Johns Hopkins Magazine - April 1994 Issue

M.V.P. of the Minors

By Dale Keiger

Miles Wolff Jr. '65 has fashioned a major-league career out of minor league sports. In his new Northern League, baseball teams like the Duluth Dukes and the Sioux City Explorers are drawing capacity crowds--by giving fans the game as it was meant to be played.

In 1988, Miles Wolff Jr., Hopkins Class of 1965, owned the most famous baseball team in America. It wasn't the Yankees or the Dodgers or the Reds. It played in a small ballpark in a small town, it traveled to away games by bus, and for most of its players a big financial decision was not whether to pick the Porsche over the Ferrari, but whether to spring for pepperoni on the pre-game pizza. Few people outside its hometown could name any of its players, or even another team in its league.

None of that mattered though. For a few months, thanks to a little cinematic bondage, America's team was the Durham Bulls of Durham, North Carolina, and Miles Wolff owned it. When Kevin Costner tied Susan Sarandon to a bed and painted her toenails in the movie Bull Durham, women all over America uttered a soft Oh, yeah, men perked up to the possibilities of nail polish, and Wolff began selling an awful lot of blue-and-orange Durham Bulls caps.

Owning the team portrayed in a hit movie has been Wolff's most publicized venture, but he has fashioned a major-league career out of minor league sports for over 23 years. He has owned baseball teams in Butte, Montana; Asheville, North Carolina; Utica, New York; and Pulaski, Virginia. He sold the Bulls a few years ago, but he still owns the Burlington Indians, a Cleveland Indians farm team that plays in the Appalachian League. He owns a minor league hockey team in Raleigh and a publishing company in Durham; the latter puts out Baseball America, the country's foremost newspaper devoted to the game. He has written two books.

Last summer, he launched his most ambitious venture yet: a new professional baseball league. The Northern League began play last June with six teams in the upper Midwest and Canada. From its opening pitch the league was a hit, playing before capacity crowds in cities like Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Thunder Bay, Ontario.

What makes this success notable in the baseball world is that the Northern League is independent of Major League Baseball, the corporate entity that until last year controlled all the country's minor leagues and most of its teams. Wolff and his partners have gone out on their own, competing with the big leagues for players and fans. They lack Major League Baseball's imprimatur and financial support--but are free of its dictates. The Northern League's success delights him.

"There is a bunch of idiots up there running Major League Baseball," he says. "One thing we want to say to other minor league operators is, 'You don't have to work with these jerks. You don't have to take it.'"

In his book Good Enough to Dream, an account of a season with the minor-league Utica Blue Sox, author Roger Kahn describes Miles Wolff as "bespectacled, thin armed, mild mannered, shrewd, and tough." Wolff is also six-foot-two, trim, and, at age 50, still in possession of his hair. His office at Baseball America's brick headquarters on tobacco-scented Durham's South Duke Street is about as unassuming as an office gets. Some bathrooms have bigger windows than the scant rectangle of glass high over his desk, and some bathrooms are bigger, period. Amid the clutter are snapshots of Wolff's two kids, a Northern League schedule thumbtacked to the wallboard, and a disassembled computer disk drive set on a shelf. On the floor stands a stack of The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Wolff's latest publishing project and something he's very proud of. On his desk is a large coffee mug that he reaches for throughout the day.

Slouched in a chair, Miles Wolff is courteous, businesslike and self-assured. When he discusses his success, he tends to do so in terms of its being no big deal. This may have less to do with modesty than with reserve. In conversation he's cerebral and dispassionate; even when calling somebody a jerk, he makes it sound more like analytical precision than scorn. His answers to questions are forthright, but he doesn't let much slip.

He was born in 1943 in Baltimore. His family moved to North Carolina six years later when his father, Miles Sr., left his job as managing editor of the Baltimore Evening Sun to become executive editor of the Greensboro Daily News. Greensboro in those days had a team in the Carolina League named the Patriots, and Wolff was nuts for baseball. He went to 60 or 70 games a year, sold soft drinks at the stadium when he was 12, and dreamed of becoming a big-league player. But by adolescence his experiences in Little League had convinced him that his prospects of ever appearing on a baseball card were dim.

