Familyball

Dave Kaval is starting a pro baseball league from scratch. No steroids, no $8 beers, no superstars. Lots of enthusiasm.

Three years ago, while still a Stanford University business student, Dave Kaval attended a Single-A baseball game in suburban Eastlake, Ohio. Watching the Lake County Captains play ball on the outskirts of Cleveland, Kaval enjoyed the complete minor-league experience. He bought a ticket for five bucks. He sat so close to the field that he could hear the players cracking open sunflower seeds. In between innings he was entertained by “mattress runs,” “dizzy bat races,” and a fuzzy mascot named Skipper. He loved every minute of it.

As a baseball fan, Kaval had dreamed of owning his own baseball team. And as an entrepreneur, he thought he had the skills to make it happen. So he started studying how to bring a minor-league team to the suburbs of the East Bay. His thoughts quickly turned to Pleasanton. It was a lot like Eastlake — loaded with families, and just outside the hub of a thriving Major League Baseball metropolis. Then Kaval learned that Major League Baseball had already sliced up the map and placed Pleasanton within the “halo” of the Oakland Athletics. In other words, if he wanted to field a minor-league club, he was obligated to become an affiliate of the A’s.

“That sounded crazy to me,” Kaval said. “That was like saying I couldn’t open a movie theater here because UA, or whoever, owned the rights.”

His other option was to start a team anyway, but to join an independent league not affiliated with Major League Baseball. The problem there was that independent leagues had historically created more paupers than corporate titans. And many of those paupers were concentrated in the West, where the conventional wisdom on independent baseball is that it just doesn’t work.

The criticism goes like this: California is already infested with Major League teams (five) and affiliated minor-league teams (thirteen). Plus, the cities are just too far away from one another in the western United States; gas for chartering buses can swallow a team’s whole expense budget. And then there’s the quality of the play. The rap on independent baseball is that it sucks. The players are described as a sad assortment of has-been and never-were minor leaguers. In short, aging plumbers who moonlight throwing 40-mile-per-hour fastballs.

If all that weren’t enough to convince Kaval that independent baseball was a sucker’s game, in 2002 the eight-team Western Baseball League collapsed after struggling for eight years and — woosh! — wasting a reported $7 million.

Did the 29-year-old Kaval balk? No. Instead, he drew up a business plan with Stanford classmate Amit Patel and named it: “The Diamond Project: Bringing Independent Baseball Back to California.” They proposed a novel means of controlling costs: A single-entity ownership. Unlike the ill-fated owners of the Western Baseball League, they would own every baseball, every team, and every player’s contract.

Their product would be the Ultimate Minor League Experience — all hot dogs and apple pie, hold the steroids, thank you very much. During his time in Ohio, Kaval had noticed that a trip to the ballpark amounted to a cultural outing for suburban families. Cheaper than the movies, less violent than a video game, and healthier than an evening in front of the tube, a ball game offered three solid hours of entertainment — especially between the innings. He wanted patrons of the Golden Baseball League to know that each time they walked into a game with their family they were in for some good clean fun.

Ideally, the teams of the Golden Baseball League would play in cities with no fewer than 65,000 residents, no matter whether these cities were in the “halo” of a Major League team. Although the old-school theory held that Major League competition was bad for an independent team, Kaval figured that a nearby Major League club might actually help attract fans turned off by $8 garlic fries and multi-million-dollar egos.

From a marketing perspective, the partners decided, the Golden Baseball League would revere families and the suburbs in which they live. In fact, the teams would attempt to give these suburbs a sense of identity.

“There are thirty to forty markets in California alone that fit this bill,” Kaval said, pointing out of his Pleasanton office window. “You go to these communities, and sometimes, what’s the sense of community? What does it mean to be a person who lives in Livermore or Pleasanton?”

He let the question hang in the air for consideration. Then he answered it himself.

“A minor-league team can bring a lot of focus and sense of civic pride to a community like this,” he said. “Too many people come home, see what’s on the dish, the kids are on the X-Box, and they don’t know who lives next to them. We think people out here are starving for this kind of entertainment.”

