Ray Kuhlman, a United Airlines senior pilot, has long awaited the day when he could retire to the farm.
So on Feb. 21, the longtime Washington-area resident dipped into his savings account for $2,104 and purchased his farm in the form of the minor league Kinston (N.C.) Eagles, an expansion franchise in the Class A Carolina League.
"My head's been in baseball as long as I can remember," said Kuhlman, 59, a veteran of 20,000 hours in the friendly skies.
"I've been flying for the airline for 32 years and I'm going to retire in nine months (in May). We wanted to get out of the city, somehere where the pace was slower. We wanted to go somewhere there was good baseball, and if I could get involved in it, I wanted to. We've had an ear to the ground for some time" trying to acquire a Class A ball club.
So when the right opportunity became available, Kuhlman and his wife Ruth locked up their Vienna house of 26 years and took an apartment in Kinston. The only time Kuhlman can be found in Vienna is when his Eagles are in town to visit the Alexandria Dukes or when he is in preparation for his flights, which depart from Washington airports.
This is not the first time Kuhlman has reached into his pocket to finance a baseball team - for five years he sponsored the Vienna Mets of the Clark Griffith 19-and-under league that plays nightly during the summer in Northern Virginia. However, he never before has dealt with figures nearing the Eagles' $150,000 annual budget or with the prospect of fighting inevitable losses in Kinston, where the last minor league club failed in 1974.
"There's no way we're going to break even short of a deluge of fans for the remaining home games," said Kuhlman, whose team is averaging 515 fans per home date. "We'll be well pleased to keep the losses to the minimum so at least we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
"After I retire, I'll be receiving a retirment check that will be quite sufficient. All we have to do is make sure we don't keep losing. The only thing I can say is we haven't found anything as expensive yet, but by the same token, we're loving the hell out of it."
Kuhlman said he will decide after the season whether to continue to operate the franchise. But he said there are factors other than gate receipts that could make the Eagles aviable operation. He pointed to pitchers John Harmon and Gary Sarno, and first baseman-catcher Stan Smith as possible draftees in the major league winter free-agent draft. A first-round pick commands a $25,000 payment to the minor league team, a second-round choice $12,000, a third-round selection $4,000. The team additonally can sell the contract of any player to another club for any negotiated price.
The Eagles, like the Dukes, are an independent club with no major league affiliation, though the roster is spotted with loan players from the Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies. Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox organizations, which pay the salaries and expenses for these athletes.
Kuhlman said he preferred to maintain the Eagles as an independent operations, but financial sense made it necessary for him to listen to all offers from major league clubs.
The Eagles maintain a Washington flavor with outfielder Scott McGahan, a graduate of Madison High School in Vienna, and second baseman Al Anch, out of Broad Run High School in Sterling, Va. Another Vienna resident, Jerry Dellinger, who played for Oakton High and George Mason University, recently was cut.
Kuhlman said if he cannot make baseball go in Kinston, a growing city of 30,000, he will not try elsewhere. The team plays in the spacious Grainger Stadium (1949 vintage), paying no rent, covering only the expenses for operating the 4,740-seat facility.
"If it won't go here with the stadium we have, the facilities we have, the cooperation (from the city), I don't think I'd want to make a go of it somewhere else," Kuhlman said.
Kuhlman said he was approached by Carolina League officials about possibly joining with the present owners of the Dukes, but opted for running his own team. He added that if the present management of the Dukes had not materialized, he was prepared to bid for the franchise and move it. This was not because he felt minor league baseball would fail in Alexandria, but because he wanted to get away from the city.
"To me there is as much talent in the Carolina League as there is in the major leagues. The only difference is experience," said Kuhlman, formerly a bird dog (scout) for the New York Mets organization.