No problem. He had another plan. He had noticed that there were people whose job it was to run the team. While most kids were absorbed by home runs, strikeouts, and double plays, Wolff was observing how promotions affected attendance. He paid attention to how many people came to the park for Tropical Pet Night, when the team gave away fish and, as the grand prize, a boa constrictor. He noted that buy-out nights, when companies bought blocks of tickets to give away, failed to generate new business for the team; this kind of promotion filled the seats with people who didn't care about baseball, and they didn't come back when they had to pay to get in. Before long, the kid was convinced that he could run the club as well as the guys he saw doing it; no, he could run it better. He went to the stadium meaning to apply for a job and get started when he was 15: "But I chickened out and bought a ticket to the game instead." Nevertheless, he decided that someday he would own his own baseball team.

First, however, there was the matter of a college education. He had all but decided to attend Princeton when Hopkins enticed him back to Baltimore with a partial scholarship and the chance to play varsity basketball. He majored in liberal arts, (concentrating on history), did the play-by-play announcing of football and lacrosse games for WJHU, (back when the radio station was student-run), and every spring beseeched the Orioles and dozens of other teams for a job. "I would have quit Hopkins if anybody had offered me a job in baseball," he says.

Since no one did, he completed four years at Homewood and went on to graduate study in Southern history at the University of Virginia. He was less interested in scholarship than in putting off the military draft, but he did manage to complete a master's thesis on the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins, which were seminal civil rights demonstrations. Later his thesis became the basis of his first book, Lunch at the 5 & 10 (Ivan R. Dee, Inc. 1990).

In 1971, after a stint in the Navy supply corps, Wolff still hankered to work in baseball management. This was a novel idea for a young man at the time. Baseball was in decline. Football was becoming America's favorite spectator sport. In 1949, there had been 438 minor league baseball teams playing in 59 leagues; by 1971 there were only 110 teams, and few of those were profitable. Most minor league general managers were old men who had been in baseball all their lives. They knew balls and strikes and how to groom players for The Show, but understood little about running a team as a profitable company. They never expected to make money, and mostly they didn't.

As the 1970s began, the men who ran the Atlanta Braves decided they needed new blood in their minor league management, and they hired the 26-year-old Wolff to be general manager of their affiliate in Savannah, Georgia. He found a house on the beach, combined the management skills he'd learned in the Navy with the baseball ideas he'd had since he was a teenager, and turned out to be as good at the job as he'd always assumed he'd be. After his first season The Sporting News, then the bible of baseball, named him one of its minor league executives of the year.

"It was very satisfying," he says. "I liked Savannah as much as any town I've been in. It was great for a single guy running a ballclub." The front office staff consisted of Wolff and a secretary, so he learned how to do every- thing: how to grow grass on an infield, how to unroll a tarp, how to get people to buy tickets. It was his dream job.

So, after his third season, he quit.

"I'd done it," he explains. "Now it was time to get a real job. I was a Hopkins grad, I was supposed to do something important. Hopkins doesn't train minor league general managers."

Wolff's earnest intentions notwithstanding, what followed his resignation at Savannah turned out not to be that real job but six years in which he never worked in one place for longer than five months. Each spring, someone who needed help running a team would call him up and he'd have employment for another baseball season at some place like Anderson, South Carolina, or Jacksonville, Florida. He spent a couple of months running a soccer team in Toronto. Another year he went to Virginia to do the radio play-by-play for the Richmond Braves. In the off-season, he'd return to his $100-a-month unheated beach house in Savannah and hang out. One year he passed the time by writing a novel, Season of the Owl, which he describes as "a murder mystery sort of thing, sort of a coming-of-age story in North Carolina in the 1950s." Stein and Day published it. Then each year at about the time he ran out of money, another baseball team would call and offer him a job. "It was one of the best periods of my life," he says.

