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An O'Malley grandson brings his baseball family values to Visalia

Tom Seidler, 43, is owner of the Rawhide, the Arizona Diamondbacks' single-A team in Visalia. He grew up around the Dodgers, and it is easy to imagine what might have been had his family kept the franchise.

May 21, 2011|By Kurt Streeter, Los Angeles Times
  • The single-A Rawhide baseball team has become an integral part of Visalia's social fabric. Owner Tom Seidler, 43, here in the club's renovated stadium, is a member of the O'Malley family that used to own the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. He runs the Rawhide in the same hands-on, fan- and employee-friendly way his grandfather Walter and uncle Peter ran the Dodgers.
The single-A Rawhide baseball team has become an integral part of Visalia's… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

Reporting from Visalia, Calif. -- The stadium is full, the players are limbering up on the unblemished grass and sausages are sizzling on the grill, sending an irresistible invitation into the springtime air. But Walter O'Malley's grandson hardly notices. On this Friday night, he has an 80-year-old tempest to contend with, and her name is Irene Burtlow.

"Tom Seidler," Burtlow says, pointing a finger at his chest. "I have a bone to pick with you. I am not happy, not happy at all …"

For decades at minor league baseball games in Visalia, members of the home team's booster club have passed a cap around the grandstand at Recreation Park, which fans fill with coins and dollar bills. At the end of the game the cash has gone to Visalia's best performers, often smooth-cheeked teens with still-fresh memories of the high school prom.

But now Seidler, the 43-year-old owner of the Rawhide, the town's entry-level professional team in the single-A California League, wants a change. The money, he tells Burtlow, ought to be distributed to everybody on the team. It would build better spirit, he says, and help more players — especially those who can barely pay their bills. After all, few of these players get big signing bonuses from the Arizona Diamondbacks, their parent club in the National League.

For 15 minutes, Burtlow argues that tradition shouldn't change. Seidler listens calmly, then finally assures her he will come up with a compromise. Burtlow softens, and he wraps an arm around her shoulders.

As Seidler turns away, he says he loves this part of his job. "The hospitality part. Being with fans, hearing their views, their complaints. I guess you could say it's in my DNA."

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Seidler hails from baseball royalty. He is a grandson of Walter O'Malley, the patriarch of a family from an era that now seems sacred in Los Angeles, especially as the city broods over the current sorry state of its Dodgers.

O'Malley bought the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950 and — amid great controversy — moved them west, creating an enduring bond between city and team.

When he died in 1979, O'Malley bequeathed the Dodgers to his two grown children. One was Peter O'Malley, who ran the club until the family sold it in 1998, citing the family's failure to get city backing for an NFL stadium at Chavez Ravine. The other was Seidler's mother, Terry, who helped her brother guide the team behind the scenes.

Tom Seidler is the last direct link between the O'Malleys and professional baseball — the only family member still intimately involved in the game. He is overseeing a rebirth of baseball in Visalia by sticking close to his family values. The O'Malley Way means that character matters, details make a difference and fans must be heard.

As Seidler walks through the ballpark during every Rawhide game, it is easy to imagine what might have been had his family kept the Dodgers franchise. "If he'd wanted, Tom would certainly have been one of the executives leading the Dodgers," says Peter O'Malley. "He'd be putting a very solid stamp on the team."

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Seidler grew up so immersed in baseball that he did not realize, until he became an adult, how unusual his experiences were.

He is wistful now, not only about Dodgers legends Fernando Valenzuela and Steve Garvey and Ron Cey, but also about how he and his brothers and sisters would converge on Dodgertown for spring training in Vero Beach, Fla. About how Dodger Stadium became a touchstone; he learned to drive in the parking lot after it emptied out. Indeed, his first job, at 16, was collecting money in a Chavez Ravine parking booth. Most Sundays, he sat in one of his family's box seats, often next to Hall of Fame Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella, who was like a wise uncle.

Walter O'Malley died when Seidler was 11. What he remembers most, in addition to his grandfather's boisterous manner, was the tone he set. Seidler sometimes tagged along on O'Malley's pregame stroll. His grandfather checked stadium seats to see if they were clean. He checked bathrooms and elevators. He talked to ushers and vendors. He chatted with arriving fans.

After college at Notre Dame, Seidler took a job with a minor league team in Great Falls, Mont. He found a kind of baseball largely insulated from the less appealing side of modern sports: skyrocketing salaries, oversized egos and an emphasis on profits. Players reveled in the joy of the game as much as in their dreams of making millions. Fans, meantime, knew that summer night baseball was the best attraction in town.

In 1998, when Seidler's mother and uncle sold the Dodgers, he decided he wanted to stay in baseball but in the minor leagues, where an owner could more easily make a difference because of the smaller, more intimate scale. Using $2 million, part of the $300 million or so his family received for the Dodgers, he helped put together a partnership of siblings and cousins and bought the Stockton Ports, in the California League.

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