The major thrill of owning a minor league team The Summer of #42

August 08, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

The 8-year-old boy from Brooklyn would wait for the "magnificent black man" to pull up in his blue Chrysler. The 29-year-old ballplayer would park his Chrysler at the gas station on Bedford Avenue, where the boy would meet him and walk with him one block to Ebbets Field.

The man called the boy Arthur. The boy called the man Mr. Robinson. He always called him Mr. Robinson -- never Jackie, as the man had asked the fan to call him.

"I couldn't do that," Arthur says, 46 years later.

In 1948, Arthur L. Silber began his hero worship of Jackie Robinson, the great Brooklyn Dodger who was the first black player in the major leagues. From age 8 to 15, Arthur walked Mr. Robinson, No. 42, to the player's entrance at Ebbets Field. The boy played baseball himself, on the streets of Brooklyn with baseballs wrapped in electrical tape because the covers had been pulverized.

It was a glorious time to be a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. From 1947 to 1956, the Dodgers won six pennants. Then, the Dodgers broke Brooklyn hearts and moved to L.A. in 1958, and Arthur Silber moved to Queens (and years later to Baltimore). His hero, Jackie Robinson, died in 1972.

At 54, Mr. Silber owns the Prince William Cannons, a minor league baseball team in northern Virginia. The owner attends about three of every seven home games and likes to tell the players his Jackie Robinson story.

At the games, Art Silber is never out of uniform.

He wears No. 42, of course.

*

The Sterling Bank & Trust office is tucked away on Water Street in downtown Baltimore, nearly in the shadow of the Cal Ripken mural near Light and Lombard streets. "I'm Art Silber, president of Sterling Bank & Trust, and I really do make house calls," reads a poster on the office window. Maybe you've heard his radio ads.

Mr. Silber -- who is not that interested in Ripken's "Streak" -- hands out two business cards to a stranger. The bank card is grown-up, but the Cannons card is cool.

Mr. Silber says he bought the Class A Cannons for less than $1 million. The team is a member of the Carolina League and plays its home games at Prince William County Stadium in Woodbridge, Va. The Cannons began in 1978, and the team has produced such players as Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants.

Since taking over the team in 1990, Mr. Silber says he's seen attendance double and souvenir sales triple. Those community billboards in the outfield -- once free -- now cost sponsors $2,800 for the 70-home-game season. The club draws about 250,000 fans each season. Mr. Silber turned down a $5 million offer for the team and figures the Cannons are worth more like $7 million.

"I do have to treat it like a very serious business," he says, "but I don't feel like I'm working."

Minor league baseball is in a zone that's like the hitter's state of mind when the baseball looks like a beach ball coming over the plate. Attendance at minor league parks is the highest it's been in 40 years. There are 216 minor league teams playing in 19 leagues -- a third more teams since 1986. Last year, attendance at the games was 30 million -- compared with 17 million in 1984.

And there's no telling what lasting, wonderful effect Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon had on the minors, thanks to their performances in "Bull Durham."

"People are turning on to it. It's a fun night out," says Larry Wiederecht of the Florida-based National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, which tracks the numbers and popularity of minor-league teams. "Its popularity is not a reflection of major league baseball, it's just that people like that old baseball experience."

Such as cheap tickets. General admission is $4.50 for a Cannons game, where an individual spends an average of $11 at the park, club officials have estimated. "It's less expensive here than at the movies," Mr. Silber says.

Tickets are cheap because overhead is relatively low. The major league teams, the Chicago White Sox in the Cannons' case, pay the salaries and equipment costs of their minor league players. Mr. Silber has a full-time staff of only 10 people, and his main cost is the stadium rental. Minor league baseball -- which has benefited from the ownership of small, savvy businessmen -- is a marketing and promotional tool.

"We are in show business," Mr. Silber says. "We try to put on a great evening."

Between innings

Take any between-inning: giveaways (Snapple beach towels, Rolling Rock sunglasses), fireworks, clowns, Elvis impersonators, and a 150-foot brownie sundae on July 17. The Cannons staff sliced a long PVC pipe in half, filled it with wads of ice cream, and let the kids dig in.

At the sundae promotion, Mr. Silber -- millionaire club owner with a fancy for fine cigars -- was tracked down and sprayed with whipped cream by one of his own employees.

"He's like a big kid," says 18-year-old Erica VanCoverden. "He's a good sport, too. If he wasn't, I don't think I would have dared to throw whipped cream at him."

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