseball—a big deal in this youth sports-crazed community, which sent a team of 12-year-olds to the Little League World Series championship game in 2002.
“You could tell that people were so, so excited to have him running their team,” says Michals. “This is definitely a city with all of the values that small towns used to be about.”
Michals’s enthusiasm for his expensive new hobby built from there. Soon he was accompanying the team on road trips—lugging equipment, overseeing details like boxed meals and dirty towels, and altogether enjoying the life of a small-time Theo Epstein.
But nothing could beat the June 6 home opener, the team’s first sell-out and a vindication of the $5 million Michals, Brookline businessman Alan Stone, and the rest of the partnership put into converting the College of the Holy Cross’s Fitton Field from a small, open ball field in the shadow of the college’s 23,500-seat football stadium into the state’s latest miniature Fenway Park, seating 3,500. Workers from a local company dragged the base paths, cut the field, and massaged the clay under bright lights as the PA system boomed, “This fifth-inning dirt drag has been brought to you by Landscaping Etc.” Fans squealed their appreciation.
Like professional baseball groups that targeted Brockton, Lynn, Lowell, and (with less success) Springfield before them, the Tornadoes owners are convinced they have discovered that sweet slice of Americana—a community ready to fall in love with its minor-league baseball team. And the community itself didn’t need any convincing. It was city officials who went looking for a baseball team a year ago, not the other way around.
“You don’t get that many engraved open invitations,” says Michael Lieberman, the 11-year veteran of independent and affiliated front office management who, upon taking over as the Tornadoes general manager, joined his eighth team (ninth if you include a year with Major League Lacrosse). “But sometimes they come out like [Worcester] Mayor [Timothy] Murray and City Manager [Michael] O’Brien and say, ‘We want minor-league baseball. Any takers?’”
HOME RUNS AND WILD PITCHES
There have been many minor-league baseball teams in Massachusetts over the years, but right now the Bay State has a bumper crop. And it seems fair to say that the enthusiasm of their host communities—all of them some distance from the Boston metropolis, as measured by size and prosperity as well as by geography—has never been greater. For small and, in most cases, struggling cities across the Commonwealth, having their own boys of summer has been seen as a boost, providing locals with an affordable night at the ballgame and residents of surrounding suburbs with a reason to venture into the city next door.
“You could always see the potential around here, and the enthusiasm that people have for their own teams in Worcester,” says Worcester Mayor Tim Murray. “Around here, you’ll get 1,500 or 2,000 people coming out for [an American] Legion baseball game. So the support is there. All they needed was something put together the right way.”
But the enthusiasm for small-time pro sports is not universal, and plans to bring a team to town can sometimes provoke bitter conflict. Pittsfield, whose creaky, splintered Wahconah Park is one of the oldest wooden ballparks in the country—the 1892 facility has just been listed on the National Register of Historic Places—is going without professional baseball of any sort for the first time since 1985. An entry from the New England College Baseball League, run by former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette, is now Wahconah’s sole offering.
Jim Bouton, the former Yankees pitcher whose memoirs Ball Four and I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally put Major League Baseball on its ear, made an attempt to keep minor-league ball in the old ball field, but all he got out of it was another book, Foul Ball. When Bouton moved to Pittsfield more than 20 years ago and got his first look at old Wahconah Park, he fell in love. And though there was an independent-league team in the park, owner Jonathan Fleisig was threatening to move his Black Bears if Pittsfield didn’t build him a new ballpark. (Fleisig made good on his threat and moved the team—the same Mad Dogs franchise that had played in Lynn in the early 1990s—to New Haven this year.)
Bouton put together his own group (consisting of 85 partners) and came in with an offer to renovate Wahconah, preserve its quaintness, and bring a new team to town. Bouton and partner Donald “Chip” Elitzer each contributed $125,000 toward the $1.5 million bid. Their proposal did not include enough funding to upgrade the park to meet minor-league baseball standards, which ruled out any chance of drawing a major-league affiliated team to Pittsfield. But Bouton was undeterred, focusing on Wahconah’s historical quirks, including the fact that the park was built backwards, with home plate facing into the sun. At dusk this created all sorts of trouble, with play regularly halted for sun delays. Games resumed once the early evening glare melted into the horizon.
“Oh, so what?” says Bouton. “The trees have grown up so high now that the effect is minimal. It’s Mother Nature’s delay. Go and get a hamburger.”
Foul Ball—an updated edition, complete with 100 extra pages about a second failed attempt to renovate Wahconah, came out late in September—wasn’t well received in the community, especially among the politicians Bouton slammed. But Mayor James Ruberto, the object of much of the book’s criticism, stresses that not only was Bouton’s renovation plan insufficient to merit consideration for an affiliated minor-league team, he was unable to raise adequate funding.
