AN ODD TRIO IS . . . : BUYING THE FARM : Two Former Major League Ballplayers and a Mortician Hope to Give Ventura County a Minor League Franchise

Times Staff Writer

They readily admit that it may sound like an odd group for a business venture--a couple of former major league baseball players and a former mortician.

But this isn't an ordinary business venture. It's a group trying to bring minor league baseball to Southern California.

Ken McMullen and Jim Colborn, the former ballplayers, and Jim Biby, the ex-mortician, have an option to purchase the Lodi franchise of the California League. They hope to buy the Class-A team and move it either to Freedom Park in Camarillo or to Oxnard College before the 1986 season.

"We have paid only for an option to buy," said McMullen, 42, who played third base for the Dodgers and the Angels. "We haven't bought the team yet. For one thing, they have to have a place to play. We need to get a location. We need to build a stadium. We also have to have a commitment from one of the cities to finance the project. We've got to make a commitment by May 1."

The group is hoping to interest either the Dodgers or the Angels in a player-development contract that would bring one of their minor league clubs to Ventura County.

Bill Schweppe, vice president in charge of the Dodger's minor league operations, said his organization may be interested in a moving its Class-A club from Bakersfield to Ventura.

"We have talked, but beyond that there are no specifics," Schweppe said. "We haven't made any type of commitment, but obviously with Kenny, who was practically raised on the Dodgers, there is some affinity for the idea."

Judging from public reaction to the plan, that affinity runs deep.

During the past two weeks, the would-be club owners have been inundated with phone calls and letters from job applicants, aspiring coaches and players--not to mention potential grounds keepers, concessionaires and fans-in-waiting who want season tickets.

"I received requests for eight season tickets today," said Biby, 44, former owner of the Santa Paula-based Skillian-Biby Mortuaries. "And we don't even have a team or place to play. It's great. There's tremendous public interest."

When Colborn and McMullen first considered buying a minor league club more than three years ago, they approached Biby because of his business management experience. When those plans fell through, Colborn continued to pursue the idea by keeping in touch with Ed Sprague, who owns a Class-A team in Stockton. Colborn and Sprague were teammates on the Milwaukee Brewers from 1972 to 1976.

The Lodi franchise--which is owned by Sprague's wife, Michele--went on the market when the Chicago Cubs did not renew its player-development contract last season. When Colborn heard that the club was for sale, he contacted Biby and McMullen. They then revived their plans to return to the minors.

After 26 years in the mortuary business, Biby retired in December to concentrate on bringing a minor league team to the Ventura County.

"I've always enjoyed baseball," said Biby, who has coached little league for six years. "It's a good diversion from what I was doing previously."

Biby's father was in the mortuary business, and although the former South Gate resident once considered other occupations, he said he found a great deal of satisfaction in his work.

"It's a very demanding business with long hours and you need a family that understands," Biby said. "But I enjoyed the people. In that business, you meet people when they need you and your help and support. That can be a very gratifying experience."

Biby, a member of the Santa Paula Chamber of Commerce, met Colborn, 39, several years ago.

A third-generation Santa Paula native who now lives in Ventura, Colborn spent 10 years in the major leagues as a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers and Kansas City Royals. He quit baseball in 1978 and became a real estate realtor, but accepted a coaching offer last year from the Cubs and currently serves as their minor league pitching coach.

Colborn is no stranger to the Lodi club.

After graduating from Whittier College in 1967, he began his professional baseball career with the Lodi franchise of the Chicago Cubs.

While toiling in the minor leagues for four years, Colborn spent the off-season doing graduate work in sociology at the University of Washington and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The Santa Paula High graduate was chosen as a Rotary Foundation fellow and did some undergraduate work at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Not exactly typical background for a major league baseball pitcher.

"I was wavering between a career in academics and baseball," Colborn said. "But when I received a contract with the Cubs, I decided to concentrate on baseball. That swayed me."

The Cubs may have persuaded Colborn to pursue baseball, but it was McMullen who inspired him. As a teen-ager, Colborn said he used to ride down to Oxnard High on his bicycle to watch McMullen play.

"He's been my idol for a long time," Colborn said. "I used to love to watch him play. He was a father figure to me in many ways and I thought he was the best player there was."

McMullen was drafted in 1960 by the Dodgers right out of Oxnard High, where he played first base and the outfield. McMullen, who distinguished himself as an outstanding defensive third baseman in the major leagues, first received that assignment by default.

"The Dodgers had had trouble at third base for a while when I joined the team," McMullen said. "Then, one day I made a diving play and caught the ball and they said, 'Hey, that guy can play third base.' One play and they gave me the job."

McMullen stayed with the Dodgers until 1964, when he was traded to the Washington Senators. Six years later, the Senators traded him to the Angels, where he played from 1970 to 1972. In 1972, the Angels traded him back to the Dodgers.

Professionally and personally, 1974 was McMullen's most memorable year.

Although a back injury took him out of the lineup--and Ron Cey's bat kept him out--McMullen said it was by far his most satisfying season. After Cey replaced him at third base, McMullen became a pinch-hitter. Despite the difficulties of adjusting to a limited role on the team, McMullen had his most productive year at the plate. He had 21 hits for 21 RBIs, one-third of them game-winning hits.

"That was probably my best year. It really stands out in my mind. I think I was always a good, average ballplayer, really. I had a lot of respect, " McMullen said. "Defensively, I could do it, offensively, I could do it. Maybe 'consistent' would be a good word. Nothing outstanding, just dependable, I guess."

For McMullen, the frustrations of attempting to come back from his back injury and adjusting to his role as a pinch-hitter were compounded by the death of his first wife, Bobbie. She died of cancer less than five months after giving birth to their third child.

"She died on the same day that Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run," McMullen said, referring to April 8. "You might remember all the Dodgers that night wore black arm bands in memory of her. . . . They wore them for a week, until I rejoined the club."

McMullen quit baseball in 1978, but still operates a summer baseball camp for boys and directs adult camps for Baseball Fantasies Fulfilled and the Dodgers. In addition to acting as a representative for the Dodgers' speakers bureau, McMullen also works as an accountant for his father in Oxnard. He and his second wife, Goldie, and their children live on a 2 1/2-acre ranch in Camarillo, complete with chickens, ducks and rabbits.

Does McMullen miss major league baseball?

"I only miss two things. Number one, the money, and number two, the clubhouse and the camaraderie," he said. "That's all."

In fact, McMullen says he and Colborn will try to stay away from the playing field if and when the Lodi franchise is moved.

"We have no plans to be on the field even though were ex-ballplayers," McMullen said. "Our interest is baseball, but we'll end up being businessman."

Colborn, however, sees it a little differently.

"The idea of coaching the team is an intriguing one," Colborn said. "But I don't know if it's possible. . . . There's such a glamour to all this, and the response has been unbelievable, but it's just a business venture."

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