No Ordinary Joe

NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT LIFE IN THE MINORS BETTER THAN 71-YEAR-OLD JOE BUZAS, WHO HAS OWNED A DOZEN FRANCHISES IN 17 CITIES
July 22, 1990

Five o'clock is quitting time for most people in the Northern California town of Salinas. But for Joe Buzas, the work is just beginning. Out at Municipal Stadium, where the Salinas Spurs play, he's getting ready for a baseball game. He checks the soda machines at the concession stands, makes sure the beer kegs are tapped and the counters wiped. He dumps a few dozen hot dogs into a steamer, and then walks out to the stands to watch infield practice. Ten minutes later, he ducks into a dingy office and sits behind a desk.

Buzas takes out a pencil eraser and begins scrubbing marks off old baseballs. "I can make these clean enough to use in the game tonight," he says. "It's also my therapy. I'm nervous today. We've lost 12 in a row." The phone rings often. Callers want to know what time the game starts, how much tickets cost, what day Max Patkin, the clown prince of baseball, is coming to town. "Don't wait for Max Patkin," Buzas barks into the phone. "Get down here tonight." Two young boys step in and hand him several baseballs they have retrieved from the parking lot. He gives each boy a few dollars. "These balls were hit out during batting practice," he says. "See, they're all in pretty good shape."

When fans begin arriving, Buzas moves to the front gate to take tickets. He greets many people by their first names. Even those he doesn't know, he welcomes enthusiastically. "Good to see you," he says. "Glad you could make it."

A line forms at a concession stand, and Buzas hops behind the counter to pour a few Cokes. He sees a young boy talking to the souvenir salesman. "Hey, kid, you want to work tonight?" he asks. The boy points to himself and asks, "Me?"

Buzas says, "Yes, you." In minutes the new worker is passing out peanuts. "I recruit people from the stands all the time," Buzas says. "Once, we were so busy I had an umpire take tickets."

Buzas is 71 years old, and he has been taking tickets and pouring Cokes in smalltown stadiums nearly half his life. He owns minor league baseball teams. In fact, he has owned more of them—12 in 17 cities—and has been at it longer, 34 years, than anyone in the game today.

His first team was the Allentown (Pa.) Red Sox of the Double A Eastern League. Buzas acquired the Red Sox in 1956, and though he has moved the team seven times, most recently in 1983 to New Britain, Conn., he still has the franchise, and it's still affiliated with Boston. Buzas also controls the Class A Spurs, an independent California League franchise; and the Portland (Ore.) Beavers, the Minnesota Twins' Triple A team in the Pacific Coast League. In the past, he has owned ball clubs from Sumter, S.C., to Oneonta, N.Y., to Knoxville, Tenn. For two seasons, 1973 and '74, he held a Red Sox affiliate at three levels of the minor leagues, and he has owned two clubs in the same league at the same time. He says there was no conflict of interest because the league agreed to the setup. Some 700 major leaguers have played on his teams, including Roger Clemens, Mark Davis and Ryne Sandberg.

But Buzas doesn't just collect baseball teams. He has made millions with them over the years. He is a common-sense businessman who found profits in the minors long before high-rolling speculators began pushing the value of franchises sky-high. "People laugh at me for cleaning baseballs, but at three dollars a ball, I've saved a lot of money," he says. Buzas is always thinking of ways to save money. He used to bag leftover popcorn and haul it in his car to the stadium where another of his teams played. "Some of the stories sound silly," says Gerry Berthiaume, general manager of the New Britain Red Sox and a Buzas employee for nine years. "But people know that if you have worked for Joe, then you have learned from the best operator in the game."

Buzas spends most of the Salinas game collecting money from the concession stands. He never sees more than an inning or two. When the game ends, he is back in the office, counting the piles of dollar bills spread on the top of his desk. He's disappointed. The Spurs have lost their 13th in a row, the team batting average is still under .200 and only 393 fans attended tonight's game. Friends stop by on their way out to say goodbye and give encouragement.

Coaches and players filter in. When Buzas sees Corey Paul, a young outfielder who had two hits, he hollers, "You had better keep it up or I'll fire you." Paul suddenly looks anxious. "Don't worry, kid," Buzas says with a big smile. "You're doing fine." A pitcher comes by and Buzas chides him about the batter who fouled off nearly a dozen fast-balls that night before finally striking out on a curve. "All those foul balls cost me money," he says. "Throw the curve sooner and get it over with."

He doesn't get back to his motel until midnight. Though he has been going since 6 a.m. and has passed on his customary afternoon nap, he's still full of energy. Buzas is in terrific shape. He's six feet two inches and, at 190 pounds, only five pounds heavier than he was on the day he opened the 1945 season as the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees. He has never smoked or used alcohol. He gulps vitamins every morning, then has fruit and a bowl of cold cereal. He travels with a supply of jalapeño peppers and eats one before dinner. Buzas exercises almost every day: weightlifting, bike riding, calisthenics, shadow boxing. Occasionally, he takes batting practice. His hair is brown and thin on top, and when asked if he dyes it, Buzas grins and says, "No, I use shoe polish." He looks and acts much younger than his years. "I have thought about slowing down, even getting out altogether," he says. "But I love what I'm doing too much to stop."