By 1979, he still hadn't launched the serious career that Hopkins had trained him for. More to the point, he had begun to worry that people in baseball would stop taking him seriously if his r�sum� included too many years in which he'd spent seven out of 12 months with his toes in the sand. So he began to ponder owning his own team. Says Wolff, "No one wanted to own minor league teams at the time. But I figured I knew how to run a club as good as the owners I'd worked for."

His first idea was to get a team for Macon, Georgia, which seemed ideal as a market. But the Carolina League wanted to expand to Durham, and the Atlanta Braves, who remembered Wolff's success for them at Savannah, promised to make Durham one of its minor league affiliates provided the league awarded the team to Wolff. Ten people applied that year for the right to own a new Carolina League ballclub, and every one of the other nine had a bigger bag of money. But Wolff had the Braves in his corner, and the league picked him. The new Durham franchise cost him $2,417.

He raised $30,000 in operating capital by selling stock to his dad, his sisters, and his friends. A month before opening day he'd spent it all, and barely got the players onto the field for the first pitch. But it didn't rain all spring, the Braves sent Wolff a bumper crop of talented players (10 would go on to big-league careers), and funky little Durham Athletic Park turned out to be a great place to watch a game. The people of Durham flipped for the Bulls. Wolff had projected first-year attendance of 70,000. The team drew 150,000 fans.

Still not convinced he'd found a long-term career, he planned to own the Bulls for only three years. "But things kept getting bigger and bigger," he says. "There was no downturn. Then I got a wife and kids, so there was no going back to Savannah Beach."

Wolff's acumen and the fans in Durham made the Bulls a local success. Hollywood made them a national phenomenon. In 1979 when Wolff was trying to raise capital, he had tapped a friend in California. The friend wasn't interested but said he knew a film producer from Durham named Thom Mount who might want to chip in. Wolff called him and Mount became an investor. Seven years later, Mount had a script on his desk about an aging minor league catcher, a wild young pitcher, and the baseball groupie who gets real friendly with both of them. Mount wanted to shoot the script and knew just the place to do it.

Bull Durham, starring Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins, and Susan Sarandon, made the Durham Bulls and minor league baseball chic. Sales of Bulls souvenirs increased tenfold. Guys in Manhattan who wouldn't have been caught dead in North Carolina started showing up at softball games wearing the Durham Bulls caps they'd bought by mail order. The Bulls were pulling in 300,000 fans a year at home, and after the movie came out they became a big draw on the road, too. Business could not have been better.

But something happened shortly after the release of the movie that killed the joy for Wolff. By the late 1980s, the Bulls needed a new stadium. Durham Athletic Park, known locally as "the Dap," was loaded with quirky charm, but it was 50 years old and not up to 300,000 fans a year. More to the point, it was not up to standards decreed by Major League Baseball for its minor league stadiums. "It was inadequate in every category," Wolff says. "Everybody thinks it's charming and historic, but it's old." The concrete was crumbling, the locker rooms were ill-equipped, and there weren't enough bathrooms. "There wasn't one area that met any sort of standard," Wolff recalls. "When your wife takes 20 minutes to go to the bathroom, you've got a problem."

He thought Durham could revitalize its downtown by building a new stadium on a site by an empty tobacco warehouse near the heart of the city. He engaged Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, the architectural firm that designed the fabulously successful Oriole Park Camden Yards for Baltimore, to plan a new home for the Bulls. And the city, struggling to keep its downtown alive, seemed prepared to fund the project with a public debt instrument known as a certificate of participation.

The city even had commitments from other parties to build in downtown Durham: the pharmaceutical firm Glaxo was set to erect a new office building and manufacturing plant; Duke University had committed to renovating an old American Tobacco Company site for classrooms and laboratories; Durham's Life and Science Museum wanted to expand downtown; a developer from Boston planned to create new downtown housing. All these projects were to be in conjunction with the new stadium. Says Orville Powell, Durham's city manager, "It was the finest project I'd ever been associated with in 30 years of city administration."