Kaval will find out whether he’s right on May 26 when Wheel of Fortune host and angel investor Pat Sajak throws out the league’s opening pitch from a mound in Surprise, Arizona. In his crusade to reinvent independent baseball, he is betting that his fans, to some degree, are less concerned with the world-class competition on the field than with the fuzzy mascot atop the dugout. He’s betting that just as Barry Bonds has announced that he’s tired of all of us, families may be equally tired of the likes of him. Kaval believes they’re ready for Familyball.

Falcons and Jets

In late March, Kaval sat behind his desk dressed in a loose blazer and slacks. Three things were written on his dry erase board: falcons, jets, Japan. He was just 56 days away from opening day and, even though it wasn’t apparent from his cheery demeanor, he had a major problem. He had only seven teams. A planned team in Tijuana had fallen through, and he needed an eighth one to round out the competition. So far he’d signed up players in Chico, Fullerton, Long Beach, and San Diego, and in the Arizona cities of Mesa, Yuma, and Surprise. To find his final club he was prepared to go to Japan, of all places, and bring one back. But first, falcons.

For opening day in Surprise, home of the Fightin’ Falcons, Kaval envisioned a team of real falcons soaring above the outfield during the singing of the national anthem. Just when the song climaxed, Kaval saw a pair of jet fighters, hired from the local Air Force base, screaming overhead. Afterward, he saw the falcons swirling above the pitcher’s mound, then gently descending to their keeper’s gauntleted arm, just as he’d seen at the Olympics.

“You gotta give the people an experience they won’t forget!” Kaval yelled from across his desk. Kaval’s voice, especially when talking about baseball, can reach a shout that exposes his enthusiasm. Earlier, he’d dialed the Phoenix Zoo and learned that its only available falcon was injured — “On the D.L.,” he joked. The spokesperson suggested that Kaval try the Arizona Falconers’ Association.

“Who knew there was such a thing!” he yelled again. He called the Falconers’ Association and learned that while it had falcons for rent, none had stadium experience. What if the birds freak out?

“Maybe they’ll get spooked when the jets fly overhead,” he mused, lowering his voice. “I don’t want them to do that. So,” he added, cranking the volume, “we’ve got to go out there beforehand and practice! Give it a test run!”

It may be the only part of his league that he and his investors get a chance to test out.

Kaval’s single-owner model was born from a plan conceived in his “Evaluating Entrepreneurial Opportunities” class at Stanford. After his in-class presentation, he landed a $1 million investor and ultimately rounded up a total of $5 million from Sajak and other investors. But outside the room, he picked up a dugout full of naysayers.

“It’ll be tough to run a single entity over the long run,” warns Dan Moushon, vice president of the independent Central Baseball League in Texas and Louisiana.

Moushon should know. His eight-team league started off with a single owner in 1993 after two oilmen roused up investors and plotted teams along the backcountry towns. But only two of the six teams were profitable, he says, until a wealthy Chicago businessman named Horn Chen purchased it three years ago and started selling off teams on a franchise model. Now, six of the eight teams are independently owned.

“Once one team starts falling, it starts dragging everything down,” Moushon says. “Read between the lines. We’re not a single entity anymore for a reason.”

Nor is that the only time a single-owner league has changed its pinstripes. In 1996, Major League Soccer used centralized ownership as a way to keep deep-pocketed owners from dominating the league by outspending their peers. But four years ago, the league began selling teams to pay off principal investors. It is still struggling to profit in all of its markets, according to reports, and has survived thanks largely to billionaire Phillip Anshutz’ agreement to step in and purchase three of the league’s Midwestern teams. In 2001, the Women’s United Soccer Association also adopted this model, going so far as to make original players investors. Financially wobbly for its first two seasons, the league tried to lure new investors by franchising teams; instead, the league folded last year.

Nonetheless, Kaval sees the formula as a cure for the ills of independent leagues. When he studied the reasons why independents caved in, he found time and again that it only took one bad owner to jeopardize the chain. In the Western League, the beloved Chico Heat, for instance, were housed in a sparkling stadium and drew 103,000 rabid fans annually, while the Yuba-Sutter Gold Sox, owned by a guy whose dedication the other owners viewed with suspicion, played on a trashed infield, spent little on promotion, and averaged only 900 bodies a game, sort of like the former Montreal Expos.