“I’ve taken the high road every time with Jim,” says Ruberto. “He wasn’t able to raise enough money through a public offering to make [Wahconah] family-friendly.”
Bouton, however, believes that his offer to privately fund a renovation was turned down—with the city instead hoping to build a new ballpark with public money—because of politics and corruption. “It’s all about kickbacks,” Bouton says. “You have the pols and unions—plenty of them are in it for the kickbacks and graft. Because we wanted to do this with private money, there was no benefit to them. It’s been proven that this only works if private capital does the building.”
Then there is Springfield, where the city’s attempt to build a ballpark in hopes of attracting a minor-league team perished in court just over five years ago. Then-mayor Michael Albano was rewarded for his ill-advised methods —he attempted to take the land by eminent domain, displacing existing businesses for a ballpark that would be privately owned—with a severe rebuke by a Superior Court judge. “It was a gradual process marked by the mayor’s lack of concern regarding separate interest in the stadium project,” wrote Hampden Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney, who also gave the landowners permission to seek damages from the city.
At best, how much of a financial boon small-time pro sports are for the host cities remains an open question. “If this is being promoted as a significant positive for the local economy, then people are likely to be disappointed,” says Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist, a well-known critic of a relationship between cities and teams he sees as intrinsically one-sided, with team owners getting all the benefits. “If things are done perfectly, you might get a small benefit. But if things are not done well, you can have a small loss.”
Zimbalist has been particularly critical of publicly funded sports facilities, which he claims never pay off in economic development for the host city. For that reason, the economist actually supported Bouton’s Wahconah bid. “I liked the Bouton plan a great deal,” says Zimbalist. “My big question was, what kind of sustained interest would there be?”
DON’T BUILD IT AND STILL THEY COME
Worcester city councilor Phil Palmieri sounds winded when he recounts the breakneck speed by which his city landed their minor-league team—taking less than a year from the May 2004 meeting when he and Murray put the item on the city council calendar. In no time, he says, Worcester was looking at bids from seven potential ownership groups.
“The first group wanted to challenge Pawtucket,” he says of a proposal to contest the Red Sox affiliate’s territorial rights, which the Triple A team shares with the Single A Lowell Spinners and Double A Sea Dogs in Portland, Maine. “Their argument was that Pawtucket shouldn’t have a lock on the Red Sox. I was like, ‘Oh boy, this isn’t realistic,’ but the energy in the room was incredible. But I made it clear in my opening remark that we weren’t going to build a stadium.”
Various bidders had their eyes on a 17-acre piece of undeveloped downtown park property, but Palmieri, Murray, and city manager Michael O’Brien stood firm.
“I had strong feelings that we could accomplish getting baseball here, but without building the stadium,” says Palmieri. “But because Worcester has tried on many occasions to get a team, it was met with some skepticism. You didn’t know what had to come first, the chicken or the egg, the team or the field. Why are we going there again? And my response was that this is a different time.”
There had been efforts to bring a baseball team to Worcester before, most recently in 2000. And the city has had other pro-sports disappointments. The Worcester Ice Cats, a minor-league hockey team, started with an enthusiastic fan base before attendance leveled off and the team was pulled out this winter. The Ice Cats’ parent club, the St. Louis Blues, decided to move its feeder team closer to home.
In seeing the timing as right for the baseball move, Palmieri points to Worcester’s current development boom, which includes more than $1 billion in construction projects. The city’s expansive academic community also came into play as a major resource, ultimately solving the stadium problem when Holy Cross president Rev. Michael McFarland, S.J., warmed to the idea of upgrading Fitton Field at the new team owners’ expense.
“That kind of partnership is critical for cities like Worcester,” says Murray. “We have to see it as an asset. After Alan Stone and his group brought in a team, it was obvious we only had two places to go if we were going to have baseball this year—a public park that was unrealistic, or Holy Cross.”
How much Worcester is getting out of its Tornadoes, beyond the entertainment and the bragging rights, is hard to know. But by avoiding the ballpark booby trap, the city is at least not shelling out money in order to have a hometown baseball team. Save for game-night expenses like police details, the arrangement has produced what O’Brien calls a “budget neutral” arrangement for the city.
“There is no particular item in our budget that says ‘Worcester professional baseball,’” says O’Brien. “I’m very pleased by this result.”
So far, the only real controversy surrounding Worcester’s minor-leaguers came from the name. When the Tornadoes moniker leaked out in March, it set off an uproar, with some Worcesterites seeing it as trading on one of the city’s great tragedies, the 1953 tornado that claimed 94 lives.
