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The value of minor league teams has been greatly enhanced by the law of supply and demand. As prices soar, new owners must work to get a decent return on their investments. "I've seen the books, and these teams aren't cash cows," says Ron Barton, a consultant with Laventhol & Horwath, the Tampa-based consultants on sports-and-convention facilities. "They may pay only a 10 percent return, and there's plenty of risk, too."
No one seems more fit for the game than Holtzman. Trim, athletic and youthful, he talks like a ballplayer (using expletives liberally) and walks like a ballplayer (pigeon-toed) and, in fact, is a ballplayer. He still plays softball in the Chicago Bar Association League, and two years ago joined the Men's Senior Hardball League, which limits its membership to players 35 and over. "I got into trouble in softball because I took out a guy standing on second and he landed on his head. The umpire said I was playing too aggressively," he says. He prefers hardball "because it's serious. They insist you wear the complete uniform."
Like many successful businesspeople, Holtzman is compulsive about organization. "I've always been that way," he says. "When I was a kid, I organized my days with lists that began, Brush your teeth." He can be open and generous with those he trusts, but like many wealthy people, he is wary of the motives of others. "I probably stopped trusting people about 20 years ago," he says.
Holtzman has been obsessed with baseball since his childhood in Chicago. "My life seems to have always revolved around the game," he says. He grew up in a middle-class household in the shadow of Wrigley Field, where he often went after school when the gates were thrown open for the last couple of innings. After games, young Holtzman would run through the stadium flipping up the wooden seats for the cleaning crew, earning a ticket to the next Saturday's game. Oddly enough, he never became a Cub fan. Instead, his loyalty belonged to the White Sox. He idolized Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox. He still has a Fox foul ball that he caught in 1960. It is displayed with about 400 others in his collection of autographed baseballs. "Here's a 1931 Yankees," he says, picking up an old ball encased in plastic. "Look, Tony Lazzeri, Bill Dickey, Babe Ruth, Red Ruffing, Lou Gehrig...." He buys them at auctions, once paying $1,200 for a ball autographed by the 1927 Yankees.
Regardless of whether his love of baseball's lore and legend is the cause or the result, Holtzman's life is steeped in the past. Because his business has been rehabilitating old buildings, he delights in cruising his city's streets in his Porsche Targa, pointing out examples of Chicago's rich architectural history.
Four years ago, when he decided to diversify into baseball, Holtzman weighed the investment in the same cold, methodical way he would have for a piece of prime property. "I studied it for six months and talked to a lot of people," he recalls. "I was frightened that if it didn't work out and I lost money, I'd come to hate the one thing I've loved all my life."
For Holtzman, taking risks—financial and physical—is nothing new. In August 1968, fresh out of Chicago's Lane Technical High School, he joined the Army, and by Christmas he was in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne. It is with great reluctance that Holtzman will talk about his experiences in that war. For 18 months he was "almost continually in combat" as a gunner on a Huey, sometimes doing troop evacuations, during which they would draw enemy fire. His helicopter was shot down once. Under his Rolex watch is a scar where a bullet pierced his wrist; he also has scars on one shoulder.
Returning from Vietnam, in 1970, Holtzman attended the University of Illinois for about a year, dropped out, then returned to Chicago in '72. Over the next several years, working 18-hour days and seven-day weeks, he built his firm, Preservation Chicago, into the city's largest real estate management company. He was also renovating historic country inns in Vermont.
A few years ago Holtzman went to a Christmas party for his staff and was shocked to realize that the firm was so big he couldn't remember many of his employees' names. Time for a change, he thought. He scaled back the company and began investing in things that gave him "more psychic rewards." He invested with Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka in a restaurant. Then he began researching the investment opportunities in baseball.
First, he decided that while baseball may not pay as well as real estate, the business is more fun and the people in it a lot nicer. "My experience in real estate is that there's a lack of integrity and it's hard to develop personal relationships," he says. "In baseball I met people I could see the potential of being lifelong friends with." Second, he realized that many of the same strategies that had made him rich in real estate could be applied to baseball.