In short, richer teams like the Heat were forced to cover the losses of the spoilers, just as the majors covered the Expos — but without the deep coffers. In another case, a Western League owner vetoed a deal to purchase baseballs in bulk because he’d already negotiated a better deal locally. Once rumors of collapse circled the league, impatient owners were anxious to pull out while they still could sell a scoreboard.

All of this was happening even while minor-league baseball’s popularity soared. In the past fifteen years, attendance at minor-league games nationwide has increased 29 percent, compared to a paltry three percent increase for Major League parks during the same period. In 2004, according to the industry publication Minor League Sports News, 40 million people attended a minor-league park — the most since 1949. The two main reasons: Urban sprawl and better prices.

A 2003 report from Minor League Baseball showed that a family of four could get through a game for $43; a major league family spent no less than $140. In central California, a half-dozen new stadiums have been built since 1990; across the country, there have been 101 in all. In Stockton, home to Oakland A’s affiliate the Ports, the franchise is just christening a $22 million stadium this season.

“Families can afford us, period,” said Steve Densa, assistant director of media relations for Minor League Baseball. “We also offer something more than just a field and a seat. We’ve got places where a family can barbecue, kids can play on the swings, or in some cases, play in the swimming pool, which is what a lot of Major League parks offer now.”

Kaval’s customers are certainly out there. But will they return once the falcons and jets pass over?

“I think their approach has some merit,” said Dan Hickling, a contributor to Minor League Sports News. “The notion that you can cluster minor-league, family-friendly baseball around big-league markets can be a valid one, but they don’t have much room for error. If three or more of their teams flounder, that will doom their effort, so they really have to minimize their mistakes.”

Plumbers and Rivalries

Mistakes were certainly abundant last month on a ballfield in Long Beach, where the Golden League held tryouts for local players. Kaval and the league had already hosted a round of tryouts in the winter, but the CEO had since stumbled upon another idea: Hire local players to help bond with the community.

“What’s better than going to the ballpark and rooting for someone you actually know?” Kaval asked. “It’s your brother or your friend or the guy who lives next door. It’s someone you know.”

That’s not to say that Kaval would hire homers at the risk of on-field quality. He’s acutely aware that fans have little interest in watching a pack of old men nubbing grounders back to the mound five nights a week. He describes the need for on-field drama in his business plan thusly: “Talent procurement is an important component of the [Golden League’s] business strategy. While fans primarily attend independent baseball games because they are great family entertainment, the quality of play on the field is still very important. No matter how many contests a team has or how much fun the mascot has with the crowd, if the players are not good it will be hard to attract fans to the games.”

In Long Beach, the coaches paid some attention to a 24-year-old catcher who was drafted by the Chicago Cubs three years ago. Chris Miller played a year in A-Ball for the Cubs and another two years in the Padres’ system until they released him after last season, effectively ending his Big League dreams. Since then, he’s been working on his real estate license and finishing school at UC Irvine.

“I’d love it if this turned into something where I got noticed by a major-league scout out here,” Miller said. “But I keep my dreams realistic. I still have fun playing ball and want to play, but yeah, you know, this is the only place I’ve got the opportunity to show people what I can do. So this is it.”

Miller had heard about the Golden League tryout through some buddies who still play minor-league ball. The word was out that the Golden League was going to be a clean one. Players would get tested not only for steroids, but every illegal drug, including pot.

“I’ve got nothing to hide,” Miller said. “I like it. It makes it fair for those of us who care about our bodies and don’t take steroids.”

In the wake of the BALCO scandal, Kaval and his league commissioner Kevin Outcalt figured clean players equaled a clean game. Then they took it a step further: Kaval didn’t want his players showing up on the police blotter, either. So they adopted a “zero-tolerance” drug policy, where players get expelled from the league for testing positive for any illegal drug. Kaval’s league will be the first American pro baseball league, affiliated or not, to adopt the World Anti-Doping Agency testing code used in the Olympics.

