Three years ago, while still a Stanford University business student, Dave Kaval attended a Single-A baseball game in suburban Eastlake, Ohio. Watching the Lake County Captains play ball on the outskirts of Cleveland, Kaval enjoyed the complete minor-league experience. He bought a ticket for five bucks. He sat so close to the field that he could hear the players cracking open sunflower seeds. In between innings he was entertained by "mattress runs," "dizzy bat races," and a fuzzy mascot named Skipper. He loved every minute of it.
As a baseball fan, Kaval had dreamed of owning his own baseball team. And as an entrepreneur, he thought he had the skills to make it happen. So he started studying how to bring a minor-league team to the suburbs of the East Bay. His thoughts quickly turned to Pleasanton. It was a lot like Eastlake -- loaded with families, and just outside the hub of a thriving Major League Baseball metropolis. Then Kaval learned that Major League Baseball had already sliced up the map and placed Pleasanton within the "halo" of the Oakland Athletics. In other words, if he wanted to field a minor-league club, he was obligated to become an affiliate of the A's.
"That sounded crazy to me," Kaval said. "That was like saying I couldn't open a movie theater here because UA, or whoever, owned the rights."
His other option was to start a team anyway, but to join an independent league not affiliated with Major League Baseball. The problem there was that independent leagues had historically created more paupers than corporate titans. And many of those paupers were concentrated in the West, where the conventional wisdom on independent baseball is that it just doesn't work.
The criticism goes like this: California is already infested with Major League teams (five) and affiliated minor-league teams (thirteen). Plus, the cities are just too far away from one another in the western United States; gas for chartering buses can swallow a team's whole expense budget. And then there's the quality of the play. The rap on independent baseball is that it sucks. The players are described as a sad assortment of has-been and never-were minor leaguers. In short, aging plumbers who moonlight throwing 40-mile-per-hour fastballs.
If all that weren't enough to convince Kaval that independent baseball was a sucker's game, in 2002 the eight-team Western Baseball League collapsed after struggling for eight years and -- woosh! -- wasting a reported $7 million.
Did the 29-year-old Kaval balk? No. Instead, he drew up a business plan with Stanford classmate Amit Patel and named it: "The Diamond Project: Bringing Independent Baseball Back to California." They proposed a novel means of controlling costs: A single-entity ownership. Unlike the ill-fated owners of the Western Baseball League, they would own every baseball, every team, and every player's contract.
Their product would be the Ultimate Minor League Experience -- all hot dogs and apple pie, hold the steroids, thank you very much. During his time in Ohio, Kaval had noticed that a trip to the ballpark amounted to a cultural outing for suburban families. Cheaper than the movies, less violent than a video game, and healthier than an evening in front of the tube, a ball game offered three solid hours of entertainment -- especially between the innings. He wanted patrons of the Golden Baseball League to know that each time they walked into a game with their family they were in for some good clean fun.
Ideally, the teams of the Golden Baseball League would play in cities with no fewer than 65,000 residents, no matter whether these cities were in the "halo" of a Major League team. Although the old-school theory held that Major League competition was bad for an independent team, Kaval figured that a nearby Major League club might actually help attract fans turned off by $8 garlic fries and multi-million-dollar egos.
From a marketing perspective, the partners decided, the Golden Baseball League would revere families and the suburbs in which they live. In fact, the teams would attempt to give these suburbs a sense of identity.
"There are thirty to forty markets in California alone that fit this bill," Kaval said, pointing out of his Pleasanton office window. "You go to these communities, and sometimes, what's the sense of community? What does it mean to be a person who lives in Livermore or Pleasanton?"
He let the question hang in the air for consideration. Then he answered it himself.
"A minor-league team can bring a lot of focus and sense of civic pride to a community like this," he said. "Too many people come home, see what's on the dish, the kids are on the X-Box, and they don't know who lives next to them. We think people out here are starving for this kind of entertainment."
Kaval will find out whether he's right on May 26 when Wheel of Fortune host and angel investor Pat Sajak throws out the league's opening pitch from a mound in Surprise, Arizona. In his crusade to reinvent independent baseball, he is betting that his fans, to some degree, are less concerned with the world-class competition on the field than with the fuzzy mascot atop the dugout. He's betting that just as Barry Bonds has announced that he's tired of all of us, families may be equally tired of the likes of him. Kaval believes they're ready for Familyball.
Falcons and Jets
In late March, Kaval sat behind his desk dressed in a loose blazer and slacks. Three things were written on his dry erase board: falcons, jets, Japan. He was just 56 days away from opening day and, even though it wasn't apparent from his cheery demeanor, he had a major problem. He had only seven teams. A planned team in Tijuana had fallen through, and he needed an eighth one to round out the competition. So far he'd signed up players in Chico, Fullerton, Long Beach, and San Diego, and in the Arizona cities of Mesa, Yuma, and Surprise. To find his final club he was prepared to go to Japan, of all places, and bring one back. But first, falcons.
For opening day in Surprise, home of the Fightin' Falcons, Kaval envisioned a team of real falcons soaring above the outfield during the singing of the national anthem. Just when the song climaxed, Kaval saw a pair of jet fighters, hired from the local Air Force base, screaming overhead. Afterward, he saw the falcons swirling above the pitcher's mound, then gently descending to their keeper's gauntleted arm, just as he'd seen at the Olympics.
"You gotta give the people an experience they won't forget!" Kaval yelled from across his desk. Kaval's voice, especially when talking about baseball, can reach a shout that exposes his enthusiasm. Earlier, he'd dialed the Phoenix Zoo and learned that its only available falcon was injured -- "On the D.L.," he joked. The spokesperson suggested that Kaval try the Arizona Falconers' Association.
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