In 1989, however, public funding became a political problem. A citizens' group opposed to it cast the issue--falsely, Powell contends--as money for a ballpark vs. money for schools. There was a mayoral election in progress, and city politicians found it expedient to put the issue on the ballot for a countywide referendum the following March. Voters within the city limits approved paying for the stadium, but the issue lost badly among county voters. That was enough to defeat it.

Wolff felt betrayed by city officials who had, he believed, put the issue before the public as a way of avoiding a tough political decision, though they knew how much the city would benefit from a new stadium. "Hard promises had been made by politicians that weren't kept," he says. City manager Powell backs him up: "He had every right to believe the city and county would build the stadium. He stayed patient for a long time, but his patience finally ran out."

"I didn't get into baseball to play politics," Wolff says, "so I decided to sell." He didn't need the Bulls to make a living. In 1982, he had taken over a struggling baseball newspaper from its Canadian founder, renamed it Baseball America, and built it into a profitable publication. In 1986 he had bought the Burlington Indians, and they were a success, too. Besides, he had a buyer for the Bulls, a broadcasting magnate in Raleigh named Jim Goodmon. It seemed a good time for a change.

Wolff sold the Bulls to Goodmon for between $2 million and $4 million; he won't be more precise than that, but either way the deal represented a pretty good return on his $2,417 initial investment. In a major-league bit of irony, last year a construction crew broke ground for a new, publicly funded Bulls stadium just a few blocks from where Wolff had hoped to see one. After Wolff sold the Bulls to Goodmon, Durham realized it might lose the team to nearby Raleigh. Funding a downtown stadium with certificates of participation suddenly seemed like a good idea after all. Unfortunately for the city, all the other development deals that might have come with it have been lost; everyone who had planned to build downtown four years ago has built elsewhere in the meantime. Says Powell, "They're not going to come back. That first ballpark was the cornerstone."

Wolff is still a Bulls fan. On a pleasant August night, he attends one of the last games of the year at the Dap, with his wife, Michelle, and their two kids, Claire and Hoffman. Hoff, as his parents call him, is 10 years old and at that stage in a boy's life when a baseball diamond can be the whole world; it's way past cool to have a dad who used to own the home team. His 8-year-old sister Claire is less engaged; though she looks fetching in a Thunder Bay Whiskey Jacks cap from her pop's new league, she spends several innings immersed in a catalog for the American Girl Collection, ignoring the game as she diligently circles with a pencil items she'd like to receive for the next special occasion.

Wolff is welcome at the Dap. People call out greetings and stop by to chat during the game. Michelle admits it was more fun back when they owned the team and knew all the players. But it's still fun on a warm Carolina night when Curtis Goodwin, a promising outfielder for the visiting Frederick Keys, slams a home run off the wooden bull atop the right field wall, whacking off a piece of its right ear and winning for himself a steak dinner. Nearly 5,000 people have a lovely time, though the Bulls lose, 9-3. At 11 p.m., the souvenir shop across the street is still doing a brisk business in Durham Bulls caps and whiskey glasses and baby bibs.

Baseball as an American big-league sport may be ill, suffering from arrogant, childish players, lunkheaded management, and more money than sense. But in minor-league towns like Durham and Frederick and Rancho Cucamonga--there is such a place and it has a team in the California League called the Quakes and a stadium called the Epicenter--people like the game just fine.

They like it in Thunder Bay and Duluth and Sioux Falls, too, cities with teams in Wolff's newest venture, the Northern League. A new league was his idea. In the late 1980s he began fielding calls from people in the upper Midwest who wanted to know how they could get minor league teams for their cities. A few decades before there had been another Northern League; eventual big-league stars Gaylord Perry, Jim Palmer, Henry Aaron, and Denny McClain had played in it. But that earlier league had long ago disbanded, and most of the cities phoning Wolff had been without baseball for more than 20 years.

