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Businessmen Going to Bat for Minor League Baseball

June 27, 1985|GARY LIBMAN

At Richard Leavitt's brick, ranch-style home the doorbell plays "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." In a backyard area covered by a net, a pitching machine speeds hardballs up to a home plate. Leavitt, a Brentwood attorney, has recently purchased one more baseball item, the Tri-Cities Triplets, a minor league team.

He and three other L.A. area businessmen who bought the team along with him are indulging in their personal American dream, as are many of the team members, who include a 34-year-old rookie, a player suspended for fighting and released by the Atlanta Braves organization and a former high school outfielder trying his hand as a pitcher.

Bankrolling the Team

Shoulder surgery patched up the star shortstop two years ago. A Dodgers minor league team released the centerfielder and the Cincinnati organization released the cleanup hitter.

Leavitt's team plays in the eight-team Northwest rookie league in Oregon and Washington on a budget of about $250,000 a year. The other seven teams are affiliated with major league organizations, which pay the teams' expenses and furnish players. Leavitt and his three partners--Jerry Salzman of Whittier and Marvin Levine and Sam Goldstein (whose ownership was a gift from his wife, Florence), also of Brentwood--are bankrolling the team independently. They must find their own players and pay all expenses.

Last Chance for Rejects

But the fact that he is providing a last chance for players rejected by other teams is no drawback to a lifelong baseball fan like Leavitt, 50, who works out regularly in his batting cage to keep in shape for the fast-pitch softball team he still plays on.

Two years ago Leavitt attended the first spring training baseball camp for adults put on by former Chicago Cubs. He kept his uniform and, he said, one night last season at Dodger Stadium he slipped into the uniform in a restroom, walked onto the field and worked out with the Cubs before the game. He asked to sit on the bench during the game but was told by the Cubs, who thought he was a former player, that there was a rule against it.

In a remodeled backyard game room, which serves as his office, surrounded by major league baseball bats and pictures of his favorite boyhood teams, Leavitt said he wanted to be a major league baseball pitcher and had a tryout with the Cleveland Indians.

"But I hurt my arm and couldn't pitch anymore so I never really had a chance," he said.

"My theory is that I wasn't good enough to play and not smart enough to manage, so the only thing left was ownership."

The corporate securities attorney had recently cut back his law practice and moved his office from West Los Angeles to his home in order to "do activities I like" and "only take legal clients with whom I enjoy working."

Wall Street Journal Ad

So when a friend pointed out a Wall Street Journal advertisement for a minor-league baseball team, he was interested.

"I was at the stage in my career where I could do that if I wanted to," he said.

Leavitt and Salzman, a CPA and former vice president of Hollywood Park race track, flew to Richland, Wash., to check the team out.

"The financial statement showed that the team had made money for two years. And it looked like an opportunity, so I said, 'Let's do it,' " Leavitt recalled. (He declined to say what they paid for the team.)

"This is work," he said. "You get some cooperation from the league and other people in baseball but each owner is responsible for his operation and there aren't a lot of shoulders to lean on.

"We want to run the team well from a business standpoint and we want to win on the field. If it's more work than it is fun, I won't stay. But initially it has to be viewed as a long-term project."

Lure of Tri-City Area

What Leavitt and Salzman found on their trip to Washington was three cities--Richland, Kennewick and Pasco--in the southeast corner of the state in a desert area made green by Columbia River water.

They also found that the 114,000 residents of the Tri-City area had a median household buying income of $30,497, which ranked 14th among metropolitan areas in the nation according to a survey by Sales & Marketing Management magazine.

Much of that income is based on agriculture, but a great deal of it is derived from the nuclear industry. The 570-square-mile Hanford Reservation contains government and government-related nuclear projects run by private industry. Approximately 13,000 people work at the reservation or in related industries.

Leavitt and Salzman thought that a town built of these economic resources would support a team, but they needed to build the team first.

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