Businessmen Going to Bat for Minor League Baseball

At Richard Leavitt's brick, ranch-style home the doorbell plays "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." In a backyard area covered by a net, a pitching machine speeds hardballs up to a home plate. Leavitt, a Brentwood attorney, has recently purchased one more baseball item, the Tri-Cities Triplets, a minor league team.

He and three other L.A. area businessmen who bought the team along with him are indulging in their personal American dream, as are many of the team members, who include a 34-year-old rookie, a player suspended for fighting and released by the Atlanta Braves organization and a former high school outfielder trying his hand as a pitcher.

Bankrolling the Team

Shoulder surgery patched up the star shortstop two years ago. A Dodgers minor league team released the centerfielder and the Cincinnati organization released the cleanup hitter.

Leavitt's team plays in the eight-team Northwest rookie league in Oregon and Washington on a budget of about $250,000 a year. The other seven teams are affiliated with major league organizations, which pay the teams' expenses and furnish players. Leavitt and his three partners--Jerry Salzman of Whittier and Marvin Levine and Sam Goldstein (whose ownership was a gift from his wife, Florence), also of Brentwood--are bankrolling the team independently. They must find their own players and pay all expenses.

Last Chance for Rejects

But the fact that he is providing a last chance for players rejected by other teams is no drawback to a lifelong baseball fan like Leavitt, 50, who works out regularly in his batting cage to keep in shape for the fast-pitch softball team he still plays on.

Two years ago Leavitt attended the first spring training baseball camp for adults put on by former Chicago Cubs. He kept his uniform and, he said, one night last season at Dodger Stadium he slipped into the uniform in a restroom, walked onto the field and worked out with the Cubs before the game. He asked to sit on the bench during the game but was told by the Cubs, who thought he was a former player, that there was a rule against it.

In a remodeled backyard game room, which serves as his office, surrounded by major league baseball bats and pictures of his favorite boyhood teams, Leavitt said he wanted to be a major league baseball pitcher and had a tryout with the Cleveland Indians.

"But I hurt my arm and couldn't pitch anymore so I never really had a chance," he said.

"My theory is that I wasn't good enough to play and not smart enough to manage, so the only thing left was ownership."

The corporate securities attorney had recently cut back his law practice and moved his office from West Los Angeles to his home in order to "do activities I like" and "only take legal clients with whom I enjoy working."

Wall Street Journal Ad

So when a friend pointed out a Wall Street Journal advertisement for a minor-league baseball team, he was interested.

"I was at the stage in my career where I could do that if I wanted to," he said.

Leavitt and Salzman, a CPA and former vice president of Hollywood Park race track, flew to Richland, Wash., to check the team out.

"The financial statement showed that the team had made money for two years. And it looked like an opportunity, so I said, 'Let's do it,' " Leavitt recalled. (He declined to say what they paid for the team.)

"This is work," he said. "You get some cooperation from the league and other people in baseball but each owner is responsible for his operation and there aren't a lot of shoulders to lean on.

"We want to run the team well from a business standpoint and we want to win on the field. If it's more work than it is fun, I won't stay. But initially it has to be viewed as a long-term project."

Lure of Tri-City Area

What Leavitt and Salzman found on their trip to Washington was three cities--Richland, Kennewick and Pasco--in the southeast corner of the state in a desert area made green by Columbia River water.

They also found that the 114,000 residents of the Tri-City area had a median household buying income of $30,497, which ranked 14th among metropolitan areas in the nation according to a survey by Sales & Marketing Management magazine.

Much of that income is based on agriculture, but a great deal of it is derived from the nuclear industry. The 570-square-mile Hanford Reservation contains government and government-related nuclear projects run by private industry. Approximately 13,000 people work at the reservation or in related industries.

Leavitt and Salzman thought that a town built of these economic resources would support a team, but they needed to build the team first.

The men attended professional baseball's winter meeting in Houston, Tex., and hired former minor league manager Ed Olsen, coach at Grossmont Community College in San Diego, as the team manager for the summer season. Leavitt visited 12 major league spring training campsites in Florida, and Salzman joined him at six more in Arizona to seek talented players who the teams might have had to release for injury or other reasons.

14 Tryout Camps

The owners held 14 tryout camps for players in Southern California and more in the Tri-Cities. Eventually, Leavitt signed 18 players and received six on loan from major league organizations. Most of them play for $500 to $600 a month and $11 a day meal money on the road.

When practice opened in Richland in early June, Leavitt took his son Jeff, 19, a Beverly Hills High School graduate, to work out with the team.

Taking throws at first base the first day, he dislocated his pinkie. "It hurt a lot," he said, "but I didn't look down until a couple of throws later. I just wanted to play so much."

A doctor put a splint on the pinkie and ring finger and Jeff Leavitt took batting practice holding the bat with his left hand and three fingers on his right.

That was fine, he said, until he decided he could also shag fly balls while other players took batting practice. A few days later he dived for the ball and tore ligaments on his thumb.

"While I was on the ground," he said, "even though I was in pain, I jumped up and caught a fly ball. . . . I couldn't resist."

Cast to the Elbow

Then he ran in to see the team trainer. A few days later Jeff Leavitt, clad in dark blue Triplets T-shirt and white game pants, also wore a cast from his thumb halfway up to his elbow as he fed balls into the pitching machine during pregame batting practice. The dark, curly-haired sophomore at Rollins College in Orlando, Fla., hopes to play baseball at the school next spring, but members of the Triplets aren't sure he should. They tell him to stay in the dugout to avoid getting hurt.

