It started innocently enough, I swear. My editor was in the dugout of San Diego State University's Tony Gwynn Stadium photographing a baseball game between the San Diego Surf Dawgs and Long Beach Armada, and I needed to get down there to make it seem as though I was doing work. An intern pointed me through two large doors, then abandoned me once I was about three steps inside-immediately after which I realized I was in the Surf Dawgs locker room, a place I was told not to go while the game was in play. Yet as I was the only one there, scurrying through seemed like the most logical option.
Nearly to the dugout steps at the end of the locker room, I heard a shower and-like an idiot-turned. It takes a moment to set in really, the fact that I am face to face, within spitting distance, of the all-time Major League Baseball leader in stolen bases, bases on balls and runs scored. It takes another moment to process my situation-facing Rickey Henderson stark naked, lathered in Lever 2000, showering after being ejected from an independent league baseball game. From what I recall, a respectful "'sup" was exchanged-both of us looking like deer in headlights-after which I promptly took my exit. Such was my introduction to low-level pro baseball, the San Diego Surf Dawgs and the important life lesson that one must never listen to interns.
Few activities are as poetic as baseball-every facet of the game is a literary cliché. Hemingway uses baseball as a reference point connecting American readers to the Cuban protagonist, Santiago, in The Old Man and the Sea; political columnist George Will sullies the game by injecting its aspects in his weekly ramblings; and Michael Lewis turned a group of unremarkable and unknown Oakland Athletics role players and front-office eggheads into cult heroes in his recent best-seller, Moneyball. California's Three Strikes judicial policy and George W. Bush's bank account-padded from his ownership of the Texas Rangers-both attest to the role of baseball in modern political life. Autumn in suburban America means both back-to-school shopping and little league tryouts. While most fans associate with the nearest Major League club, few have a professional team close enough to frequent regularly, forcing them to travel long distances and pay more than $150 for a family of four to attend a big-league game. The month-old Golden Baseball League-and its San Diego Surf Dawgs franchise-hope to change that.
Amid news of obscene contracts for the game's best players, we tend to forget how many guys are playing professional baseball as a full-time job across the country for meager pay and no glory. The players of the Golden Baseball league make about $1,000 per month, and few even have a shot at playing ball for farm teams affiliated with Major League clubs. Most are young, and having gone undrafted by Major League teams, are hoping for a second look by scouts. Others were highly touted draft picks, receiving national headlines a few years ago only to watch a torn tendon or previously undiagnosed injury cause them to fade back under the dimmer lights of the Golden Baseball League. And one in particular has taken a long, 46-year journey to arrive in the Surf Dawgs clubhouse, perhaps the last one in which he dons a uniform as a player before certain induction into baseball's Hall of Fame.
Baseball is the only sport that has a true minor-league system-a place where newly drafted players can develop prior to being thrown into the Promised Land known as "The Show." Unlike basketball and football-which essentially use colleges and foreign professional leagues as their farm systems-each Major League team runs its own hierarchy of franchises through which players from rookie, single-A, double-A and triple-A leagues reach the majors. While keeping these teams profitable is important, they do not act as a revenue source for their Major League parents and leagues independent of this system crop up with some frequency. Some thrive, such as the Atlantic League (home to the storied Newark Bears) and Northern League. Others-such as the recent and short-lived California-based Western League-do not. The Golden Baseball League and its eight teams, based in California and western Arizona, is aiming to not only become a profitable entity, but also to eventually expand beyond its current geographical borders.
Unlike its less successful predecessors, the Golden Baseball League has two founders with Stanford Business School connections, and a savvy-not to mention wealthy-set of investors.
The Golden Baseball League began as a class project for Dave Kaval and Amit Patel at Stanford. Their assignment in the course, Evaluating Entrepreneurial Opportunities, was to design a business plan and present it to a panel of wealthy, successful Silicon Valley venture capitalists. Investors Terry Garnett, formerly of Oracle; Tim Draper, responsible for the rise of AOL and Hotmail; and even Pat Sajack-were the first to sign on to the new league. "The huge thing for us was the Stanford network," said Patel. "Terry was the first one to commit. Terry was on the panel, came out to the parking lot afterwards and said if we were really serious he was interested.... Two weeks later at his firm we got it hammered out."
