The Happy Folks Behind the Boys of Summer : Owners Profit From More Than Just Cash With Minor League Baseball Teams
Movie theater executive Bruce Corwin made 14 calls from his Beverly Hills home one recent night to learn how the Class A Palm Springs Angels baseball team was doing.
His wife Toni noticed lights blinking on a family phone and realized that her sons David, 16, and Danny, 13, were calling from upstairs for the same information her husband sought downstairs.
New Way of Life
For the Corwins, who recently bought a share of the minor league team, baseball has become a way of life.
Wearing a shiny white Angels jacket at the Palm Springs Angels Stadium recently, Bruce Corwin, president of Metropolitan Theatres Corp., led other owners in cheers, tossed scores of free bags of peanuts to fans and carried post-game hot dogs to hungry players in the locker room.
When he wasn’t hobnobbing with players or mingling with fans at the 5,000-seat stadium, he sipped beer with other owners on a warm, breezy evening and watched his team play.
Many Angelenos, especially those from the Hollywood and the political communities, are finding the attractions of minor league baseball ownership irresistible this year. They are buying teams in small but increasing numbers.
This winter Corwin formed a group of 102 investors, including singer Tony Orlando and California Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, who paid $230,000 for the California League team in Rohnert Park, north of San Francisco. Once they acquired the team, they moved it to Palm Springs and struck an agreement with the California Angels to furnish players.
While Corwin and his associates were purchasing the Palm Springs team, Geoff Cowan, a UCLA communications professor, and his wife Aileen Adams, city Fire Commission president, bought into the California League’s Stockton Ports.
Their partners include Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner and his wife, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Diane Wayne, and Westside attorney and political insider Mickey Kantor and his wife, NBC news correspondent Heidi Schulman.
Singer Pia Zadora bought an interest in the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League, and Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett and his three brothers, all from the South Bay, purchased teams in Spokane and Richland, Wash., acquiring the latter from Brentwood attorney Dick Leavitt.
Thom Mount, 37, former president of worldwide film production for MCA Inc. and now head of his own Beverly Hills production company, owns parts of teams in Durham and Burlington, N.C., and Pulaski, Va., while Malibu businessman Van Schley invested in teams in Durham and Salt Lake City.
“It’s gotten to be a chic kind of thing, the in thing,” said Bill Schweppe, vice president of minor league operations for the Dodgers.
“It might have been popularized by Roger Kahn buying a franchise or a portion of it and writing a book about the experience, and it can indeed be an experience.”
Kahn, author of the highly successful “The Boys of Summer,” bought the Utica, N.Y., franchise in 1983 and described the excitement of his team’s championship season in another well-received book, “Good Enough to Dream.”
Corwin said his 101 partners willingly invested in total or partial $6,000 shares and that he had trouble limiting the group.
“Nobody asked for a budget, nobody asked for a profit projection,” Corwin said. “They said, ‘Where do I send the check and when’s the opening game?’ . . . I mean, it’s been a real, mid-life avocation, a joy.”
Many of the new owners played baseball in high school or college, coached their sons’ or daughters’ teams and were eager to associate with professional baseball.
Kantor, 47, a partner at Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg, Tunney & Phillips, played college baseball at Vanderbilt University and competed in amateur softball until three years ago.
While his son Doug, 17, worked as a bat boy for a Stockton Ports game in Palm Springs recently, Kantor watched from the stands and said the “best thing” about buying a team was that “it gives me a chance to be associated with the game. Not just to see it but to drink it in again. To really make it part of your life. In my formative years it was such a part of my life and I miss it.”
Kantor said that growing up in Nashville “I would play in any league or any game anyone would let me. . . . Anything with a bat and a ball I wanted to play.”
While the owners enjoy themselves, their families also participate. At the Stockton-Palm Springs game, Kantor sat next to Reiner, 50, who had borrowed a glove before the game and trotted to a pitching mound down the left field line to catch his son, Tommy.
The boy, 8, wearing a white, pinstriped Ports uniform, told his father that he would throw a fastball. “And I mean a fastball!,” he said.
‘That’s a Strike’
He wound up and whipped the ball over the plate. “That’s a strike in any league,” said his father, a former junior varsity third baseman at Hamilton High School
After a score of pitches, Tommy entered the Stockton dugout as a mascot for the game.
Reiner’s wife watched the players bear-hug her son and said that minor league baseball was one of the few investments that friends and family could enjoy together.
Sipping a beer in the stands, Diane Wayne said that the other Ports owners are her friends and that games “get us out of town for a family weekend with friends in a very low-cost setting. We don’t even have to go out to dinner.
” . . . Imagine being able to go every few weeks and spend wonderful, low-key weekends with people you care about.”
Mount would agree. In his modern black and gray production company office, a Hank Aaron autographed ball on his desk and a painting of St. Louis Cardinal players on the wall, he said he is happiest watching a game with others.
“Here’s what I like about the game,” he said between calls from movie people. “I like sitting in the stands on a summer evening, eating a hot dog and watching the game.
Better Than a Movie
“I have no deep professional, abiding interest in the statistics or the nuances of the sport. I have an enormous interest in the marketing of it. And I think it’s just the nicest way to spend an evening I can imagine. It’s the only thing I like better than being at a movie.
” . . . I like the notion that it is entertainment. That you bring a lot of people together and they share an experience that makes them happy.”
Mount says his teams make money and that he’d like to buy six or eight more, but most owners say that their enjoyable involvement with a team makes large profits unimportant.
“You’re not going in planning on losing money, but it’s not like you’re going to retire from the profits,” said Bob Brett, a South Bay real estate broker who is George Brett’s brother. “It’s more like a fun investment on the side.”
Most owners pay prices ranging from $100,000 for a Class A team at the lower level of minor league baseball to $1 million for a AAA team at the highest, the Dodgers’ Schweppe said.
For their money, they often obtain a contract with a major league organization that agrees to furnish players, pay salaries and buy equipment. Owners without that agreement must find players and pay for salaries and equipment themselves.
The owners also hire a general manager and front office personnel, maintain the stadium, promote the team and sell tickets. In addition to admissions, they derive revenues from concessions, wall signs and, in some cases, radio or television.
When they considered franchises last winter, Cowan, Adams and Bruce and Toni Corwin hoped to purchase the Stockton and Rohnert Park teams together, but joint ownership violated league policy.
Cowan and Adams decided they’d like to buy the Stockton franchise, which had earned profits, while Corwin dreamed of moving the Rohnert Park team to Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley, where his family had owned theaters for 25 years along with other theaters in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
After buying the team and paying an additional $50,000 to break a four-year stadium lease in Rohnert Park, Corwin needed an agreement with the Angels to provide players. Corwin’s friend, Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, talked to Angels owner Gene Autry and a deal was made.
Corwin invested $75,000 building concession stands, air conditioning the locker rooms and putting backs on grandstand benches.
When the season opened, rows of trees behind the left field fence greeted visitors to the stadium beneath the stark San Jacinto Mountains.
Watching his Ports play the Angels, Kantor said he thinks he knows why so many investors want to be involved with baseball.
“It moves at a reasonable pace,” he said. “You can be involved with a person and have some conversation.
“It’s a simple game for those who don’t know a lot, and for those who follow it, it’s the most complicated game of all. . . .
” . . . We all live very complicated, competitive urban lives. There are not many pleasures like this. There are all shades of gray in what we all do. Winning and losing is not very clear.
“But if (Boston third baseman) Wade Boggs got five hits in six times at bat, you know it. If Palm Springs is leading the league, you know it. It’s certain. You can come out here and have a wonderful evening and understand the game without those frustrations.”