I bought a baseball team the other day, though you probably have never heard of it. Until two months ago, I hadn't either. In fact, it isn't even exactly a professional team, rather something they call a "semipro club" that plays in a college-age league in Central California. I should also say I haven't actually bought this team yet, but I've signed the paperwork and soon the check will be in the mail.
Nor do I own the whole team, rather just a piece. But it is a piece just the same and I trust it entitles me to full membership privileges such as a seat in the owner's box -- if there was one. Or an exclusive parking spot next to the stadium -- if there was a stadium.
Instead it seems that my team, the Santa Maria Indians, have a spartan existence. Its home park is called "Elks Field," which I trust is the result of a civic investment and not a literal interpretation. Looking at the photos provided on my team's website www.santamariaindians.com the answer is not clear. Elks Field doesn't seem to have a lot in the way of amenities like, say, a Camden Yards or even a bowling alley. The field looks a lot like RFK after a rain delay -- in other words, a lot of dirt piled up in places where it shouldn't be -- but then again this was all I could afford.
Plus I see from the schedule that the Santa Maria Indians have a big road trip coming up with games at the Salinas Packers, the Firestone Range, Ventura Royals and the Fresno Bruins, which should give everyone plenty of time to get the field ready for the Oxnard Dawgs.
Anyway, Elks Field is already something of a national landmark. Apparently it sits just yards away from the courthouse in Santa Maria where the Michael Jackson trial just concluded. Imagine how the Indians must have felt as they reported to their home park and saw it surrounded by television trucks with helicopters circling the sky. Imagine, too, the marketing possibilities.
And our CEO is a marketing genius. Kevin Haughian is a modern day Bill Veeck, so good at selling baseball that he could probably put a team in Baghdad and fill the park every night. He's already placed a sleepy Southern California town hard by Interstate 15 called Lake Elsinore on the baseball map with a beautiful minor league baseball stadium near the lake's edge. He became legendary at Lake Elsinore for such gimmicks as having a pot belly pig bring the balls to the home plate umpire or handing down an attendance challenge to the nearby San Diego Padres one Tuesday night. The big league team won, but not by much. Haughian managed to get 12,000 people to come see a low minor league game in the California League.
Haughian's brilliance is in his ideas. A few years ago, as baseball headed toward a mid-season strike, he held a canned food drive to support the soon-to-be-jobless big leaguers. And in the season after John Rocker spewed his racist comments to Sports Illustrated, Haughian -- then the owner of the Butte, Mont. team -- noticed that the next town over from Butte was called Rocker. This was too delicious an opportunity to pass up.
Hence, "Rocker Awareness Night" in which fans could get into the game for free if they were from Rocker, were a member of a protected class offended by Rocker, a redneck or "just plain stupid." The surprising part was how many people walked up that night and said "I'm stupid."
It turns out Haughian is a big deal in the world of minor league baseball. He is a former legislative assistant to a California state assemblyman and according to the Indians website, he has been nominated three times for the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues Larry McPhail Promotional Trophy. I'm not sure what the Larry McPhail Promotional Trophy is, but the website says it's "prestigious" so I figure it must be important. He was also named Executive of the Year in the California Leauge.
Currently he also owns Colorado's Class A team in Casper, Wyo., a team he considered naming the Ghosts or the Weinbergers. And for that reason alone I am delighted to be in business with him.
Plus, I trust he's going to do wonders with the Santa Maria Indians. The Indians, you see, were something of a power in California baseball. And many of the college players who didn't spend their summers playing in Alaska or Cape Cod came to Santa Maria. The alumni list is long and includes Ozzie Smith, Bryn Smith and Robin Ventura. The club had fallen on hard times after its longtime coach and general manager Scoop Nunes passed away in 2003.
If anyone can turn around the Santa Maria Indians and make Elks Field seem more like Safeco Field it's the man who nearly outdrew the San Diego Padres with a Class A team.
For now my team is in a state of flux. It's only 14-12 and judging by the pictures on the website, it wears garish all-red uniforms that look something like what the Arizona Cardinals are wearing these days. Perhaps this is to help hunters distinguish the ballplayers from the elk.
Maybe this doesn't sound like much, but it's one more baseball team than Jeff Smulyan has and I didn't have to suck up to Jerry Reinsdorf to get it.