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Richard M. Holtzman lives in a dream. It is Opening Night, and he is standing in the infield of the ballpark he owns. He is surrounded by the team he owns, all the players dressed in new double knits. A sky diver descends; fireworks erupt; the crowd sings The Star-Spangled Banner. "Play ball!" shouts the umpire, as Holtzman strolls over to his box behind home plate. He waves graciously to the adoring fans and lights up a 10-inch black cigar.
That was no dream. It really happened, on the night of April 20 in Midland, Texas, where Holtzman owns the Double A Angels. It also happened on April 16, in Davenport, Iowa, where Holtzman owns the Class A Quad City Angels. And two days before that, it happened in Chattanooga, where he owns the Double A Lookouts. And before that, in Tucson, where he owns the Triple A Toros. And before that, in Columbia, S.C., where he owns the Class A Mets.
In less than four years, this 39-year-old Chicago real estate entrepreneur has become the largest single owner of minor league franchises.
To be sure, it's fun to be a mogul out in the bushes—but the good times don't come cheap. Holtzman has spent a cool $8 million for the five teams he owns. Until a decade ago, a buyer could pick up a minor league club for a little cash and a willingness to pay overdue bills. Bob Richmond, of Scottsdale, Ariz., who has been a broker for minor league franchises for eight years, says, "When I ran the Northwest League from 1972 to 1980, all you really needed to buy a team was a credit card and a warm body. Franchises were going for about $500."
Today, Class A teams start at about $800,000, but there are some that can set you back better than $2 million. Double A clubs fetch $2 million and up. In 1989 Holtzman paid $3.5 million for the Triple A Toros. In addition, he made a deal with the city of Tucson in which he agreed to spend still another $1.5 million to fix up Hi Corbett Field in exchange for the control of all the food and souvenir concessions.
This has paid off in something more than dreams. Holtzman has already turned around the three money losers among his acquisitions—Chattanooga, Tucson and Quad City—and has increased home attendance for all of his teams by an average of nearly 80%. All five clubs are making money, according to Holtzman, who insists that he's in the baseball business for more than sentimental indulgence.
Traditionally, minor league franchises have been run like mom-and-pop stores—keep the overhead low and pinch each penny. Holtzman was well prepared to become a minor league owner. He had made his fortune rehabilitating old buildings on Chicago's gentrified North Side, a risky enterprise in which inattention to small details can sink you. In his short time as a team owner, Holtzman has changed the business by taking more risks and spending more money than has been customary at the minor league level. He hires young, aggressive marketing people for his franchises and lures fans to games by offering quality giveaways more typical of the majors than the minors. At each of his ballparks, youngsters who join the Knothole Gang get free admission during the week when they're accompanied by a paying adult. The Famous Chicken, far and away the biggest draw in minor league baseball, visits each of Holtzman's ballparks twice a season, at an average cost of $7,000.
During games, each half inning produces another round of giveaways, birthday cake contests and the drawing of lucky numbers that are good for prizes. Corny as it seems, the fans in Chattanooga love to hear organist Charlie Timmons play Let Me Call You Sweetheart when one of the Lookouts picks a "lucky lady" out of the crowd and presents her with a corsage from a local florist.
Holtzman is just one of the new breed of minor league owners, men who have gained experience in other businesses and then applied that knowledge to the minors. Bobby Brett, 39, of the famous baseball family, has spent 15 years investing in the volatile Southern California real estate market, during which time he and his brothers acquired the Spokane Indians (short season Class A) and the Riverside ( Calif.) Red Wave (A). Craig Stein, 39, a real estate developer in Warrington, Pa., bought the Double A Reading Phillies for $1 million in 1986. Bob Rich, the 49-year-old scion of a frozen food manufacturing family in upstate New York, moved his Triple A Buffalo Bisons into a new $43 million stadium in 1988; he also owns the Double A Wichita Wranglers and the Niagara Falls Rapids (short season Class A).
Holtzman and his fellow entrepreneurs are riding the crest of renewed interest in the minor leagues. According to the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (NAPBL), the ruling 'body for the minors, more than 23 million people attended games in 1989, up nearly a million and a half from 1988 and a whopping 56% increase over the past decade.