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An O’Malley grandson brings his baseball family values to Visalia

Reporting from Visalia, Calif. -- The stadium is full, the players are limbering up on the unblemished grass and sausages are sizzling on the grill, sending an irresistible invitation into the springtime air. But Walter O’Malley’s grandson hardly notices. On this Friday night, he has an 80-year-old tempest to contend with, and her name is Irene Burtlow.

“Tom Seidler,” Burtlow says, pointing a finger at his chest. “I have a bone to pick with you. I am not happy, not happy at all …"

For decades at minor league baseball games in Visalia, members of the home team’s booster club have passed a cap around the grandstand at Recreation Park, which fans fill with coins and dollar bills. At the end of the game the cash has gone to Visalia’s best performers, often smooth-cheeked teens with still-fresh memories of the high school prom.

But now Seidler, the 43-year-old owner of the Rawhide, the town’s entry-level professional team in the single-A California League, wants a change. The money, he tells Burtlow, ought to be distributed to everybody on the team. It would build better spirit, he says, and help more players — especially those who can barely pay their bills. After all, few of these players get big signing bonuses from the Arizona Diamondbacks, their parent club in the National League.

For 15 minutes, Burtlow argues that tradition shouldn’t change. Seidler listens calmly, then finally assures her he will come up with a compromise. Burtlow softens, and he wraps an arm around her shoulders.

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As Seidler turns away, he says he loves this part of his job. “The hospitality part. Being with fans, hearing their views, their complaints. I guess you could say it’s in my DNA.”

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Seidler hails from baseball royalty. He is a grandson of Walter O’Malley, the patriarch of a family from an era that now seems sacred in Los Angeles, especially as the city broods over the current sorry state of its Dodgers.

O’Malley bought the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950 and — amid great controversy — moved them west, creating an enduring bond between city and team.

When he died in 1979, O’Malley bequeathed the Dodgers to his two grown children. One was Peter O’Malley, who ran the club until the family sold it in 1998, citing the family’s failure to get city backing for an NFL stadium at Chavez Ravine. The other was Seidler’s mother, Terry, who helped her brother guide the team behind the scenes.

Tom Seidler is the last direct link between the O’Malleys and professional baseball — the only family member still intimately involved in the game. He is overseeing a rebirth of baseball in Visalia by sticking close to his family values. The O’Malley Way means that character matters, details make a difference and fans must be heard.

As Seidler walks through the ballpark during every Rawhide game, it is easy to imagine what might have been had his family kept the Dodgers franchise. “If he’d wanted, Tom would certainly have been one of the executives leading the Dodgers,” says Peter O’Malley. “He’d be putting a very solid stamp on the team.”

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Seidler grew up so immersed in baseball that he did not realize, until he became an adult, how unusual his experiences were.

He is wistful now, not only about Dodgers legends Fernando Valenzuela and Steve Garvey and Ron Cey, but also about how he and his brothers and sisters would converge on Dodgertown for spring training in Vero Beach, Fla. About how Dodger Stadium became a touchstone; he learned to drive in the parking lot after it emptied out. Indeed, his first job, at 16, was collecting money in a Chavez Ravine parking booth. Most Sundays, he sat in one of his family’s box seats, often next to Hall of Fame Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella, who was like a wise uncle.

Walter O’Malley died when Seidler was 11. What he remembers most, in addition to his grandfather’s boisterous manner, was the tone he set. Seidler sometimes tagged along on O’Malley’s pregame stroll. His grandfather checked stadium seats to see if they were clean. He checked bathrooms and elevators. He talked to ushers and vendors. He chatted with arriving fans.

After college at Notre Dame, Seidler took a job with a minor league team in Great Falls, Mont. He found a kind of baseball largely insulated from the less appealing side of modern sports: skyrocketing salaries, oversized egos and an emphasis on profits. Players reveled in the joy of the game as much as in their dreams of making millions. Fans, meantime, knew that summer night baseball was the best attraction in town.

In 1998, when Seidler’s mother and uncle sold the Dodgers, he decided he wanted to stay in baseball but in the minor leagues, where an owner could more easily make a difference because of the smaller, more intimate scale. Using $2 million, part of the $300 million or so his family received for the Dodgers, he helped put together a partnership of siblings and cousins and bought the Stockton Ports, in the California League.

