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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

He soon began squabbling with Stockton over construction of a new stadium.

Disillusioned by the tussle, Seidler considered moving the team, but instead the league approved a swap. In 2001, the owner of the Oaks in Visalia took over the Ports in Stockton. Seidler, who became the new owner of the Oaks, later changed the team name to the Rawhide.

He fell in love with Visalia, a town nestled near Sequoia National Park, and with its baseball fans, who had supported teams since 1879. The town organized its first minor league squad — the Pirates of the San Joaquin Valley League — in 1910, and over the years Visalia clubs produced dozens of major league stars, including the late Minnesota Twins great Kirby Puckett.

By the time Seidler arrived, though, professional baseball in Visalia was dying.

"People weren't feeling good about the team," says Carol Cairns, a former assistant city manager. "And it started with the ballpark. The place was pretty much a disaster."

Recreation Park was among the smallest stadiums in the minor leagues, accommodating only 1,500 people. The diamond was pockmarked, the outfield wall rickety. Metal bleachers radiated heat during the searing summer days, and there was little shade.

For a while it looked as if Seidler's troubles in Stockton would repeat themselves in Visalia. He asked the city to improve the ball field, but officials were wary because past owners — among them a Japanese corporation that ran the team in absentia — had produced little goodwill.

Seidler realized he had to demonstrate he wasn't an out-of-towner who would treat the Rawhide as a personal plaything. Single and childless, he moved from Hermosa Beach and immersed himself in Visalia life and the operation of his team.

He fit in well. Seidler is friendly, laid-back, quiet and abidingly modest. He dresses in khakis and polo shirts, drives an old SUV and lives in an unremarkable three-bedroom house.

"He's a guy who could choose to live anywhere in the world," says Mayor Bob Link, "and yet here he is in Visalia. He buys a house, makes himself part of the community, joins the Rotary Club, the Convention Bureau, charities, and gets to know what seems like everyone in the whole town. That helped the city feel comfortable about its investment."

In 2006, the city agreed to spend $11.5 million to remodel Recreation Park. In return, Seidler agreed not to move the team. He signed a pledge to give some of his revenues to the community.

Today's Recreation Park is an alluring monument to minor league baseball. It's still small, seating only 2,600. But its stands, dugouts, locker rooms, bathrooms and concessions have all been remodeled. Lining right field is a stately brick building that houses new team offices, a new sports bar and new seating. At the building's base is a berm where fans watch games while picnicking on the grass.

The Rawhide has top players just out of college, first-round draft picks plucked straight from high school and veterans in their mid-20s. Despite long odds, all hope to make it to the major leagues. Although some received signing bonuses approaching $1 million, most got a fraction of that. Each player makes about $1,500 a month, barely enough to pay for rent and groceries.

Together, they play a scrappy, entertaining brand of baseball.

For fans, the games are an experience far removed from big-city sports. There's little traffic around the stadium and parking is free. Seats behind home plate, which would run around $500 at a Dodgers game, cost $10. Kids in Little League uniforms, brought by moms and dads, make up much of the crowd. The chief of security has time to help his wife run a snow cone stand.

Seidler often spends entire games among the fans, talking about their children, handing out tickets and making sure that the lighting near the concessions is bright enough and the beer is cold.

The personal touch pays off. Last year, he says, the Rawhide took in a record $1.25 million and attendance hit 108,000, roughly double the revenue and audience before Recreation Park was remodeled.

"It's true, I could probably be a lot of other places right now — Manhattan, L.A., of course — and be doing something else," Seidler says. "But this is where my heart is… I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

::

On this Friday night, the Rawhide wins on a sharp single in the ninth inning. Fireworks light the sky, and the fans rise, stomping, whooping, screaming and singing. Seidler stands near an exit as they file out.

"Tom! Great job, Tom. Thanks," one man says.

"Tom," says another, "you've gotta stay. We don't want to see you buying back the Dodgers now."

Along comes Burtlow, and she's happy now.

"Tom Seidler," she says, "I'll tell you one thing: We win more games like this one and, hey, maybe for good luck I need to yell at you more often!"

Walter O'Malley's grandson smiles. The warm night was perfect for baseball.

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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