A native of Alpha, N.J., Buzas vividly remembers government workers doling out butter and cheese to the needy during the Depression. "A lot of my parents' friends lined up for that food," Buzas says. "These were proud people, and you could see in their faces how devastated they were. I guess that's where I learned to be thrifty."

When he wasn't working at his parents' grocery store, Buzas was playing sports. He earned an athletic scholarship to Bucknell University and starred on the basketball, football and baseball teams. Several major league teams courted him, and after leaving school in 1941, he signed a Yankee contract with Paul Krichell, the legendary scout who inked Lou Gehrig.

After being turned down a third time by his draft board because of a perforated eardrum ("What's the matter, don't you want to win the war?" he said), Buzas toiled in the minors for four years before getting the call to the Yankees. And on Opening Day in 1945, with regular shortstop Frank Crosetti holding out, manager Joe McCarthy penciled Buzas in as the starting shortstop. "A dream comes true," Buzas recalls. "I just floated out to my position." He drove in a run that day and batted .262 in his first 30 games. But a nagging shoulder injury hampered his throwing, and by June he could hardly lift his arm. McCarthy sent Buzas home to rest the shoulder, and he never played in the majors again.

He did stay in baseball, playing some minor league ball and then managing in the Puerto Rico winter leagues. After eight years in Puerto Rico, Joe returned to Alpha to help his wife, Penny, run a department store and was a partner with his brother in a construction company. "But I was interested in getting back into the game," Buzas says. The chance came in 1956, when Eastern League president Tommy Richardson offered him the Double A Red Sox franchise. For free.

Since then, Buzas has collected minor league baseball teams with the ardor of a boy collecting baseball cards. "I didn't pay a dime for some of the first teams I owned," he says. Some of the ones he acquired were run-down and bleeding red ink. "But every team I've ever owned has made money," Buzas says. "Every one."

Indeed. He bought the Spurs in November 1988, and Buzas says that last season the team made money for the first time in a decade. The Portland Beavers drew 188,000 fans in 1985, the year before Joe bought them, and ran a deficit. Attendance fell by 50,000 the following season, yet Buzas turned a profit. He has also brought long-term value to franchises. Buzas paid $1 for the Double A Reading (Pa.) Phillies in 1976. Ten years later, he sold the team for $1,000,001. He says he recently turned down a $4 million offer for the New Britain Red Sox, the team he was given 34 years ago.

How does he do it? "These are the minors and you can't have big league giveaways or you'll lose big money," he says. He does donate thousands of tickets a year to school groups and Little League teams. But with one caveat: "The kids have to be accompanied by adults, and the adults have to buy their own tickets." Big bucks also come from soda and hot dog sales. "That's where we make our money," Buzas says. He'll wait hours to call a rainout just to squeeze as many concession sales as possible from the crowd.

He's always finding new ways to cut costs. The Spurs are an independent club and the owner must assemble and finance the entire roster himself. That can get expensive, so after buying the team, Buzas went to several Japanese baseball teams and suggested that they let some of their players join the Spurs to learn more about baseball in the U.S. In return, Buzas asked $10,000 for each player he took in, as well as money to cover all wages, meals and lodging. He cut deals with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks and the Yakult Swallows, and Salinas now has nine Japanese players and a Japanese manager.

Buzas has also done business with other unlikely partners. Pia Zadora, for instance. Five years ago, the actress and her manager, Tino Barzie, a longtime friend of Buzas's, put up 37½% of the purchase price for the Portland Beavers, with Buzas retaining a 62½% stake. Zadora even made a visit to Portland and sang the national anthem before a Beavers game. Alas, only 1,800 fans showed up. Buzas has since bought out Zadora and Barzie.

Buzas is often accused of being cheap, but that's not entirely fair. He is tightfisted with his ball clubs, but disarmingly generous otherwise. "Joe will jump all over you for wasting a 25-cent stamp," says John Jonas, general manager of the Spurs. "But that same night he'll take you out to a big dinner." Tammy Felker White, the assistant general manager of the Beavers, remembers when Buzas first came to Portland: "Joe used to walk from his hotel to the stadium, and every day he passed a group of beggars. Joe always gave them money."

Because he's on the road most of the season, spending weeks at a time with each of his three teams, Buzas doesn't get a chance to see much of Penny, his wife of 45 years. "I call her every day and try to get home as much as possible," he says. Home is a ranch-style brick house in Reading, but Joe never stays more than a few weeks there in the summer. He also rarely sees his daughter, Hilary, 36, a clinical psychologist in Chicago, or his son, Jason, 38, a theater director in New York City. "I miss them," Buzas says. "I travel a lot, but I am doing what I want. How many people can make money at their hobby?"

During his 34 years in the minors, Joe Buzas has had plenty of offers to move up to the majors in various front-office jobs. But he has turned down every one. "I love being my own boss," he says. "But most of all, I love the people. The towns are small, the stadiums are small. I have always been able to meet the people and get to know them. That's what makes it so good."

PHOTOAS A YANKEE SHORTSTOP, BUZAS HAD AN EYE FOR THE BALL, AND HE HAS IT TODAY PHOTONATIONAL BASEBALL LIBRARY[See caption above.] THREE PHOTOSCRAIG MOLENHOUSEA BUSY BUZAS: GREETING LEON DURHAM, PEDDLING WARES, WOOING THE JAPANESE AND COUNTING THE TAKE THREE PHOTOSDAMIAN STROHMEYER[See caption above.]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)