“Even if it means a few less home runs, we’re a family entertainment thing,” Kaval said. “Family entertainment and illegal drugs just don’t go together. At the Major League level maybe they have other incentives; they can do whatever they want. For us, we want to have a clean league, one that fits with family entertainment and the values that we’re promoting in the communities.”

It’s a risky proposition. The dig on independent ball has long been that the competition is already underpowered. To make sure the teams field competitive players, Kaval has hired as managers retired Major Leaguers such as Terry Kennedy, Gary Templeton, and Darrell Evans. But Kaval believes that independent players will actually have a greater incentive to play well than players working for the farm team of a Major League club. They’re trying to attract attention and not merely to develop their skills. On the Stockton Ports’ A-Ball team, a future prospect might start at third base because Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane has taken a shine to him, not because he’s the best player at that moment.

“I’m certainly playing to win,” Miller said. “I’m also playing to get noticed.”

Miller made the team. So did his fraternal twin, Kevin, an outfielder who played in college and one year of independent ball. As children, the twins also played together on the 1992 and 1993 Long Beach Little League World Series Champion teams, a quaint detail that appears in the team’s post-tryout press release.

Other players who make up the Long Beach Armada: a 280-pound first baseman who spent seven years with the Reds in Single-A ball; a 35-year-old lefty who pitched two years for the Twins and Devil Rays in the bigs; and a right-handed pitcher from Boca Raton, Florida who spent a year in the Italian Pro League.

Kaval has a lot riding on the perfor- mance of players such as these. If they don’t rise up to provide spirited competition and create heated rivalries among teams, it’ll put too much pressure on Zippy the mascot to do backflips during the seventh inning. “Obviously, it makes economic sense to us if we have rivalries,” Kaval said. “We want rivalries. We’ve already got some natural crosstown rivals in Mesa and Yuma, and Long Beach and Fullerton are college rivalries out there. So we think we’ve got some already.”

Surf Dawgs and Chickens

Last fall Kaval and Patel inked a $1 million sponsorship deal with Safeway and its sister grocery Vons — a brilliant move to help finance their league, according to Tim Marting, director of business development for American Sports Entertainment, the group that owns the Central League in Texas and Louisiana.

The grocery stores’ outlets match the footprint of the Golden League’s charter cities. That means the league can, for instance, place cardboard cut-outs of Nugget, the league’s golden retriever mascot, in the check-out line of a Vons to promote the Long Beach Armada’s weekend series.

“People who shop there are the same people who’ll go to our games,” Kaval said. “This isn’t people going to Sharper Image. It’s working people.”

The relationship already has paid off. In San Diego, the league hosted a name-the-team contest, plopping displays in stores where kids filled out entry slips. Kaval said they got back 5,000 entries from the region. A six-year-old won $500 for posting the winning entry: The Surf Dawgs.

“They’ve set this up the right way,” said Marting, who helped oversee the restructuring of the Central League after it abandoned single-entity ownership. “They are way out in front. They’ve got a good business plan to make it happen and they’ve made the connections, connections they didn’t start off with in the Central League. Now, it’s a matter of if they can execute their business plan.”

Another part of the plan is connecting with the community through charity. The league’s new Golden Foundation will be set up in cities to fund literacy and drug-awareness programs. Next season, the league also plans to start a youth sports program in each charter city. The key ingredient in bringing in a team is to find a “local champion” who will help Kaval and his partners push the cause.

In Pleasanton, the selected champion is Mayor Jennifer Hosterman. When Kaval first approached the city council two years ago, he hoped her city would be the league’s centrally located flagship. The council warmed to the idea of minor-league baseball, but the follow-up question chilled the reception: where to play? In other cities, Kaval has leased out existing stadiums, but in Pleasanton, he asked for a new park. Something grand, on the scale of 10,000 seats.

“It certainly hasn’t been a question of what’s been holding it up,” Hosterman said. “It’s a question of, where will we put it? The traffic concerns are a big issue, so we’re looking at a few sites. … But wouldn’t it be great if we had a baseball team? We’re talking about a park with grassy berms where families could bring a picnic basket, toss out a blanket and watch a game. It’d be wonderful.”