He soon began squabbling with Stockton over construction of a new stadium.

Disillusioned by the tussle, Seidler considered moving the team, but instead the league approved a swap. In 2001, the owner of the Oaks in Visalia took over the Ports in Stockton. Seidler, who became the new owner of the Oaks, later changed the team name to the Rawhide.

He fell in love with Visalia, a town nestled near Sequoia National Park, and with its baseball fans, who had supported teams since 1879. The town organized its first minor league squad — the Pirates of the San Joaquin Valley League — in 1910, and over the years Visalia clubs produced dozens of major league stars, including the late Minnesota Twins great Kirby Puckett.

By the time Seidler arrived, though, professional baseball in Visalia was dying.

“People weren’t feeling good about the team,” says Carol Cairns, a former assistant city manager. “And it started with the ballpark. The place was pretty much a disaster.”

Recreation Park was among the smallest stadiums in the minor leagues, accommodating only 1,500 people. The diamond was pockmarked, the outfield wall rickety. Metal bleachers radiated heat during the searing summer days, and there was little shade.

For a while it looked as if Seidler’s troubles in Stockton would repeat themselves in Visalia. He asked the city to improve the ball field, but officials were wary because past owners — among them a Japanese corporation that ran the team in absentia — had produced little goodwill.

Seidler realized he had to demonstrate he wasn’t an out-of-towner who would treat the Rawhide as a personal plaything. Single and childless, he moved from Hermosa Beach and immersed himself in Visalia life and the operation of his team.

He fit in well. Seidler is friendly, laid-back, quiet and abidingly modest. He dresses in khakis and polo shirts, drives an old SUV and lives in an unremarkable three-bedroom house.

“He’s a guy who could choose to live anywhere in the world,” says Mayor Bob Link, “and yet here he is in Visalia. He buys a house, makes himself part of the community, joins the Rotary Club, the Convention Bureau, charities, and gets to know what seems like everyone in the whole town. That helped the city feel comfortable about its investment.”

In 2006, the city agreed to spend $11.5 million to remodel Recreation Park. In return, Seidler agreed not to move the team. He signed a pledge to give some of his revenues to the community.

Today’s Recreation Park is an alluring monument to minor league baseball. It’s still small, seating only 2,600. But its stands, dugouts, locker rooms, bathrooms and concessions have all been remodeled. Lining right field is a stately brick building that houses new team offices, a new sports bar and new seating. At the building’s base is a berm where fans watch games while picnicking on the grass.

The Rawhide has top players just out of college, first-round draft picks plucked straight from high school and veterans in their mid-20s. Despite long odds, all hope to make it to the major leagues. Although some received signing bonuses approaching $1 million, most got a fraction of that. Each player makes about $1,500 a month, barely enough to pay for rent and groceries.

Together, they play a scrappy, entertaining brand of baseball.

For fans, the games are an experience far removed from big-city sports. There’s little traffic around the stadium and parking is free. Seats behind home plate, which would run around $500 at a Dodgers game, cost $10. Kids in Little League uniforms, brought by moms and dads, make up much of the crowd. The chief of security has time to help his wife run a snow cone stand.

Seidler often spends entire games among the fans, talking about their children, handing out tickets and making sure that the lighting near the concessions is bright enough and the beer is cold.

The personal touch pays off. Last year, he says, the Rawhide took in a record $1.25 million and attendance hit 108,000, roughly double the revenue and audience before Recreation Park was remodeled.

“It’s true, I could probably be a lot of other places right now — Manhattan, L.A., of course — and be doing something else,” Seidler says. “But this is where my heart is… I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

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On this Friday night, the Rawhide wins on a sharp single in the ninth inning. Fireworks light the sky, and the fans rise, stomping, whooping, screaming and singing. Seidler stands near an exit as they file out.

“Tom! Great job, Tom. Thanks,” one man says.

“Tom,” says another, “you’ve gotta stay. We don’t want to see you buying back the Dodgers now.”

Along comes Burtlow, and she’s happy now.

“Tom Seidler,” she says, “I’ll tell you one thing: We win more games like this one and, hey, maybe for good luck I need to yell at you more often!”

Walter O’Malley’s grandson smiles. The warm night was perfect for baseball.

kurt.streeter@latimes.com


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