“Imagine if the city of Los Angeles fielded a new baseball team and called it the Mudslides,” wrote Telegram & Gazette columnist Dianne Williamson. “Or if Oklahoma City named its team the Bombers…. Boys, you’re striking out before coming to bat.”
The team survived the brouhaha, and so did the name, which was picked from among 2,800 submissions in a naming contest. “By choosing the name, we were only looking to capture the positive spirit of the city’s reaction and the spunk and the pluck we see every day in Worcester today,” said co-owner Alan Stone at the official unveiling of the orange funnel-cloud logo.
All in all, Worcester has plenty to be proud of in its team and how the city got it, says Palmier. “Other municipalities around the country should look at this as a model. If you really want something to happen, it will happen. We’re a baseball town.”
SOLD OUT IN LOWELL
But if Worcester is a model for a city getting a team while avoiding the investment in a stadium, the model for running a minor-league baseball team may well be Lowell, where the Spinners have sold out every game since the middle of the 1999 season, earning their owners the admiration of everyone in the business.
“It’s a marketing machine up there, and now it’s a cultural event,” says Nick Lopardo, owner of the Lynn Spirit. “They’ve done a fantastic job building and marketing that team.”
Drew Weber ran a family clothing business with his brothers in Rockville Center, NY, before he and his wife Joann started a long search for a team and ballpark, culminating in the 1997 debut of the Spinners. Lowell, a city in the midst of a comeback often credited to the late US Sen. Paul Tsongas, had already built LeLacheur Park when the Webers won their bid.
“They’ve sold out a 5,000-seat ballpark almost since it was built,” says the Tornadoes’ Mike Lieberman. “You hold that up as the standard. Lowell is far enough removed from Major League Baseball to show that most of all it’s about the experience. Some people are going to come to the park because they are seeing future major-leaguers. But it becomes the experience that brings them back.”
And the Webers do provide an experience.
“Birth Night was probably my favorite promotion,” says Drew Weber. “The idea was to find women who were about to give birth—women who were eight-and-a-half to almost nine months pregnant. We had 10 ambulances parked outside, the women all sat in a special section in the stands, and a doctor led the crowd in a Lamaze class. We found someone who was great with voices, and she did an imitation of a baby coming out. She went a little over the edge with it, and I was up in the press box hiding, but we had a great time with it. The [raffle] prize was a year’s worth of diapers. We had about 20 women sitting together, and AP took a picture that ran all over the world. That was during the 2000 season. Next year we’re going to have all of the kids come back.”
The Red Sox connection clearly doesn’t hurt the Spinners’ drawing power. From Bret Saberhagen’s rehabilitation stint in 1997 to the annual debut of hot major-league prospects, there is always an on-field attraction that extends beyond wins and losses.
“The fact it’s a Red Sox affiliate is very important,” says John Cox, Lowell’s city manager. “People will always remember seeing Shea Hillenbrand, and David Eckstein.”
Nor do the players forget their time with the Spinners. Drew Weber once met Dave Bergman, the former Detroit Tiger, who made several stops at the Webers’ clothing store in New York. “One thing Bergman told me that I never forgot is that a player never forgets his first stop in baseball,” said Weber. “It’s kind of like your first woman. You never forget.”
Take Eckstein, says Weber. “David Eckstein didn’t even start for us. He was on the bench. He was on nobody’s list of a guy who might make it one day. He was just a fan favorite. When he was with the Angels, he would often meet us for lunch when the team in was town. We have a hot stove dinner each December, and he always comes back.”
The crowd gives back, as well, as the Webers discovered when Joann Weber was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just before the 2004 season.
“She was given two months [to live], and that was 13 months ago,” her husband says of an ordeal that forced Joann, and often Drew, to stay home from the ballpark last season. Then the letters started to arrive.
“I’d get one that would say, ‘From Jo and Bob in Section 108—Get well,’” says Joann. “I go to Sloane-Kettering and Lowell General, and without them I wouldn’t be alive. But with all of the prayers that came in from people, how could I not be? We’re Jewish, but I have Catholic holy water from a shrine, a Baptist wish list, a little Buddha—all kinds of things. It takes me 20 minutes before I can go to bed, because I have to go to every one.”
When Joann attended her first game this season on June 19, she was more of an attraction than the game was. “We don’t use an owners box—we sit in the stands—and it seemed like 50 people at a time were coming over to welcome her back,” says Drew.
“No one’s bigger than the game.”
“All of these people were saying how glad they were that I was back,” says Joann. “It’s been just the most remarkable give-back.”
