They're a minor league team. In last place. Playing a sport that may be the national pastime somewhere, but not here, in an arena where the empty seats outnumber the occupied ones about 9,000 to 2,000.
Things are looking so bad for the Baltimore Skipjacks ice hockey team on this dreary night that one fan was moved to say to the stocky, gray-haired, team-jersey-clad spectator in the stands, "You got a jersey, why don't you put some skates on?"
If he could, he would. Tom Ebright, the Skipjacks' owner, is not your typical professional sports team owner sitting far removed in his sky box.
He's been known, for example, to put on the tiger costume of the team's mascot and roam the Baltimore Arena to hear what fans are saying. He's let a goalie -- called up to the majors for one night for a game in New Jersey -- sleep over at his house in Greenwich, Conn., then personally drove him back to Baltimore to rejoin the Skipjacks the next day.
To understand how truly unusual this is in the increasingly corporate nature of pro sports ownership, try -- just try -- to imagine Orioles owner Eli Jacobs putting on the Oriole Bird costume. Or opening up his home in New York to, say, an outfielder from the Rochester minor league team, then driving him to Baltimore in time for a game.
"There must be some art to being an owner of a sports team," muses Mr. Ebright, 47, now in his fourth season of owning the Skipjacks. "There aren't any books on it. I guess you just have to use your common sense."
Mr. Ebright might be a bit disingenuous here -- beneath the aw-shucks,
just-an-average-guy-who-happens-to-own-a-hockey-team exterior is a Harvard MBA whose company manages about $2 billion of assets for such companies and groups as the World Bank, Xerox and the MacArthur Foundation (of "genius grant" fame).
And, in many ways, he handles the team in much the same way that he handles the assets of those groups as vice president of Quest Advisory, a New York-based firm that manages mutual and pension funds. Meaning, with passionate and personal involvement rather than the cooler, buttoned-down approach more commonly associated with big business and big sport.
"Stocks and jocks" are how he affectionately describes his dual businesses, and when either dips or slumps, he takes it to heart.
"I've been in the investments business for 20 years now, and it becomes a part of you. Hockey is the same thing," he says. "You put a disproportionate amount of your time in it. You and it become one and the same. You feel personally responsible.
"I feel bad tonight," he says, back in his Scarlett Place condominium after last Sunday's loss, a heartbreaker that went into overtime and made it five straight losses in as many games. (They made it six Wednesday night in Binghamton, N.Y.) "If the stock market goes down for a year like it did in 1990, I feel the same way. The emotions feel the same."
He admits he can't say where his business self ends and his personal self begins -- or whether there even is a line between the two.
"But I think that's true about anybody whose been successful at anything -- they bury themselves in it," Mr. Ebright said. "You either succeed because you're just terribly good at something, or you succeed because you're terribly persistent and work harder."
He thinks he's the latter. For all his successes -- Quest Advisory seems to enjoy glowing press in various business publications, and Mr. Ebright admits to being personally "affluent," which is the least you have to be to enter that rarified world of Greenwich, Conn., his family's main residence -- he seems to have never shaken the feeling that he's still a blue-collar boy struggling to get out. Which is what's gotten him to where he is today.
The son of a man who worked in a Firestone tire plant for 30 years and never made more than $14,000 a year, Mr. Ebright was the first in his family to go to college. "I went so I wouldn't have to work in a factory," he says.
He was raised in the Reading, Pa., area and chose Drexel College because it offered a co-op program in which students worked in the business world while studying the usual college fare.
He then moved on to Harvard, where he received his MBA and pretty much ignored the social tumult that swelled around him in the late 1960s; the radical student uprisings, especially at Harvard, were an indulgence that a college student of minimal means could scarcely afford, he says.
"If you don't have a lot of money, you don't have a lot of sympathy for that sort of thing," said Mr. Ebright, who recalls graduating from Harvard with a Volkswagen and about $20, just about enough to buy a McDonald's meal and the means to drive to a waiting job.
After working for various companies, big and small, owning his own businesses, doing consulting work and, ultimately, joining Quest Advisory, Mr. Ebright bought the Skipjacks in 1987. (He had owned a smaller share of it for several years before becoming the major owner.)