In 1990, having sold the Bulls, Wolff had time for a new project, so he began to visit some of these cities, places like Sioux City, Iowa, and Rochester, Minnesota. What he found were citizens who wanted hometown teams, and city governments willing to ante up a quarter-million dollars or more to upgrade local ballparks; Sioux City was ready to spend $3.5 million to build a new one. The existing minor leagues showed little inclination to expand to any of these towns, so though no one had successfully started a new professional baseball league since 1960, that's what Wolff did. And he decided to keep it independent of Major League Baseball.

Private investors own most minor league teams, but the major-league clubs control them through affiliation agreements. The big-league team decides who the players, coaches, and managers will be, then moves them around to suit its purposes; each minor league team and its fans have to take whomever they get. The parent club doesn't care whether Durham or Rancho Cucamonga wins a minor league pennant; it just wants to develop players for its own use. So if a minor league team starts piling up wins, there's a good chance the big-league club will take the best players and promote them to a higher level of its system--to a team in another city. That's frustrating for local fans, the people who buy the tickets.

Furthermore, in the last few years Major League Baseball has imposed more and more rules and restrictions on minor league owners. The major league club pays all the players' and coaches' salaries and provides some equipment, while the local owners pay travel expenses and stadium rent. This may sound like a good deal, and some minor league operators, like Wolff, have reaped substantial profits when they've sold teams. But Major League Baseball recently imposed stricter stadium standards that cost many team owners a lot of money; Wolff had to spend $100,000 to upgrade the ballfield in Burlington. It also began taking 5 percent of each minor league team's gate receipts. When minor league owners had a problem with that, Major League Baseball threatened to take away its players and form a new farm system, leaving the minor league teams with nobody.

"Major league ownership has no sense of what the minor leagues are," Wolff maintains. "The strength of Major League Baseball is that it has 150 cities around the country promoting its sport. They don't appreciate what they've got here--one of the great monopolies of the world." He was part of the minor league executive committee that in 1990 negotiated the current agreement governing the relationship between the majors and minors. "I came out of that thinking, 'These are people I don't want to do business with.' I came out of that wanting to do the Northern League."

Wolff lined up team owners and facilities in six cities in Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and Canada. "The Durham Bulls had a good name," he says. "I had credibility." The teams would stock their rosters with young hopefuls who hadn't signed with major league teams, plus a few former major-leaguers looking for one last shot at the big-time, players like Leon Durham and Pedro Guererro. They would play a short season of 72 games from June through September. For the first two years, the league would own the teams and Wolff, as league president, would call all the shots. After two years, the owners would pay him franchise fees and the teams would be theirs.

When the Northern League opened last June, Wolff thought it had a chance. But he didn't expect the St. Paul Saints to sell out 26 straight home dates and fill 5,000-seat Municipal Stadium in St. Paul to 96 percent capacity for the season; no other minor league team in the country sold such a high percentage of its seats last year. He didn't foresee the Duluth Dukes and the Sioux City Explorers averaging 3,000 fans a game; by comparison, 107 out of 152 established minor league teams failed to do that well in 1992. Nobody foresaw Thunder Bay drawing 6,400 for a single game. As a whole, the league attracted more than 650,000 fans for the year. According to Howe Sportsdata International, the eight-team Pioneer League drew only 335,366 over a longer schedule; the New York-Penn League beat the Northern League by only about 50,000, and it had 14 teams.

The quality of umpiring has been a problem to Wolff, and the Rochester, Minnesota, franchise didn't draw enough fans and has been replaced by a team in Winnipeg. But overall the Northern League sailed through its first year on one long winning streak. The quality of play was high. By season's end, according to Wolff, major league teams had purchased more than 30 Northern Leaguers and fed them into their farm systems. And by all accounts the fans loved it. Minneapolis Star-Tribune sportswriter Eric Pate says, "It's like outdoor baseball was rediscovered. You spend half as much money as at a major league game and you have a great time." In St. Paul, tickets to a Saints game go for $3, $5, and $6. Mike Veeck, team president, claims a family of four typically will spend $26 to $28 at a Saints game, vs. $85 at a Twins game. He says he has to turn away 400 people every time the Saints play at home and has a waiting list of 2,000 for season tickets; he also says he's writing each of those 2,000 people a personal thank-you note.