Dick Leavitt sometimes donned a Triplets uniform and joined his son in workouts, but more often he was reaching into a thick briefcase for papers containing information about players and phoning around the country to improve his team. Auditioning players shuttled into the Richland training site daily, including one pitcher who did not know how to wind up.

Trucker on the Mound

When the Triplets started the season earlier this month in Spokane against a San Diego Padres farm team, the pitcher was Gino Minutelli, a former outfielder at Sweetwater High School in National City who had pitched in only a few amateur games.

Minutelli, 22, was driving a delivery truck for a construction supply company when he was urged to try out for the team by Triplets coach John Gracio, who is Ed Olsen's assistant at Grossmont Community College.

"I knew I had something (to contribute to baseball)," Minutelli said. "Someone finally found it."

Minutelli pitched four credible innings against Spokane but a Triplets outfielder who had arrived in camp only the day before dropped a fly ball in the seventh inning accounting for two unearned runs. The Tri-Cities lost 4-3.

The next night, with Dick Leavitt observing much of the game in uniform on the bench, Tri-Cities lost 9-0. Leavitt rode back to the Tri-Cities on the team bus, arriving at 3 a.m.

The next morning he was up at 8 to help Salzman prepare the stadium, called Bomber Bowl, for the home opener that evening.

Salzman had made periodic trips to the Tri-Cities for several months to establish operations at the 2,500-seat stadium, which is also used by the local high school teams.

At 4:30 p.m., three hours before game time, players took batting practice on a sweltering 96-degree day.

Touching Up the Signs

Heather Toland, a 17-year-old Kennewick high school student, repainted the letters on a beer sign completing the touch-up of signs that stretched across the outfield wall.

Salzman, wearing a Triplets cap, a polo shirt and blue jeans, told a concession worker to inventory hot dogs by counting buns rather than wieners because it was easier. He directed the hanging of pennants, bathroom signs and the banner celebrating last year's Tri-Cities Northern League championship by the Triplets.

As co-owners Levine, a building contractor, and Goldstein, a computer engineer, watched with their families and 1,600 other fans, the Triplets lost to Spokane, 10-6, for the third straight night. Levine and Goldstein had been less involved with the team than the other owners because of other commitments.

The next night was different. Six-foot-three, 200-pound Darren Parker from Gardena High School pitched, allowing only five hits in seven innings.

It was the first start for Parker, who was suspended for fighting and then released by an Atlanta Braves farm team in 1984 and is fighting his way back into organized baseball in a positive way.

Shortstop Leon Baham of Belmont High School, released by an Oakland A's farm team after he needed rotator cuff shoulder surgery in 1982, drove in a run.

The Triplets, scoring all their runs with two outs, led 4-0 after seven innings.

When Triplets' relief pitcher Pat Murphy ended a Spokane rally after only one run in the eighth inning, Dick Leavitt, who had been pacing near a fence behind the first base dugout, raised his fist and clapped joyously.

What It's All About

"That's what this team is all about," he said. "That's the team I knew we had."

When Spokane came to bat for the ninth inning, Leavitt, still in street clothes, opened the gate, walked onto the field and into the Triplets dugout.

After Murphy retired the side, giving the Triplets their first victory, 4-1, Leavitt hugged his manager, Olsen.

"You did it! You did it," he shouted.

Then he ran onto the field to shake hands with his players.

Losing had been hard on Dick Leavitt.

"I enjoy this a lot," he said before the game, "except I really don't like losing and it's very disturbing to be 0-3.

"My son said don't take it so seriously. I told him it's a matter of pride. I've participated in building this team. Like anything else a person does when he puts himself into it, you want it to be successful.

"If a major league team had given us players I'd root just as hard but I wouldn't take it personally when we lost. . . . In the last analysis I suppose I'm too competitive to enjoy this unless we win and I've run this operation on a professional basis."

One of the men who wants to help Leavitt win in this 74-game season, which will end Sept. 2, is Ken Koske, a 5-11, 193-pound pitcher with wire-rimmed glasses.

Koske is 34, and it has gnawed at him that he received only two financially unrewarding offers to play professional baseball in 1973 when he pitched United States International University of San Diego to a national small college championship. He rejected both offers and never played professionally.

Last April, the San Diego realtor lost 23 pounds, attended a Triplets tryout camp and told his wife and two children, 6 and 3, that he would be going to Washington to pitch in a rookie league this summer.

Backhanded Compliment

The relief pitcher allowed only one run in his first four innings and his teammates call him "The Unnatural," a backhanded compliment to the similarity between Koske and slugger Roy Hobbs in the Robert Redford movie, "The Natural."

"If I had to give something away (to get here), I'd give away whatever I had," he said. "The only thing I have to be careful of is what's taken away from my wife and kids. I was able to put together two deals to give them what they would need for the summer so I could come up here and chase my dream. I told them to look at it as my male menopause early. Fortunately, I've got a good enough woman to allow me to do it."

Koske says he's aware that his chances of going farther than the rookie league are remote, but he doesn't rule it out.

"Maybe a (big league) team not doing real well or not drawing well (might take a chance on me)," he said. "They might pump that up with publicity. Geez. It's the great American dream."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°