That’s just one way the fans and ballclub have bonded in Lowell. Consider the Hinckleys. One night four summers ago 6-year-old Drew Hinckley was hit in the face by a line drive. Steve Hinckley scooped up his son and ran to the nearest EMT station, where both Webers were already waiting for them. Then, when another Hinckley son, Daniel, was in the hospital facing major surgery, two of his favorite former Spinners, Shea Hillenbrand and David Eckstein, both called him. Hillenbrand, traded from the Red Sox to Arizona, was on the road with the Diamondbacks at the time. Eckstein was traveling with the Angels.
“It was better than any medicine,” Jeanne Hinckley says. Hillenbrand “even sent him his dirty old batting glove,” she says. “The nurses couldn’t understand why he would have wanted it, but for [Daniel] it was the dirtier the better.”
Daniel and Drew Hinckley, now 13 and 11 respectively, recently had another thrill, courtesy of the Spinners’ marketing machine. “They were part of a camp-out in the outfield after the game the other night,” says Hinckley. “They showed two movies”—Major League and Sandlot —“on the video board.”
It’s all part of the Spinners experience, she says. “We go to Fenway and they are bored out of their minds,” she says, of her two sons. “But this is different. It’s a meeting place for so many people.”
GOPHER AND THE CAN
Campanelli Stadium sits in what looks like a sports theme park, with the concrete sprawl of Brockton High School to the right and Marciano Stadium, where the high school football team plays, to the left. And with seating capacity of 4,800—huge for a small-market unaffiliated team—it could easily be a white elephant, one that cost the City of Champions $8 million. But Brockton built it, and they did come.
“We sold out eight games last year,” says Brockton Rox general manager David Sachetti. “The key is group sales. We make 70 to 100 cold calls a day, business to business. You can’t rely on walk-up sales.”
Over the team’s first three seasons, Rox average attendance grew from 3,100 to 3,600 and then, last year, 4,000, says Sachetti. “I know Prof. Zimbalist thinks it’s a total waste [for cities] to build stadiums, but it’s worked here.”
In addition to $8 million from the city and $6 million from the state, $2 million came from the family of contractor Alfred Campanelli and $1 million from the Rox ownership, which is more high-profile than most. The group, led by Van Schley, includes comedian Bill Murray and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels. Together, they have owned teams—affiliated and independent—across the country and in six different leagues (Northern, New York–Penn, Northeast, Pioneer, Frontier, Northwest). Their best-known player with the Salt Lake City Trappers was Kevin Millar, the Red Sox first baseman who was the first independent-league player to ever sign a major-league contract.
The result in Brockton is all sorts of promotions and quirks, reflective of Murray’s tastes and backed up by the experience of Schley and Sachetti, who made the improbable jump from flight attendant to minor-league baseball in 1995. In the men’s room under the right side grandstand, you’ll see painted ballplayers facing imaginary urinals, alongside the actual plumbing; a men’s room on the luxury-box level features moon-walking astronauts and a lunar landscape on the walls.
Even the Campanelli groundskeeper, Tom Hassett, is something of a Murray creation. Hassett first worked for Schley in Salt Lake City. Everything about Hassett, from his oversized rubber “Wellies” to his floppy hat, reminded the crew of Gopher, Murray’s character in the film Caddyshack. When Schley finally had a chance to point Hassett out to Murray, saying, “Tom is just like Gopher,” Murray stopped him short.
“No, Van, that is Gopher,” said Murray. By the time they reached Brockton four years ago, Hassett was part of the package. And Murray was listed in the team’s first program, in 2002, as “director of fun.”
It’s hard to know if baseball is still fun for Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd, but he can’t get it out of his system. At 45, the former Red Sox pitcher joined the Rox this year to give his baseball career a middle-aged revival. Boyd has become quite the promotional tool for the Rox, even in losing his first game on July 9.
But he wasn’t the only attraction. Sharing the bill, in a pairing plugged as “Beauty and the Beast,” Miss Massachusetts Cristina Nardozzi and the aging professional wrestler George “The Animal” Steele gave the evening a sideshow feel, which is part and parcel of the independent baseball experience. That’s fine with Boyd.
“It’s the game itself that’s so magical for people,” says Boyd. “No one’s bigger than the game. Someone invented it, but no one owns or controls it. I respect the game, and to continue to do something that brings out the kid in me is just the greatest thing. I don’t get too comfortable when I get away from baseball. It’s the best therapy I ever had.”
