Baseball Men - The Independent

Our interview series, "Baseball Men", continues with an in-depth chat with Mickey Herbert, owner of the Atlantic League's Bridgeport Bluefish.

The thing about baseball, it's a game for the grass roots.

 

Baseball is for every age and every body, which is why it's played at family reunions, company picnics, and pickup games from coast to coast. Everyone's played it, and knows about the way that the game becomes a part of lived life through daily, year-round news stories, broadcasts, ballgame outings, shared conversations. Becoming a baseball fan means having your favorite game as a part of normal, everyday life.

 

Even the business of baseball is tied to the local community in ways no other sport can touch. After all, the National Pastime doesn't follow the hollow charade that has teenage football and basketball players as ‘student-athletes' in some removed NCAA factory somewhere, where future point guards and nose tackles are supposedly studying away on the finer points of geology or astrophysics.

 

Instead, grass-roots baseball is about the small businesses of Minor League ball, a network of more than 200 local franchises bringing the pro game to medium-sized and small towns in more than 40 states. In the new millennium, as ever, professional ballgames are relatively close at hand for almost all Americans, and in every region of the country.

 

And, quietly, that Minor League network is thriving as never before. The numbers are astounding - more than 41 million fans are expected to attend development league ball games in 2005, shattering an all-time record and more than doubling the Minors' attendance from just 20 years ago. More than 100 new ball parks have come on the scene, with the number of franchises, on all levels, nearly doubling over the last 30 years. No wonder club revenues (most AAA teams are now worth $10 million or more) have grown exponentially since 1990.

 

How have the Minors achieved so many major successes? Most analysts attribute the new baseball boom to the generation of hands-on owners and executives who came on to the scene in the last 15 years or so, the kind who found new ways to draw those new crowds and revenues by implementing innovative new promotions and marketing and community outreach. It is local businessmen who've made grass-roots baseball work. Local businessmen like Mickey Herbert.

 

Before Herbert first invested in the fledgling Atlantic League in 1997, he was best known as a fast-pitch softball standout and the founder/CEO of Physicians Health Services, Inc., a Shelton, CT-based pioneer among early HMO's. When the company was sold in 1998, Herbert re-invested his multi-million dollar returns to take a majority stake in the Bridgeport Bluefish franchise, where he's served as Team President ever since. Highlights of the 60 year-old's tenure included a then-record for independent league attendance in 1998 and an Atlantic League championship in 1999.

 

Herbert's Atlantic League hasn't suffered for its lack of official affiliation the Majors;  quite the opposite. As a matter of fact, the 2005 season has seen unprecedented success-    the eight-team league managed to top two million in attendance for the first time ever. At the same time, Herbert's own ball club stake hasn't fared quite as well. With the organization's finances in the red of late, the owner recently decided to put his still-popular Bluefish up for sale, conditional on the new buyers keeping the team in their Harbor Yard home.

 

Mickey Herbert, like most anyone who's stuck around baseball for any length of time, has had his ups and downs in the game. When he took the time to meet me in his Bridgeport office on September 7th, he reflected on life as a baseball independent and owning a piece of the Pastime.

 

 

How did you first get interested in baseball?

 

My Father was a big, bruising athlete - bigger than I am, about 250 pounds. He was sort of in the mold of Babe Ruth. He wanted to be a pro baseball player himself, but Dad was 18 when Pearl Harbor was bombed and he was the first guy on the block to volunteer for the Navy. By the time he got back home, he was really too old to get back on track as far as his playing career.

 

Still, though, my father raised me to play professional baseball someday; we had sliding pits in the backyard; he taught me how to switch hit. I played all the time.

 

Did you ever think of yourself as a future pro?

 

When I was finishing up high school I had a couple of offers to play, one from the Pittsburgh Pirates and one from the old Washington Senators. I also had an offer to go to a good academic school, Swarthmore College, on an academic scholarship. It was a hard choice, but I decided to become the first member of my family to go to college. Between college and, then, business school, however, I was really too old to think about getting started as a Minor League pro.

 

I ended up getting involved in the health care industry, but I did do my best to stay active by playing fast-pitch softball for many years. Actually, I originally came to Connecticut in order to join the defending fast-pitch softball champions. I've always loved the game on the field - I played competitive ball until I was 43.

 

Well, you eventually made it back to the pro game through team ownership. How did that come about?

 

I ran my health care company, ultimately, for 22 years. After the company went public and I had some money for the first time in my life, that was about the time when I was approached to join the ownership for the Bridgeport ball club. This was in 1996, when the Atlantic League was first starting out. We launched in 1998 and, by 1999, I was so taken by the team's on-field success and attendance that I decided to buy out my partners to gain majority control.

 

The Bluefish, like other members of the Atlantic League, is an independent, non-affiliated team. How would describe your relationship to the Major League establishment?

 

Bridgeport happens to be in the territory of the Mets and Yankees, so they've always had the right to veto any Major League-affiliated team. We're outside that official structure.