Hosterman politely disagrees with Kaval’s suggestion that Pleasanton needs a team to boost its sense of identity. “I’d argue Pleasanton doesn’t fall into that category,” the mayor said. “It would just be another wonderful thing about Pleasanton: a place to watch the game.”

Yet Kaval wants to give his charter cities more than just a place to watch a game. “What we are doing has a social good as well, which is providing a sense of civic pride, along with the national pastime, which I think is a great product,” Kaval said in his conference room one day.

Everything about his league has been infused with this same sort of Ken Burns- ian reverence. The league’s tagline, “We Love Baseball!,” is vintage Kaval captured in ad copy, but it is also the sentiment of millions of enthralled fans. The league’s Web site, up and running for a year now, posts weekly polls meant to incite baseball-nerd debate — even though a single pitch has yet to be thrown. “What two teams will be the league’s most heated rivals?” Forty percent picked the Mesa Miners vs. the Yuma Scorpions.

Kaval said he has been accused of being such a cornball for the sport that he’s just in it for the mascots. And he admits that a life spent rooting for the major-league Indians often forced him to find entertainment in places other than on the field. “Growing up in Cleveland, I’ve always just had a we’ll-get-’em next year attitude,” Kaval said. “For me, it’s always been about the experience at the game, the people that you meet when you’re there, hanging out with your family or friends, more than it is the baseball.”

And mascots will play a crucial role in the league as liaisons to the community markets. The individual team logos, from the Surf Dawgs to the Fightin’ Falcons, are perfectly playful in the minor-league sense — cuddly but strong. Nugget, the league’s floppy-tongued six-foot-tall golden retriever mascot, is already penciled in for 200 to 225 dates this year. Nugget, along with each team’s individual mascot, will visit library reading rooms, cancer wards, Fourth of July parades, and, coming soon, grocery stores.

“I don’t know why I like them so much,” Kaval said of mascots. “Maybe it just evokes what’s unique and great about the game. You see a kid go up and get a hug from a mascot and that’s what it’s all about.”

And after Kaval returned from a recent trip to San Diego, he mentioned that he’d lunched with Ted Giannoulas. Ted Giannoulas?

“THE SAN DIEGO CHICKEN!” Kaval yelled.

Kaval had sought out Giannoulas to work some dates for the San Diego team. The team would play in the newly-minted 5,000-seat Tony Gwynn Stadium, located in North San Diego County — the ‘burbs Kaval so coveted. Former Padre Terry Kennedy would manage, but Kaval wanted one more famous name from San Diego baseball.

It turned out that the man behind the mascot, at age fifty, was taking a sabbatical. He told Kaval he’d worked 225 dates at minor-league ballparks last season. It was time to roost. But Kaval impressed him.

“I tell you what, that kid brings a lot of energy to baseball that I haven’t seen in thirty years,” Giannoulas said. “The way he sees what minor-league baseball is, what it means to the community? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that kind of heart put into baseball.

“Here’s why I give it up for Dave,” Giannoulas added. “He’s a baseball fan in his heart who happens to be living out his dream.”

Passion and Bestsellers

Dave Kaval grew up a sports nut in a family of sports nuts. As a kid, he worshipped the oft-losing Cleveland Indians; he still keeps laminated baseball cards of Andre Thornton and Toby Harrah on his office desk, not far from his Nugget bobblehead. The Kaval family’s obsession with sports wasn’t atypical in the Cleveland suburbs.

The summer after he graduated college in 1998, Kaval and his best friend, Brad Null, drew up the ultimate fan’s road trip: A visit to all thirty major-league ball parks in 38 days, with stops at Cooperstown and Iowa’s Field of Dreams, where they’d spend the night sleeping in the cornfields.