After raising the initial funds for the organization, Kaval and Patel went about finding former Major League scouts, players and managers for each team. Unlike the defunct Western Baseball League, teams in the GBL are run by a single entity. The strategy limits risk-with all the teams owned by the league, a single under-performing franchise will not force the league to move out of the market, as the profitable teams will offset the loss.
Patel and Kaval signed their largest contract, a three-year, $3-million deal with Safeway and Vons, even before the affiliate cities were announced. Such commitment bodes well for the league, considering it receives a third of its revenue from corporate sponsors. "We're fortunate a lot of our biggest partners signed multi-year deals," Patel said. "We thought it would take $3 million to make the upfront investments to hit profitability. We didn't want to be short sighted-if a market came out of the gate slow-[and] have to pull back our development effort. We're really looking at building the fan base long-term, making deep roots in the community."
After finishing his undergraduate work at Stanford, Kaval traveled to all 30 Major League parks in 38 days, eventually writing a book about the experience. The philosophy that resulted, according to Patel, is baseball as not just an American pastime, but inherently tied to the civic life of Americans.
"There's such a strong connection between the game and people-you go to any town and there's a built-in fan base," he said. "This is definitely the next hottest thing in sports. We're looking to bring more events to the ballpark. We want to make it the way it was 100 years ago, where the ballpark is the village green. Like the movies, every night there's something going on at a Golden League ballpark."
The business model does not put the GBL in competition with Major League teams, or even their minor-league affiliates. The California League-a single-A league with teams in cities such as Modesto, Bakersfield and Lancaster-is limited to 12 teams by a contract with Major League Baseball, so it doesn't pose direct competition to the GBL. Rather, the concept of creating a brand that offers affordable, nightly entertainment to families is the goal.
Explains Patel, "If you want to go to Petco [Park] and buy a hot dog, soda, tickets and parking, it's $160. You'll take the kids there once a season. But at the minor leagues with $5 tickets, you can come out a few times a week.... Our competition is the movie theater, goofy golf and video games, whatever people do for daily entertainment."
A month into the season, the model is proving successful even by the most optimistic standards. To reach profitability, the league needs to average 1,800 fans per game-a goal they set to reach within three years. The GBL uses ballparks in Arizona that Major League teams use for spring training yet are empty during the summer, as well as college ballparks such as Tony Gwynn Stadium at San Diego State and ballparks in Fullerton, Long Beach and Chico. A Japanese team-the Samurai-consisting exclusively of Japanese players, also is a member of the league. It does not have a home park, and travels between each of the other stadiums.
"We knew there had been a huge shift in the baseball landscape in Japan," Patel said. "They used to have 300 teams in the mid '90s and now each major-league team has one [minor-league] team. The companies used to fund the corporate teams, industrial leagues. Most companies owned a team. They're at the peak of showing they're the best players in the world, but with little access to develop."
Already averaging 1,500 tickets sold per game, the league looks forward to increased attendance as kids are out of school and the weather starts to heat up. A Stanford professor told Kaval and Patel their project would not work, because, "sports is a hobby, not a business." With the backing of wealthy and committed investors and the benefits of a Stanford Business School education and connections, they are looking to prove him wrong.
Most players on the San Diego Surf Dawgs have yet to experience professional affiliated baseball, and only two have played above single-A. Their manager, Terry Kennedy, brings insight into the world most players dream about-thanks to a relatively long career in the majors. Throughout a 14-year career as a catcher with the St. Louis Cardinals, Padres, Baltimore Orioles and San Francisco Giants, Kennedy was selected to four all-star teams and played in two World Series.
"I was fortunate enough that I got to experience baseball for that long. I'm more in awe of it every year I'm away from it," Kennedy said, noting that there have been only 7,000 non-pitching ballplayers in the 130-year history of the Major Leagues. "It's a million-to-one for a little leaguer to play Major League Baseball.
"I played with and against some of the best players of our age-Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, Lou Brock," he said.
