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Minor League Team Owner Makes Money His Way

June 21, 1989|DAVID LIGHTMAN | The Hartford Courant

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — The event at Beehive Field was billed as the New Britain Red Sox vs. the Reading Phillies, but it was really the Joe Buzas Show.

The small stadium's gates are all in front of the park, and the 70-year-old Britsox owner was a few feet from the entrance on this cool May night to personally greet the customers.

In one quick moment, the fan got to see all the concession and novelty stands, conveniently arranged in front of the gate. It was classic Buzas--good for him, good for the fan.

By the first inning, the baron of Beehive Field was walking around, collecting the night's money. Then he went into his office and counted it.

"I hate to watch the game," he said in his gravelly, give-'em-hell voice. "I hate to see the mistakes they make."

Buzas, the restless, irascible, independent owner of 69 minor league clubs over 33 years, solely owns the Britsox and the Portland Beavers in Oregon, and 50% of the Salinas Spurs in California.

As minor league ball has undergone big changes in recent years, becoming a fashionable, money-making business and attracting entertainers and corporate bigwigs as owners, Buzas remains a bridge between the old and new breeds.

He refuses to borrow a cent--after all, he reasons, credit costs money--yet is one of the game's shrewdest businessmen. He bought the floundering Reading franchise for $1 in 1977, for instance, then sold it 10 years later for $1,000,001. Today, he gets tens of thousands of dollars simply for keeping Japanese players on his single-A Salinas club.

He insists on picking up the tabs at restaurants--yet he has his staff retrieve baseballs used in games and batting practice and cleans them himself for further use.

He is very much a man of the past--a photo of Buzas, the starting shortstop for the 1945 New York Yankees, hangs on his wall--but very much a man of the present, as he prepared a lunch of four different types of high-fiber cereals and a cup of 90-calorie yogurt.

He operates by a simple set of rules:

--Never borrow.

--Relate to the fan.

--Never go back on your word.

--Keep up with and try to stay ahead of the times.

--Watch the bottom line.

He could retire and be saluted from Oregon to Connecticut as a patriarch of the minor league game, but he refuses. Forever restless, he arranged four different cereals on his Beehive Field desk on this game day, poured them into a bowl along with wheat germ and milk, and started eating and answering questions several hours before the night's first pitch.

"Baseball is my life, my hobby. I wanted to be a big league ballplayer all my life, and when I couldn't anymore, I didn't want to get off the stage.

"There's so much money going around. I was offered $4 million for the Portland team," he said. "What am I going to do? Count my money and sit like a bump on a log?"

Buzas is a man of spotlights, not subtlety, and he waited a long time for his stage. Injuries curbed his big league career in the late 1940s, and he became a minor league manager, an invisible member of baseball's over-the-hill army looking for the elusive big chance. It came in 1956, when minor league executive Tommy Richardson asked him to take over the bankrupt Syracuse, N.Y., franchise.

"At that time, no one individual ran a ballclub. Nobody had the guts to do it. Not that I had guts. I was stupid," Buzas said.

He was guided by his set-in-concrete ways of doing things, principles engraved into his psyche in the 1930s, when his immigrant parents ran a grocery store in Alpha, N.J.

"I could see how devastated people were. They would line up at City Hall and get slips of paper saying they could get groceries," he said. Because his parents could not write, Buzas and his brother would fill the orders.

His memory was scarred by what he called the "sad faces" of the people getting handouts. Buzas vowed he would be his own boss and control his own finances. He would run his business like a business--no free tickets, clean baseballs when you can--but also like a family, with employees and fans trusting the boss and enjoying coming to the park.

Ellen Kirschner, for instance, has sold concessions for the New Britain and Bristol parks for 13 years. "I love baseball," the Bristol resident said. "I love the people here. I've developed great friendships."

Buzas' credo has paid dividends. Buzas has gotten all but three of his clubs for nothing, has never lost money on a team and has dozens of baseball officials all over the country touting him as a model owner. But like any obstinate longtimer, he also has riled plenty of colleagues.

"He's pretty tight with money. He doesn't spend much on advertising and radio," said Dominic Buffetta, assistant general manager of the Portland, Ore., Exposition-Recreation Commission, which governs the city's stadium.

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