In his first minor league venture Holtz-man paid $1 million in 1987 to buy the Midland Angels, the Double A affiliate of the California Angels. Midland was already a strong franchise. It was well managed and attendance was high, so it became a lab in which Holtzman could study the business. A few months later he was ready for a new challenge; he bought three more clubs during the winter of 1987-88: the Quad City Angels, an affiliate of the California club; the Lookouts, an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds; and the Columbia Mets, an affiliate of the New York Mets. Quad City and Chattanooga provided plenty of challenge to the new baseball executive. Both franchises were losing money; both had ramshackle stadiums verging on collapse; and Quad City was in an area down on its luck.
When Holtzman went into these towns, he was like Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man, peddling virtue. In River City, Iowa, Professor Hill persuades the townspeople to form a band so that their kids will play musical instruments (which he sells, of course) and stay out of pool halls. Similarly, Holtzman sells baseball to Middle America with the promise that the game will bind families together, raise community spirit and provide a lot of good, clean entertainment.
To this message Holtzman adds a bit of financial reality that he calls Baseball 101: "Baseball can bring millions of dollars into your community. I'll do my share and run the franchise right. You have to do your share and spend money on this facility." In Davenport, Holtzman found that the city elders were eager pupils. Once a hub of farm-equipment manufacturing, the Quad Cities ( Moline and Rock Island, in Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf, in Iowa) hit the skids when International Harvester, Caterpillar and John Deere all closed plants there. Now Davenport is trying to parlay its Mississippi River location into a tourist attraction. John O'Donnell Stadium, named after a revered sports editor of the Davenport Democrat, delighted the preservationist in Holtzman. It was built back in 1931 for $185,000; in 1988, at Holtzman's behest, Davenport spent $3.5 million renovating the stadium, with an eye to luring a Triple A team. "The expansion of major league baseball was foremost in our minds," says Davenport's director of parks and recreation, Wayne Boyer. "We wanted to offer a Triple A-quality stadium."
But the principles of Baseball 101 aren't always persuasive. In Chattanooga, Holtzman found the city unresponsive after he sprang his estimate for renovating the city's dilapidated 59-year-old Engel Stadium: $2.5 million to $3 million. Though the stadium could never be called an architectural gem, it holds a significant slice of baseball history. It is named after the Lookouts' celebrated general manager of the 1930s, Joe Engel, who was known locally as the Barnum of Baseball. His promotions are legendary. Once, during the Depression, he gave away a house at a game and drew 24,000 fans. Walter Johnson, Frankie Frisch and Rogers Hornsby played for the Lookouts. Harmon Killebrew is the only player to have hit a home run over Engel Stadium's centerfield fence, which, at 471 feet, is perhaps farther from home plate than any other in baseball.
Faced with the recalcitrant politicians, Holtzman decided to look into the possibility of moving the team, which had played in Chattanooga for 125 years. "First, I spent a month reading everything I could find about baseball franchises that had moved—from the St. Louis Browns' moving to Baltimore, to the Dodgers' going to L.A.," he says. Then he met with the mayor of Mobile, Ala., who was eager to welcome the Lookouts. Next he sidestepped county and city officials and disclosed his plans to Chattanooga's aggressive press corps. "That really ticked off the politicians," recalls Holtzman. "Wherever they went, somebody said, 'I think you ought to renovate Engel Stadium.' "
In the end the city came up with $2 million for the renovation. ("I got an Olds-mobile, not a Cadillac," Holtzman says.) In turn, Holtzman promised to keep the Lookouts in Chattanooga for at least 10 years.
For Holtzman and the other minor league owners, the most frustrating thing about their investments is the plantation-owner mentality of their major league affiliates. Holtzman especially blames former major league baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth for fostering this attitude. During Ueberroth's tenure, for example, major league teams began charging anyone who sold equipment with their logos—including their own affiliates—a $1,000 licensing fee.
The relationship between the majors and minors is described in the densely worded Player Development Contract, signed by Major League Baseball and the NAPBL. A six-page document, the contract spells out everything that a major league team must supply to a minor league affiliate, from salaries for the manager and players to the number of baseballs, bats and sanitary socks. The PDC expires this year, and Holtzman thinks it's high time it was rewritten so that the majors shared their wealth.
On his own, Holtzman has won a few perks from his affiliates. Owners of minor league teams have nothing to say about players, managers or coaches—they have to make do with what the major league affiliates send them, but as Holtzman sees it, you can always ask. He has asked for better players from the Houston Astros for his Tucson team. So far his tactic is working: The Toros have more talent, and for the past two years the Astros have played an exhibition game in Tucson.
Holtzman would like to see all his affiliates play exhibitions at his stadiums. He has read about those barnstorming baseball days of yore when teams crisscrossed the South and West on their way home from spring training, and he wants them back. Says Holtzman, "Look, I don't think teams have to play in one of those concrete doughnuts for fans to enjoy a game. I'd like to see the Reds, instead of flying directly from Plant City, [ Fla.] to Cincinnati, take the train and play five or six exhibition games along the way at minor league parks."