 

Most of the affiliated team guys, on the record, will say that they're not supporters of independent baseball. We're still seen as competition, taking away from their business. In private, though, they'll often admit that we're, in effect, a free Minor League system for them. They love having a situation where they can buy out the contract of promising players at minimal cost.

 

How would you compare independent league rosters to those of affiliated teams?

 

The affiliated teams tend to have prospects trying to get to the Major Leagues for the first time. Maybe they're 22, 23-years old. They might have the next Ken Griffey, Jr. on a team, but they also have plenty of non-prospects filling out the lineups. The average age in our league is much higher. Most of our players are veterans - more than half have played in the Major Leagues - and we tend to bring them back for two or more years.

 

How would you compare the quality of competition?

 

Many of our ball players get picked up and go directly into Double-A or Triple-A ball. I think we'd beat most Double-A teams most of the time, if only because we have more seasoned veterans.

 

Most fans hardly notice the difference. It's tempting to forget how highly qualified and seasoned players can be in the game even if they're not, and may never be, Major Leaguers - there are only about 5,000 professional baseball athletes in the world, out of millions of wannabes. Our players can still throw a ball 90 miles per hour and hit a ball 400 feet. Only the truest aficionado can tell the difference in the quality of play over the course of any one game.

 

Why do you attract more veterans?

 

Because we can showcase them to all 30 Major League organizations. Minor Leaguers who are toiling away for teams affiliated with Major League Baseball are owned by the parent ballclub lock, stock, and barrel, so if someone happens to be playing behind a star like Manny Ramirez, that's just their tough luck. In independent ball, on the other hand, good players might look for options among all teams.

 

Why do so many ball players hang on for so long? I mean, looking at the Bluefish, you've got some guys who are playing past the age of 30, guys who have already played thousands of games without sticking in the Majors.

 

Yeah. We can't pay them a whole lot of money, although we do pick up things like workers comp. Basically, they're just looking for an opportunity to come back. It's love of the game and chasing a dream.

 

A lot of them are what we call ‘ball rats'. When our season is over, they just move on and play somewhere else, whether that be in the Caribbean, South America, Australia. I used to be amazed by their dedication, but then again, maybe not. I routinely played over 100 games a year of fast-pitch softball, for over 20 years, and no one ever paid me a dime!

 

Has the team provided a foundation for many Major League comebacks?

 

Oh, many. Jose Offerman played with us before he hooked up with the Twins and then the Mets. Duffy Dyer managed for us for a couple of years, then became an advance scout for the Mets. Willie Upshaw was here as the manager before Duffy and he ended up with a job in the San Francisco Giants' organization.

 

We've certainly have had our share of Major League comebacks, but there are even more stories. All kinds of them. Many of the interns who basically run this place during the season have already gone on to successful careers, and we're proud of that. Even our game-day staff - they have incredibly low turnover. They come back year after year, even though we can't pay them a whole lot of money, and I'd like to think it's because they find a great atmosphere here, one that they simply enjoy.

 

When you mention a great atmosphere, what do you mean?

 

The fans are mostly coming here to have a good time, so they don't care that much if most of the ballplayers aren't quite Major League quality. They care what we do in the whole context of the three-hour ball game - the on-field skits, the music, the traveling mascots, the fireworks; all the fun things to be found in a Minor League baseball park. I'd argue that Minor League ball is all about first-rate, affordable family entertainment.

 

My wife has never been a big baseball fan. I remember, when we had our first game here in '98, she asked which team had the most points. (laughs) But she's always enjoyed herself at the ballpark, because it's such a fun environment.

 

Well, how would you compare the fan experience to that in a Major League ball park?

 

If you're a father and your kid wants to go to a professional baseball game, frankly, I think they have a better time here. [Children] may be in awe of the bigger ball park, the bigger crowd, Derek Jeter, and the rest, but when they're here, the kids can run the bases before the game, they can get autographs. It's so much more accessible and intimate. More fun, in two words.

 

We don't market against the Yankees or the Mets. We've always seen ourselves as an extraordinary alternative. We say to families, ‘Go to a Yankee game. Go to a Met game. And come back here ten times for the same money'. And that's what happens. I mean, you aren't going to get a $1.50 hot dog or a $6 box seat in any Major League ballpark that I know of, but you can find them every day here at Harbor Yard.

 

That's one thing that amazes me about your crowds - how many families in the stands. I guess you didn't get the memo about kids being turned off to the game nowadays.

 

(laughs). Well, we're very interested in cultivating and nurturing interest in the game of baseball. We get so many kids in three-day training camps, with their ‘Bluefish in Training' shirts, learning basis skills and a love of the game. They're taught by professional athletes, most of whom, as I've said, have been in the Major Leagues.

 

If we weren't around, and this goes for independent and all Minor League teams, that's when youth interest in baseball would be in trouble. We pay our players a little extra to do that, so we think it works all the way around.

