FIELD OF SCREAMS
The hometown Spurs aren't even at bat when the crowd lets loose its biggest roar of the night. The 489 fans at Municipal Stadium in Salinas, Calif., are watching one of many between-innings entertainments: Two fans lean over, put their noses to an upright bat, and spin around it 10 times. Then, they try to run to first base. One keels over at once. The other staggers to the bag. Oh, and the Spurs lose, 10-2, to the San Jose Giants.
Welcome to one of baseball's odder outposts, where cornball contests are as big a draw as baseball. Bigger sometimes, because frankly, the Salinas Spurs, cellar dwellers of the Class A California League's Northern Div., aren't all that great. With few major-league prospects on the roster, the Spurs lose twice as often as they win. Some nights, they are lucky to draw 250 people to the chilly, foggy, 44-year-old stadium. Moans Spurs General Manager Kevin Haughian: "If you asked 10 people in Salinas who the Spurs are, three wouldn't know, and seven wouldn't care."
YUPPIE OWNERS. That's particularly frustrating when many of the nation's 170 minor-league teams are as prosperous as they've been since the 1940s, before television beamed big-league baseball into the smallest towns. Thanks to smart marketing--and the 1988 hit film Bull Durham--attendance has rebounded to about 20 million a year, double the low point hit in the 1960s.
Moreover, heightened interest in baseball ownership among rich yuppies and celebrities--from Billy Crystal to Jimmy Buffett--has pushed franchise values sky-high. Even the Spurs are worth nearly $1 million today, by some estimates, up from $13,500 a decade ago. How can such a sad-sack team be worth so much? "There are more millionaires interested in sports than there are minor-league teams," explains Haughian.
Bedazzled would-be owners, though, should hearken to the headaches of Katsuaki "Don" Nomura, a Los Angeles and Tokyo real estate developer who owns the Spurs. One reason fans stay home is that Municipal Stadium is short on amenities. Toilets back up whenever the Spurs draw 1,200 or more. With inadequate electricity, Haughian can't even cook French fries, severely limiting food concessions that make up more than half of revenues and all the profits.
Not coincidentally, community and business support is hard to come by. The fans who do show up are part of the show. The leader of the 122-member Spurs booster club, Dale Hooper, often holds up an eye chart to umpires when they make a bad call.
The players sometimes provide more comic relief. Since the Spurs are one of the few minor-league clubs without a major-league affiliate to provide players and pay their salaries, Haughian must rely on rejects from other teams. He also has a unique arrangement to use up to 10 players from two major-league Japanese teams, the Daiei Hawks and the Yakult Swallows. They pay for the Japanese players' salaries, hotel rooms, and meals, plus $10,000 per player.
DEPRESSED. The Japanese rookies improve the bottom line, if not the team's on-field performance. The Spurs' batting average is only .240, and its 5.30 earned-run average is the league's worst. It's all a bit depressing for players such as Jim Eppard, a 31-year-old former first baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays and California Angels. He doesn't have major-league power, but he hopes his .340 average will land him a job in Japan--and get him out of Salinas. "It's tough to get psyched up to play here," he says.
Haughian, a 32-year-old former California legislative aide, somehow keeps up his enthusiasm for luring fans to the park. He dreams up 13 promotions a game, ranging from bingo to Pizza Party Polka: To the strains of a bad polka record, a fan runs to one of the three bases. Under it lies a gift certificate for pizza or Spurs souvenirs--or a booby prize, such as an autographed photo of the groundskeeper.
The antics are paying off. Attendance has tripled from last year, to an average of 900 a game, which may net a small profit. But more than money keeps Nomura in the game. There's family loyalty, too: His stepfather manages the Swallows. "Baseball blood runs through my body," he declares. That's nice, but he might help the team more if he had a decent fastball.Robert D. Hof in Salinas