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My Next Business: The Player
 

An entrepreneur discusses her dream of owning a baseball team.
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'I don't think I could have imagined this earlier -- I couldn't have seen myself owning a baseball team. But once you've owned your first company, you are forever changed. Anything seems possible. Even this.' The story of a company builder in love

When Joey Higgins wore penny loafers with soft yellow socks, a matching yellow oxford shirt, chinos, and Brut, I was useless in English class. For a girl showing early signs of becoming a pushy woman, he was a dream to dance with: no negotiation; he led. He was a championship quarterback on the football team. But more exciting to me, he was the star pitcher for the Bangor (Maine) Rams high school baseball team, and he was my boyfriend. Because he smelled good? Because dancing with him was so great, I remember it 25 years later? Because he made me laugh? Because of those yellow socks?

Naah. I was crazy about Joey because on the baseball field he conjured up the elements of ancient myth: the quest (for victory, records, excellence); the triumph of good over evil (us versus them); the steadfastness of the hero (charismatic and confident). And he was mine -- for a while at least. Eventually, someone else came along, with great legs and a driver's license. She had a car. He broke my heart.

But when I was 17, there was nothing quite as magnificent as watching Joey take the mound and strike out one batter after another. In between there was chatter ( talk it up, talk it up, you got it, take it easy, take it easy), butt patting, spitting, comedy, tension, and suspense. (What next? A bunt? A grounder? The long ball?) I liked nothing better than sitting in the stands and having my heart stretched in a thousand ways. That same year, 1967, I watched the Boston Red Sox play St. Louis in the first World Series that would break my heart. It was the beginning of a romance that was more enduring than the one I had with Joey.

I wasn't yet a feminist. I didn't connect the passivity of being a spectator with my role as a girl. And I was cursed with a girl's throw. I'm not proud of those things. I wish I could say that I always yearned to play first base or be a catcher, or better yet that I'd fought to try out for a team. I didn't. I was too well socialized. It was all vicarious pleasure.

I didn't really understand that until years later. I was in Vero Beach, Fla. -- Dodgertown. It was the off-season. I was attending a seminar. (Don't ask; there's no good reason to hold a seminar there.) One night I walked over to the ball field with a couple of friends. The field was empty, but the lights had been left on. The grass was Hollywood green, the air sultry and troublemaking. The students were rebelling in Tiananmen Square, and my heart was with them. The infield dirt was dark, unmarred, fresh. I was overcome with the impulse to run the bases. So I did.

I've always been a pretty good sprinter. But the endorphins kicked in, and for the space of time I sailed those bases, I understood what Joey must have known all along: This was joy. This was another consciousness. Home plate loomed too soon. The two guys with me were speechless. Not at seeing a woman run the bases -- but at seeing me run the bases. I felt a little sheepish but triumphant. I had danced on sacred land -- and it was sinfully sweet.

The summer I graduated from high school, I met the man I would marry after college. He drove a red Mustang and played second base and shortstop for our American Legion team. And he looked great in a uniform. David and Joey were friends, but they were very different. Joey came from a working-class family, was at ease with a crowd, and had a bonhomie that made him the center of attention at every postgame party. David came from a couple generations of land wealth. He was quiet and possessed a dry wit and an air of calm. It was that very mix of personalities that, I came to understand, made a team. The chemistry of a group of ballplayers can transcend or defeat individual talent -- that's part of the magic (in business as in baseball). Joey, David, and their teammates played every game with heart and passion. As Annie Savoy says in the film Bull Durham, "There's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring, sorta like sex."

In 1975, three years after David and I married, I moved to Boston to attend graduate school and lived within walking distance of Fenway Park. That fall I was in the stands for the sixth game of the World Series. Every Red Sox fan knows that was the game in which Carlton Fisk hit a home run in the 12th inning to beat the Cincinnati Reds. It was a hit to send the spirit to heaven. Voices joined in a primal scream of thanksgiving. I've taken part in standing ovations at a few great performances on Broadway; I remember London shows to take to my grave; and I wept when I watched Gregory Hines dance at the Joyce Theater in New York City. That performance at Fenway was just as thrilling.

The next day, of course, the Sox cruelly lost the series. I say that as though the team did it intentionally. I was irrational on that subject. But that's why I love the game. The very essence of watching baseball is that your mastery of your emotions, your senses, and your otherwise functional brain is hopelessly lost in the tension of the moment.

