Root, Root, Root for the Start-Up
IT was the sixth inning of a one-run game between the Chico Outlaws and the Fullerton Flyers when the commissioner of baseball, on his third or fourth beer, stepped into a darkened skybox to explain how he and his partners planned to grow very rich by employing rejects from major-league farm teams.
Several hundred fans had gathered here on a Tuesday night earlier this summer to cheer on the Outlaws, one of six teams in the recently birthed Golden Baseball League, but its commissioner, Kevin Outcalt, was distracted. A former Silicon Valley executive who secured this post two years ago after giving the league its first $1 million, Mr. Outcalt was deep into his tale of how he met two Stanford graduate students, David Kaval and Amit Patel, who dreamed up a baseball franchise that all three men describe as an "alternative entertainment platform."
On the field below, Todd Gossage, the 23-year-old son of Goose Gossage, who pitched for the New York Yankees and other teams, scratched out a base hit. The crowd cheered, but the commissioner barely noticed. The next batter was one of the Golden League's bona fide stars, Desi Wilson, a 37-year-old whose claim to fame is the 41 games he played for the San Francisco Giants in 1996. He began fouling off pitch after pitch, and that got Mr. Outcalt's attention.
"There goes $3," Mr. Outcalt said as he ruefully watched one of the foul balls sail into the stands. Wilson eventually flew out, but the next batter, a 25-year-old who had washed out of the Chicago Cubs farm system, cracked a two-run homer — and cost the league another three bucks. This time Mr. Outcalt put a more positive spin on his expenses.
Last year, he pointed out, his league had to pay $4 for each baseball it bought. "This year I was able to negotiate much more favorable terms," he said, beaming. Such small victories, he said, aid his quest "to streamline the cost factors that can otherwise make running a professional baseball league an expensive proposition."
Baseball leagues that operate independently from Major League Baseball and its extensive minor league system are not new, but Mr. Outcalt and the Golden League's other founders bring an unusual set of expectations to their two-year-old gambit: the venture capitalists and other lords of Silicon Valley who have so far poured roughly $15 million into the Golden League view their investments no differently from the ones they have in other start-ups. They expect the six-team league to expand to at least 40 teams in the coming years, or maybe even 80, and then to provide them all with a rich payout — if not through a public stock offering, then through a high-priced sale to a large entertainment conglomerate like Viacom or Disney.
Golden League investors offer a baseball philosophy that probably would have never passed the lips of a Yogi Berra or Casey Stengel, let alone more money-minded owners like Branch Rickey or Bill Veeck. Today's boys of summer have dollar signs in their eyes.
"We're not afraid to put advertising on a helmet," said James C. Peters, who became the league's chief operating officer after investing $1.5 million last year.
NOR have Mr. Peters and his colleagues shown themselves to be afraid of selling the league's very name. Technically, teams are part of the Golden Baseball League Presented by Safeway Inc., an honor secured after Safeway, the supermarket chain based in California, bought three years' worth of naming rights for $3 million.
So aggressively has the Golden League sold itself that every player in it wears a shoulder patch promoting a fish-oil product called AlphaFlex Omega5 that its manufacturer, Sierra Life Sciences of Reno, Nev., says helps to ease joint pain. The league's team in Yuma, Ariz., constructed a second, taller outfield wall behind the original just to accommodate extra advertisers.
The league is also willing to stretch when it comes to recruitment. Several days ago, it announced that the San Diego Surf Dawgs signed Jose Canseco, a 42-year-old who once ranked among the most feared hitters in Major League Baseball. He struck out three times in his Golden League debut and the Surf Dawgs traded him after that game to another California team, the Long Beach Armada. But other cheap thrills are in store. The league promises that Canseco, who pitched but one inning in the majors back in 1993, "will showcase his knuckleball" this summer.
Elsewhere in the country, local business leaders generally buy pieces of sports franchises to fulfill childhood dreams or to live life as mini-sports moguls. But the Golden League was christened in Silicon Valley, an area that in recent years has shown as great a devotion to start-ups that provide a potentially rich payoff for investors as it has to wow-inspiring new technologies.
"I put in enough where I very much expect to see a return on my investment," said Terry Garnett, a venture capitalist who wrote a $1 million check to help get the Golden League started.
Other investors in the league whistle a similar tune. "I made this investment because I think I'm going to make a lot of money on this thing," said the venture capitalist William Del Biaggio III, who has earned a tidy fortune by providing loans to technology start-ups that had fallen on hard times.
To be sure, some of the league's sponsors are in it for more than the money. Pat Sajak, the host of the TV game show "Wheel of Fortune," paid an amount he declined to disclose for a stake in the league, but he said he was motivated "more out of a love of the game" than any expectation that he would realize a handsome return.
"Although I make a good living, it's not like I can buy the L.A. Dodgers anytime soon, so this seemed a nice way to get involved," Mr. Sajak said by telephone.
THE modern independent baseball era began in 1993 with the resurrection of the long-defunct Northern League, which now fields teams in Fargo, N.D., Schaumburg, Ill., and elsewhere. That league's founder, Miles Wolff Jr., years ago owned the Durham Bulls, the team made famous by the movie "Bull Durham," and his résumé includes a stint as a general manager for a Class AA minor league team.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Was browsing the internet and found this New York Times article about the GBL as it was playing just its second season of baseball. One of those fun articles look back at and see how things were and where things are going...