All of this has left the big-league Twins, supposedly The Team for Minneapolis-St. Paul, a bit touchy. Last summer the Twins ran radio ads suggesting fans come to a game at the air-conditioned Metrodome rather than get bitten by mosquitoes. Saints fans regarded that as a shot at their little outdoor stadium.

Part of Veeck's success in St. Paul is that in the tradition of his late father, legendary Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, he promotes like crazy, something Wolff no doubt appreciates after growing up on Tropical Pet Night in Greensboro. "Major league baseball has lost its sense of humor," Veeck says. That's not a problem in St. Paul. Last year, on Irish Night, the Saints painted the bases kelly green, the Irish flag flew under Old Glory, and the public address announcer read the starting lineups in English and Gaelic. The team's mascot is a live pig that delivers balls to the home-plate umpire and has a no-slaughter clause in its contract. But Veeck also credits Wolff for the team's good fortunes: "I'm a tremendous Miles Wolff fan. The common denominator in this league's success has been the precision of his foresight."

"I'm surprised we're doing so well," Wolff says. "But I thought we'd do well. I think the Northern League's a much better product on the field than other minor leagues. We play to win, not to develop talent for the big leagues." He notes that the Northern Leaguers bought by major league organizations changed teams only after the Northern League season had ended. His venture has spurred imitators; earlier this year, at least four new independent leagues were on the drawing board, though it wasn't yet clear if any would manage to field teams. Says Veeck, "Miles is on the cutting edge of what is happening in baseball. In three to five years, all the minor leagues will be independent."

This year, the Northern League will get a good dose of publicity when it plays at least a dozen exhibition games against a new women's professional team, the Colorado Silver Bullets. Wolff says the league is considering expansion to more cities in 1995. That year, he gets his payoff when the owners remit their franchise fees. "My job is to hold it all together till then," he says. "Next year, the league is theirs. If they want me out of it, that's fine." Responds Mike Veeck, "If he thinks he's getting away from us in two years, he's nuts."

For Wolff, the Northern League has been the kind of fun he had before minor league teams became sophisticated businesses. These days, a highly successful minor league team like the Buffalo Bisons, which in 1992 had a bigger average attendance than either the Cleveland Indians or the Houston Astros, also has a bigger staff than some big-league clubs. Merchandising has grown into a major aspect of team operation; new clubs like the Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs and the Maui Sting Rays sell souvenirs a year before they even put the first players on the field. Despite his success with the Northern League, Wolff says, with a hint of wistfulness, "The way clubs are run today has probably passed me by."

That's all right, he has something new--ice hockey. He says, "I can be more of a fan at a hockey game because I don't know enough about the sport to be intelligent. I can lose myself in it." If next year he doesn't have the Northern League occupying his time, he says he might buy another hockey team. He bought the Raleigh IceCaps of the minor East Coast Hockey League in 1990, and has succeeded there, too. Last season the 'Caps drew about 5,000 fans per game, 90 percent of the capacity of their arena.

Wolff claims to have lost money on sports teams only in Butte and Rochester. Referring to his company, he says, "We think we can run sports franchises." He sees hockey now as baseball was when he first got into it--about to experience a boom in popularity. "It's fun," he says. "I like starting teams."

It's been an improvised sort of life for Miles Wolff, but he looks like a happy man. He's got a nice wife, a couple of kids, and several thriving businesses. He's a thorn in the side of Major League Baseball, which suits him just fine, and he can drive over to Burlington to watch a ballgame, or over to Raleigh to watch his hockey team, and feel like a kid again. As a 13-year-old washed-up Little Leaguer, he had dreamed of a way to spend his life where men play games. Thirty-seven years later, he's found that doing so has been almost as much fun as he'd thought it would be.

Dale Keiger is the magazine's senior writer.

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