So in spite of that heartless jilting, I stayed true to the Sox, and for the next decade lived and worked in the city that, every spring, offered up another season of masochists' delight. I can describe how Fenway Park looks under a full moon, a setting sun, and a game-canceling downpour. I can recall the sound of the organ during the seventh-inning stretch and the moan of the crowd when the final strike was called with the bases loaded and our guys behind by three. David and I divorced in 1977. My love of baseball outlasted the marriage.

Then, in 1986, Boston was racked by pennant fever again. It was the summer when baseball tickets were good currency and a night at the park triggered memories of the boys I'd loved. My business partner, Jane, and I discovered we shared a love of baseball. We told baseball stories and went to games. We already owned one business together. One of us suggested that someday we "oughta buy a ball club." Now there was an idea. I don't think I could have imagined owning a team earlier. But once you've owned your first company, you are forever changed. Anything seems possible.

There were things I wanted to know: what did those guys talk about when they gathered at the mound? Theoretically, they were talking about strategy or giving the pitcher a pep talk. (I later found the scene in Bull Durham in which the guys meet at the mound and discuss everything from wedding presents to voodoo spells a more convincing possibility.) And there were things I wanted to do: sit in the dugout, hang out on the field, make the stadium a fun place and accessible to all. I wanted to be at the heart of the game, and short of being the pitcher, ownership began to seem like the next best thing.

Then baseball began to change. The free-agent system -- while democratically sound and appealing to my principles -- made it hard to develop an allegiance to a particular set of guys. That chemistry I had learned about in high school -- the je ne sais quoi of the team -- was harder to sustain when players were moving from one park to another. Owners had aggravated the situation for years by treating players like chattel. Greed replaced grandeur. Ball clubs were beginning to look like ordinary big companies, run by ordinary old men. I had already left one of those companies behind and had no interest in getting into another.

It's been a long time since I believed the conventional wisdom that work must be hard labor, that life must be filled with pain. It seems to me that if you have a choice between making a business that's fun and fills a need and one that fills a need and isn't fun, you'd have to have a pretty compelling reason (I can't name one offhand) to choose the latter. I began to pay attention to minor-league teams. I began to hear stories of people who'd bought teams and turned them into small gems. Some even made money.

Recently, I was in Columbus, Ga., home of the Red Stix, a minor-league team with a sweet little stadium that's clean as a whistle. With the exception of an announcer who grated on my nerves (he'd have to go) and an overabundance of park games and lotteries (baseball, like ballet, is elegant; it should not be cluttered with stupid distractions), the Red Stix was the perfect example of the team I want. The hometown crowd was out; kids were in the stands. Rock and roll played between innings. Tickets were $3 a seat. It was a warm night. I had been on the road for almost six weeks. I was tired, and weary of dressing up and chatting with strangers.

The game between the Stix and the Catfish was an antidote. I sat there thinking about what a perfect experience this was, the way it filled so many hungers. Then I began to think about what I'd do if I owned the park and the team. (Dump the announcer, pare back the lottery games, run a shuttle to local hotels.) The difference between the Walter and Ellen Mittys of the world and the entrepreneurs is that the Mittys are content with their fantasies. For better or worse, entrepreneurs feel compelled to do something about them.

The next day I was to give a talk to the local business community. Seated next to one of the chamber of commerce members, I described the pleasure of the night I'd spent at the ball game and confided my desire to someday own a team of my own. I have written elsewhere that women are often not taken seriously. (That is cited as the number one barrier for woman business owners.) Bless that man's heart, without missing a beat, he asked if I would like to meet the current owner -- he was sure he'd be open to considering a partner. I was breathless. Then they called my name, and I put the offer aside to deliver my speech.

Since leaving Columbus, I have thought often about calling the chamber member. But I'm just at the beginning of business number two. And as seductive as the dream is, I am committed to creating something that makes money and a difference for the next generation of women, now teenagers. The fantasy is on the shelf. My baseball team will wait. It knows I'm coming.

* * *

Joline Godfrey, author of Our Wildest Dreams and the forthcoming Future Now: How Women Entrepreneurs Realize Their Wildest Dreams, has founded and run her own business.

Last updated: Nov 1, 1993




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