Kaval, showing an early gift for drumming up enthusiasm, called team reps along the route to let them know of their plans. When an L.A. Dodgers exec offered comp tickets, Kaval leveraged the information and called the rival Giants — scoring more free tickets and catching some good press. The goodwill snowballed, and helped underwrite most of the trip. That same summer, as baseball folklorists will recall until the end of time, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire’s home-run chase rekindled the national pastime’s romance with its fans. Kaval and Null used the storyline as the peg to their road-trip memoir, The Summer That Saved Baseball.

Along the way, Kaval and Null were photographed in parking lots and outfield seats holding up a sign that counted down the parks they’d visited. In stats boxes, they listed the raw numbers as any good baseball geek might do: “Total Miles Traveled: 1,600 by air, 14,847 by car. … Number of hot dogs/beers/Jaeger shots Dave and I consumed apiece: 49/23/18.”

Six months after the book was published, Kaval was at home on the couch when he saw the first MasterCard commercial. Two twentysomethings named “Nate” and “Rick” set out to visit thirty ballparks by Volkswagen bus while they keep tabs on expenses: “Road maps: $11. Opening Day tickets: $18. One stadium down, 29 to go? Priceless.”

Kaval fired off a cease and desist letter even though he was no attorney and didn’t have one. According to Kaval, he got a MasterCard exec on the line and negotiated a deal. He’d back off if the credit card company bought 100,000 copies of the book. The company could hand them out at ballparks as rewards for new card sign-ups, he suggested. Kaval said the company agreed until it got sued by two guys in Minnesota who alleged that they’d been the inspiration for the ads.

“And that,” Kaval said wryly, “was the closest we got to The New York Times bestseller list.”

Null, who lives in the Bay Area, is still impressed by Kaval’s passion.

“I’ve never met anyone more enthusiastic than Dave, period,” Null said. “You would think he would have settled down by now, with his second baby on the way and all, but he hasn’t. He just keeps going.”

History and Small Ball

Kaval returned from Japan with characteristic exuberance. “It was one of the most memorable experiences,” he yelled, “not just in business, but in my life!”

He said twenty media guys followed his entourage for three days during tryouts, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m, up until he made his grand announcement: The Golden Baseball League had put together a touring Japanese team named the Japan Samurai Bears. They’d travel the season’s entire ninety games and would be managed by Warren Cromartie, a former Westerner who had played for the Yomiuri Giants. They’d even have their own staff of interpreters.

“This is an historic moment for baseball in Japan and the United States,” Kaval said in his comments to the Japanese press. “The Samurai Bears will provide an unparalleled cultural exchange between two countries that love the great game of baseball.”

The original Diamond Project business plan Kaval had drafted three years ago made no mention of the Japan Samurai Bears. They weren’t based in a 65,000-plus exurb, and their traveling expenses weren’t accounted for. How could the Japan Samurai Bears build a sense of civic pride in Mesa?

Kaval wasn’t worried.

It was a spontaneous move, guided by a voice that told him, Wouldn’t be cool if we…! The league was supposed to be only six teams by this time, according to the business plan, but now they had eight, spread across two states, coming from two continents. Japanese investors had contacted them, Kaval said.

“And when you get an opportunity, you gotta pounce!”

This was the first time in the history of the game that a team from another country — outside Canada, that is — had fielded a team in a U.S. pro league. The Japanese players, billed by Kaval as a fleet-footed outfit of Ichiro Suzukis, played “small ball” — bunting, stealing, running. Exciting stuff, in other words, and the kind of game that baseball purists turned off by the game’s current bash-’em-farther strategy might enjoy.

Since Kaval returned from Asia he’d also gotten word on the falcons for opening day. The Arizona Falconers’ Association couldn’t help him, so Kaval contacted Jim Fowler, the old guy best known for his appearances on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Fowler put him in a touch with a guy in Georgia who had experience flying an eagle into Yankee Stadium; the guy had a falcon, too.

“And he said the falcon CAN DO IT!” Kaval blurted.

The F-14s are also confirmed. Pat Sajak will throw out the first pitch, and Kaval, still looking to cover all the bases, has rented an American flag the size of a football field to unfurl before the national anthem.

As he listed the details, Kaval’s voice neared his enthusiasm level. He sounded like a kid screaming from the centerfield bleachers.

“It’s gonna be an extravaganza!”

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