 

The Majors have all the free media in the world. How do you promote the team?

 

The problem is that we can't really describe what that's like. We need to get people here and, as long as it's a decent night, weather-wise, we've got ‘em.

 

We have lots of organizations, such as Little League and the area's many charities, that act as a kind of unofficial sales staff for the team; we comp them half the price of the sold tickets. It's been marvelous. Basically, what we've done is galvanize these organizations to become part of the team. We're proud to contribute well over $100,000 per year, every year to the charities.

 

It shows our community involvement, but we're also not stupid - it gets new people in the ballpark. It's entrepreneurship.

 

You know, that's a word I often come across in descriptions about the game on this level - ‘entrepreneurship'.

 

If you want to survive more than a year or so, you really have to display an entrepreneurial spirit in Minor League baseball. I know that's the case with this team. Everything we do hear is geared toward ‘getting more fannies in the seats', as George Steinbrenner used to say. If we do that, it can drive everything else in the business.

 

You mentioned autographs before. Is that a part of the fan outreach effort, too?

 

Sure. We require our players, on a rotating basis, to sit in folding chairs in front of the dugout before ballgames. They might sign balls for half an hour or more, for all comers. I'm not even sure why we require that, because, invariably, the ball players line up along the stands after a game, just to sign voluntarily.

 

Is it difficult to get players to go along with the effort?

 

Players call it ‘Major League-ing', when someone acts aloof to all that. No, I don't think it's hard to get fan-friendly players, because even their peers encourage them to reach out to the fans.

 

You know what? Even great ball players, when they're in the system, get it. One example comes to mind - Rickey Henderson, a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. He came into the league with a reputation for being an aloof professional. And yet, when he played in our league, for Newark, he was absolutely terrific, he signed autographs, got along great with his teammates. When Jose Offerman was here, he was great. Same with Mariano Duncan. I could name 30, 40 familiar Major League names with the same kind of experience.

 

I can't talk to a Minor League owner without talking about ‘Bull Durham'. How would you compare the movie to your real life experiences?

 

Well that Kevin Costner character [Crash Davis] was sort of symbolic of that quintessential independent league ball player, an older guy who spent just a little time in the Majors. I can't tell you how many guys in our league are just like that. We have a guy named Will Pennyfeather who played 40 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates a decade ago, but he did make it up. We currently have an ace pitcher, Pat Ahearne, who had a brief stint with the Tigers [a 1-3 record in 1995].

 

From what I remember in the movie, though, they had a kind of an old, run-down ball park. The big change now is that the ballparks are so superior. The amenities, for the players and the fans, have improved. For instance, we have sky boxes, kids' areas, picnic areas. The concourse is marvelously designed, in that you can stand at the concession stand and turn around to see the ballfield without any barriers to the view. We have a cross-walk at the lower level that's even closer to the action. From what I've heard throughout the Minors, most of the new ballparks are more fan-friendly.

 

Your ball park, Harbor Yard, was publicly financed for the most part. What would you say to critics of that kind of government spending?

 

All of our league's ballparks, like many others in the Minors, have been publicly financed. Whether it's a good investment or not, you can guess which side of the debate I'm on. I think it's an outstanding investment.

 

It's hard to offer hard statistical proof, but I absolutely believe that the ballpark's attendance helped spark the city's current renaissance in business and housing. It's brought hope and a positive attitude to Bridgeport.

 

Well, that was something unique about your situation in particular. Bridgeport has long had a negative reputation for all sorts of economic problems, a lot of them relating to a bad crime situation.

 

One of the first things I worried about was getting people to come into the city. I got over that in a hurry. There's never been a security incident in the ballpark or even near the ballpark.

 

You're right; it is a unique situation in Bridgeport, socially. Many city residents are at or below the poverty line, but we're also surrounded by one of the wealthiest counties in America. The funny thing is, it makes no difference in the ball park. I'm in amazement sometimes, at the sight of people from all economic means, all kinds of backgrounds, coming together. A working class guy might be right next to a CEO. Take a look at our concourse - it's become a kind of community meeting place, where all kinds of people just show up to socialize.

 

Has the business side met your goals?

 

Unfortunately, no.

 

It's been a very difficult financial challenge, with some losses in every year. This team has always been on the edge of profitability, and I think it'll make a lot more money if just a few things start to happen, such as more capitalization, more promotion, and the sale of ballpark naming rights. Unfortunately, it hasn't happened yet.

 

Well, considering that disappointment, along with your positive experiences as a Minor League owner - do you love the game more, love it less, or do you have mixed feelings?

 

Oh, more. No question. The financial thing hasn't been as successful as I've wanted, but I have no regrets. None.

 

For instance, I'll tell you - I have two boys, 11 and 12, who have grown up to become rabid fans. They come with me for every single game and they know as much as anyone. Those have been special times for us, and it happened because of this team and this place. I wouldn't trade those times for anything in the world.

 

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