Kennedy has been immersed in baseball his entire life. His father Bob was involved with professional baseball for more than 50 years-16 years as a player (along with four seasons missed during World War II), as a manager of the Chicago Cubs in the 1960s, as well as scouting and developing young players for numerous organizations. After taking a year off following his retirement, the younger Kennedy became involved in the development aspects of the game.
"I thought I'd play for 15 years and then go away," he said. "After taking one year off, I realized there were a lot of managers and coaches who did a lot of shit for me and I learned a lot and have a lot to offer, and I'd better give something back."
Unlike the affiliated leagues for which Kennedy scouted and coached since his playing days ended, the Golden Baseball League gives him the opportunity to run all baseball-related operations. "This is a whole adventure, this single-entity thing," he said. "To be able to scout, sign, pick my own players, be the GM, farm director, scouting director, manager of an organization. The goal is to get players back to affiliated ball, if they were there, or get them there for the first time."
Given full control, Kennedy not only can take responsibility for the wins and losses, but he also has the opportunity to allow players to develop at the pace he deems appropriate.
"I've been wanting to say this for a long time," he said, pausing for a moment before continuing. "When you're a major leaguer, and you know about the pressure [of playing big-league baseball], and you come back to the minor leagues as a manager and know what's good for the player, as far as how you treat them, it's [frustrating] when your boss is a guy who's never strapped on a jock strap, getting mad at you for doing or not doing [something] on the field.... All I ask is be on time, hustle and know where to be on defense. That doesn't take talent. The talent is hitting it and throwing it and catching it. If they're not good enough, I'm not going to berate them."
All of the players in the league make nearly the same paltry salary, allowing Kennedy to develop the players he believes have the best chance of making it to the next level. In affiliated ball, Kennedy was forced by scouts and executives to give highly paid early draft picks the most opportunities to succeed. On the Surf Dawgs, Kennedy explains, he has no obligation to "listen to some guy telling me to play a $3-million slug who was a high draft pick."
Such is the trade-off Kennedy believes will lead to better baseball played in the Golden Baseball League than in the California, or other single-A leagues. And he can take on experiments that may not show immediate results, such as turning a former pitcher who was first-round draft pick into an outfielder.
Rickey Henderson made his Major League debut on June 24, 1979, for the Oakland Athletics-five presidents and three Iraq wars ago. Since he last appeared in a Major League game-September 2003-J.Lo has been thrice engaged. His baseball salaries total more than $40 million, and he is considered the greatest leadoff hitter in the history of the game, stealing more bases, drawing more bases on balls, hitting more leadoff homeruns and scoring more runs than anyone in history.
Now 46 years old, he's playing for the Surf Dawgs.
During his first plate appearance in the first game I attended, Henderson got into an argument with an umpire, as a few hundred people looked on, about a new rule he was not informed of-stepping out of the batters box after a called strike-and was promptly thrown out of the game. After leaving the game and following that rather awkward incident with me in the locker room, Henderson went into the stands to sit with some fans and sign autographs for the rest of the game.
Such is now the life of one of baseball's brightest stars, a man who played for two championship teams, won an MVP award and, for four seasons, was a premier player on baseball's biggest stage, playing centerfield for the New York Yankees.
Sitting in the dugout before the game the day after being ejected, Henderson said he still wants to play Major League ball. "I played 25 years in the big leagues, stayed away from injuries and still can come out here and play the game," he said. "But when you ain't getting an opportunity, a challenge, you get frustrated. My challenge is working hard and getting back to the big leagues."
Henderson played the last two seasons for the Newark Bears of the Atlantic League, a more established and older independent league on the East Coast. Now closer to home, Henderson offers advice and coaching to his young teammates while attempting to finish his career with a Major League club.
"I tell the kids, "You may not be getting any hits; you get down on yourself, but so what? If you keep frustrating yourself, the game gets hard,'" he said. "I remember in New York City, first year I killed, [but] the next year I came in there and I'm swinging and swinging and I'm two for 43. Next day I go to the ballpark I'm laughing and talking, reporters are asking why I'm not coming in early for extra hitting-"You're acting like you're 20 for 40.' I come in every day telling myself I'm going to get hits, [but] it didn't work. What did I do different? I stayed happy. I tell the kids, "Stay happy.'"