Not everything about baseball has been therapeutic for Boyd. He last pitched professionally for the New England Mad Dogs when they were still in Lynn seven years ago, then went home to Meridien, Miss., with the dream of starting a team of his own—affiliated or not, it didn’t matter to him. His father, Willie James Boyd Sr., had played for the Meridien White Sox and his uncle, Mike Boyd, for the Hattiesburg Black Sox, so he knew plenty about baseball’s roots in his hometown. But his effort ended in failure and bitterness.
“It was real tough, and there are a lot of things that I’ve been advised not to talk about,” says Boyd, his hair now a patchwork of salt and pepper. “I tried very hard to start a team in my hometown, and doors were slammed in my face. It left a bad taste in my mouth, and I’d say that 85 percent of it was racial. People knew us very well, but there’s a lot of people down there who don’t want to change. It’s very heartbreaking to continue, but I’d like to go back there and give it another try.”
For now, Boyd is back on the road, with a bus full of young teammates who kid the old-school right-hander about not yet being born during his heyday. Boyd can take comfort in the fact that former major-leaguers like him have become quite the marketing tool for independent-league teams like the Rox.
At roughly the same time Boyd made his first exhibition appearance for the Rox, impending Hall of Famer Ricky Henderson signed with an independent team in San Diego—the Surf Dawgs. Two years before, Henderson had signed with Newark of the Northern League, with much the same publicity.
“Guys like Rick and I—a lot of ballplayers—would have loved to keep playing,” says Boyd. “I don’t know what keeps some guys going. But my family wants to be with me on the ballfield. You hear about Julio Franco, Roger Clemens—as long as you can do it, you keep doing it.”
After 24 years in the financial management business, most recently in the top position at State Street Global Financial, Nick Lopardo “retired” in 2001 to bring a team to the crumbling concrete structure at Lynn’s Fraser Field.
Baseball had been played in Fraser as far back as the 1930s, when the Red Sox had a farm team there that included two young phenoms named Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky. Banking on the appeal of his famous uncle—Boston multi-sports legend Harry Agganis—an entrepreneur named Mike Agganis brought affiliated baseball back to Lynn in the early 1980s with the Sailors, a farm team of the Seattle Mariners. Agganis pulled out of his native North Shore three years later, moving the team to Burlington, Vt., over what he complained was lack of support from the city. (Agganis now owns the Ohio–based and highly lucrative Akron Aeros, a Double A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians.) After that, the Mad Dogs came and went.
By 2001, when Lopardo came along, Fraser Field was a wreck. In the final days of the Mad Dogs, seating under the ballpark’s canopy was roped off, for fear of falling concrete. But after $3 million in renovations—out of an overall initial investment of $9 million in his new ball club—Fraser is all but unrecognizable now, with luxury seating and a video scoreboard in center field, not to mention new locker rooms and training facilities beyond the left field fence. And Lopardo has a home for his Lynn Spirit, even if it’s still owned by the city.
“My preference is that I would like to own my own facility,” says Lopardo, who upon hearing that the nearby Manning Bowl was about to be torn down submitted a plan for a hockey arena but was politely turned down by the city. “You could bring in concerts, lacrosse matches, X-Game events,” he says, though he recognizes that’s what doomed the plan. “The neighborhood probably wouldn’t support it.”
The veteran money manager is still thinking about deals, just smaller ones than he did at State Street, and more for personal satisfaction than for profit.
“I didn’t get into this to make money,” he says. “People used to ask me when I was going to buy the Bruins, but that’s a matter of serious money. I still have my own major-league sports fantasies, but that doesn’t mean it’s in my future.”
Meanwhile, Rich Gedman’s fantasies are now reserved for his hometown, past and present. Upon retirement from the St. Louis Cardinals in 1992, the catcher returned to Worcester to coach his sons Michael and Matthew in Little League and Babe Ruth, and nine years ago took over the team at Belmont Hill, a prep school. Before long, summer in Worcester wasn’t complete without a series of Rich Gedman clinics.
Only occasionally did his past show itself. Old friend Roger Clemens drove up the Pike with his wife and four sons for a much-publicized visit one day before his start against the Red Sox in Game 3 of the 1999 American League Championship series. Gedman, in that sleepy, heavy-lidded way, smiles at the memory.
“He’s a busy guy,” says Gedman. “You always have a common bond with someone like that, thanks to baseball, regardless of whether you talk to him daily or not. There’s always that respect. Even though the rest of the world spins around you, you’ll always have that moment.”Even at the end of a dusty day on a quiet practice field in Worcester. “I couldn’t think of a better place to grow up,” says Gedman. “It had everything.” Once again, thanks to the game, it has him, too.
Mark Murphy is a sportswriter for the Boston Herald.