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Five o'clock is quitting time for most people in the Northern California town of Salinas. But for Joe Buzas, the work is just beginning. Out at Municipal Stadium, where the Salinas Spurs play, he's getting ready for a baseball game. He checks the soda machines at the concession stands, makes sure the beer kegs are tapped and the counters wiped. He dumps a few dozen hot dogs into a steamer, and then walks out to the stands to watch infield practice. Ten minutes later, he ducks into a dingy office and sits behind a desk.
Buzas takes out a pencil eraser and begins scrubbing marks off old baseballs. "I can make these clean enough to use in the game tonight," he says. "It's also my therapy. I'm nervous today. We've lost 12 in a row." The phone rings often. Callers want to know what time the game starts, how much tickets cost, what day Max Patkin, the clown prince of baseball, is coming to town. "Don't wait for Max Patkin," Buzas barks into the phone. "Get down here tonight." Two young boys step in and hand him several baseballs they have retrieved from the parking lot. He gives each boy a few dollars. "These balls were hit out during batting practice," he says. "See, they're all in pretty good shape."
When fans begin arriving, Buzas moves to the front gate to take tickets. He greets many people by their first names. Even those he doesn't know, he welcomes enthusiastically. "Good to see you," he says. "Glad you could make it."
A line forms at a concession stand, and Buzas hops behind the counter to pour a few Cokes. He sees a young boy talking to the souvenir salesman. "Hey, kid, you want to work tonight?" he asks. The boy points to himself and asks, "Me?"
Buzas says, "Yes, you." In minutes the new worker is passing out peanuts. "I recruit people from the stands all the time," Buzas says. "Once, we were so busy I had an umpire take tickets."
Buzas is 71 years old, and he has been taking tickets and pouring Cokes in smalltown stadiums nearly half his life. He owns minor league baseball teams. In fact, he has owned more of them—12 in 17 cities—and has been at it longer, 34 years, than anyone in the game today.
His first team was the Allentown (Pa.) Red Sox of the Double A Eastern League. Buzas acquired the Red Sox in 1956, and though he has moved the team seven times, most recently in 1983 to New Britain, Conn., he still has the franchise, and it's still affiliated with Boston. Buzas also controls the Class A Spurs, an independent California League franchise; and the Portland (Ore.) Beavers, the Minnesota Twins' Triple A team in the Pacific Coast League. In the past, he has owned ball clubs from Sumter, S.C., to Oneonta, N.Y., to Knoxville, Tenn. For two seasons, 1973 and '74, he held a Red Sox affiliate at three levels of the minor leagues, and he has owned two clubs in the same league at the same time. He says there was no conflict of interest because the league agreed to the setup. Some 700 major leaguers have played on his teams, including Roger Clemens, Mark Davis and Ryne Sandberg.
But Buzas doesn't just collect baseball teams. He has made millions with them over the years. He is a common-sense businessman who found profits in the minors long before high-rolling speculators began pushing the value of franchises sky-high. "People laugh at me for cleaning baseballs, but at three dollars a ball, I've saved a lot of money," he says. Buzas is always thinking of ways to save money. He used to bag leftover popcorn and haul it in his car to the stadium where another of his teams played. "Some of the stories sound silly," says Gerry Berthiaume, general manager of the New Britain Red Sox and a Buzas employee for nine years. "But people know that if you have worked for Joe, then you have learned from the best operator in the game."
Buzas spends most of the Salinas game collecting money from the concession stands. He never sees more than an inning or two. When the game ends, he is back in the office, counting the piles of dollar bills spread on the top of his desk. He's disappointed. The Spurs have lost their 13th in a row, the team batting average is still under .200 and only 393 fans attended tonight's game. Friends stop by on their way out to say goodbye and give encouragement.
Coaches and players filter in. When Buzas sees Corey Paul, a young outfielder who had two hits, he hollers, "You had better keep it up or I'll fire you." Paul suddenly looks anxious. "Don't worry, kid," Buzas says with a big smile. "You're doing fine." A pitcher comes by and Buzas chides him about the batter who fouled off nearly a dozen fast-balls that night before finally striking out on a curve. "All those foul balls cost me money," he says. "Throw the curve sooner and get it over with."