For now, Henderson can't do much more to prove himself in the Golden Baseball League. Getting on base at a rate better than 50 percent, he is one of the league's standout players. His positive attitude-a change from reports of aloofness and arrogance during his career-is corresponding to brisk ticket sales and positive press for the Surf Dawgs.
Henderson believes he'll make it back to the big leagues, even at his age. "I'll quit anytime... if I can't play," he said. "I'm not here to just hang around.
"I'll play this year out," he added. "If I don't get picked up, I'll probably call it quits after this.... I might be one of those managers one of these days, get myself a team. Maybe I can be a first-base coach in the big leagues."
Matthew Wheatland graduated from Rancho Bernardo High School in 2000 and, by all accounts, was one of the best pitching prospects the area had ever seen. The Major League Baseball draft has 50 rounds, and more than 1,500 players are selected-Wheatland went eighth.
Drafted by the Detroit Tigers, Wheatland had won nine games and lost none for Rancho Bernardo High School, allowing an average of only slightly more than two runs per game. The hard throwing pitcher's future was bright-until four months into the season in single-A. Wheatland was forced to have four surgeries on his pitching arm, amounting to-in manager Kennedy's assessment-its "full reconstruction."
Wheatland returned a year later to pitch in the Tigers' farm system, eventually drifting to an affiliate of the Houston Astros and finally out of baseball altogether. Very athletic and a solid hitter in high school, Wheatland now has a future with the Surf Dawgs as an outfielder.
"Matthew is making the move to be a position player," Kennedy said. "He has a really good swing and is a really strong guy. He is really talented, a very talented athlete, and he's still young, so it's not a stretch. We can give him the venue to sign somewhere."
The mental and physical strains of baseball are often underestimated. For those who view the large contracts of major leaguers as outrageous, plenty of examples exist on the opposite end of the spectrum. Nick Guerra is one of the Surf Dawgs' two catchers, a former high school and college standout from Chula Vista who attended San Jose State University. Despite the long bus rides and pressures of playing every day, baseball is not Guerra's day job. By day, he does construction.
"I like to keep busy," said Guerra. Add to that a pregnant fiancée, and his positive attitude can only be described as inspiring. "It's going to get easier-the baseball's going to get better, but so am I. I won't have to work six hours before, then come home and take care of my lady. She's eight months pregnant; we have one car between us. It's all a test; it all builds character."
The test has been harder for Guerra than most. A starting pitcher at San Jose State, Guerra injured his arm prior to declaring for the draft. "I haven't played a season for a good two years," he said. "I had Tommy John surgery, repairing the ligament in my elbow, after my junior season. It was a long process coming back.
"The same week I lost my arm, I lost one of my best buddies, so it was a trying time for me," he said. "I forgot about everything, feeling sorry for myself."
The self-pity did not last long. Recovering from such an injury can take six months, yet Guerra came back to play again within a year. First playing in adult leagues and later in Mexico-resulting in regular weekend jobs in the high-level Ensenada leagues, Guerra made his way back to professional baseball.
Guerra is grateful to San Jose State coach Brian Kohndrow for helping him get back into playing professionally. Kohndrow "promised me he'd get me back in professional ball if I got healthy again," Guerra said. "He was really on me to make sure I got healthy, and once I was able to throw, he kept the promise."
Kohndrow ensured Guerra a spot at Kennedy's tryout in Fullerton prior to the season, and Guerra took it from there, winning a spot on the Surf Dawgs' roster. In contrast to the entitlement many early draft choices feel when they begin their professional careers, the adversity Guerra faced during the past three years helped him develop as a player and a man.
"Baseball," he said, "has given me a conscience. It's made me want to be in at night and have a good meal that day. It's taught me how to deal with adversity-I've had it all taken from me and didn't have an easy road even to be here. It's taught me to be grateful, to enjoy each day, each at-bat to the fullest."