Playing Catch-up

By Michael Leahy
Sunday, October 2, 2005

One of the nice things about owning the Potomac Nationals is that you get to take batting practice whenever you want. At 65, Art Silber regularly flies in from his Florida home on Saturdays and hits baseballs at rickety little Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, the home of his minor league team, an affiliate of the fledgling Washington Nationals. When you are the owner you can be one of the show's participants; you can be a star of sorts. Silber dons a uniform and takes the field for the P'Nats on Saturday nights, when the public address announcer introduces him as the oldest first-base coach in minor league baseball. Brooklyn-born, he wears the 42 of his Dodgers childhood idol Jackie Robinson, though the number has been retired from most of baseball. He is featured on his own official baseball card, available at the stadium's souvenir gift shop as part of an $8 packet of Potomac players' cards. Kids shout for his autograph, waving that baseball card, on which his bespectacled image peers at them like Mr. Magoo.

"I'm ready. Let's go," he says, fresh from his flight, wagging a bat, striding on surgically repaired knees out of a dugout toward a batting cage erected around home plate. The team's players, stretching and lolling on the outfield grass like young lions, lift their heads and languidly look him over. They are uniformed and regal-looking in their physicality; he is 5-foot-9 and in khaki shorts, sporting a cell phone on his belt and the skinny, alligator-tanned legs of a Florida retiree.

Silber turns to the team manager, Bob Henley, a former catcher in the Montreal Expos system who's trying to make the slow improbable climb, like most of his players, up the minor league chain. "Bob, howreya? This an okay time to hit a few?"

"Sure," says Henley.

It's a steamy day in July, and Silber needs a moment to wipe sweat off his glasses. His vision is an issue: Doctors have warned him about the beginnings of cataracts in both eyes. But as a former college shortstop good enough, he says, to have attracted the interest of Kansas City Athletics scouts during the early '60s, Silber still has the instincts for hitting a baseball. Another nice thing about being the owner is that no batting practice pitcher is going to gun one by you. While the P'Nats players see such pitches coming in at about 75 to 80 mph, the balls pitched to Silber float to the plate, looking big as grapefruit.

He dribbles the first one off to the right, the next one back to the pitcher, the third just out in front of the plate.

"I'm losing bat speed and reflexes," he mutters, stepping out of the cage to allow a player in to take a few cuts. "I've hit two or three out of the park, the last time, oh, probably when I was 51 or 52."

He is a retired banker, living in the tony environs of Palm Beach Gardens, with a fortune that he describes as "being in the low eight digits." But that pleasure, he says, runs a distant second to this team, previously known as the Potomac Cannons, which he bought for $1.2 million in 1990. It is part of the eight-team Carolina League and, in its various incarnations during Silber's reign, has been affiliated with the New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and now the new Washington team, which has settled 30 miles north of Silber's operation and taken away a sizable portion of his ticket-buying fans, he says, which he is trying hard not to think about for a moment.

He gestures with his bat at the field and everything around it, staring out toward the advertising billboards that local companies and business owners have paid for on the outfield wall, where a blowup photo of a perky-looking blond real estate agent holding a well groomed dog smiles at him from right field. What would be déclassé in the majors is campy art in the minors. It's Art Silber's world. "What's more beautiful than this?" he asks, taking a practice swing. "I knew I found what I wanted to do when I got this team. When I was a banker, I sometimes had the feeling people wanted to be around me only because I controlled money. I knew I didn't want that life forever."

That life wasn't always happy. Three marriages ended on the ash heap. Then, in 1995, the worst thing happened.

"E-six," he says. Error on the shortstop. The shortstop was him, and his error was in misreading life, which, as Silber can tell you, is sometimes the seemingly routine ground ball that takes a bad hop and cracks a man in the head. He had just retired, at 55, from his position as the president and CEO of a Baltimore bank, in part because people in his family died relatively early and he wanted to enjoy life while he still had the chance. Except that Silber couldn't foresee what being idle would do to him. He awakened in panic on his very first weekday in retirement, wondering who he was if not a banker. "I felt like I had died," he recalls. He began six months of psycho-logical counseling, and took a closer look at the little baseball team that he owned. "I had left it to others, but now I really plunged into it, got involved in marketing, and that was better therapy than anything. This was my new identity."

He glances toward the outfield, where a young player, horsing around, has flung a bat upward at a fly ball, like a hunter trying to take down a passing duck. Cackles out there. Silber laughs. "Where else does a guy my age get to hang around with 21-, 22-year-old kids?" he says, beaming. "Keeps you young."

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