May 19, 2013

On Baseball: The Art of the minor league deal on display in Manchester, N.H.

By Kevin Thomas kthomas@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

MANCHESTER, N.H. - When the New Hampshire Fisher Cats joined the Eastern League in 2004, there was talk of a state border rivalry between the Manchester team and the Portland Sea Dogs.

But the Sea Dogs saw the rivalry dealing with more than baseball games.

Manchester wanted to be affiliated with the Boston Red Sox. That speculation began in 2002 when the city negotiated with owner Drew Weber over a proposed baseball stadium in Manchester. Weber already owned one Red Sox-affiliated minor league team, the Lowell Spinners of the New York-Penn League.

In 2002, Boston's Eastern League affiliate was in Trenton, N.J. After 2002, the Red Sox announced they were moving their affiliation to Portland, squashing Manchester's hopes.

But when Weber sold his majority interest in the Fisher Cats in 2005, the new owner made it clear that he wanted the Red Sox affiliation.

Art Solomon, who would eventually buy out Weber completely, did not keep his intentions secret. In a speech to a local group in New Hampshire, he said "we'll try our best" to get the Red Sox affiliation.

While Sea Dogs fans were concerned about Manchester's geographical advantage -- the city is only 55 miles from Fenway Park -- Red Sox officials have continually emphasized that they like their team in Portland, and have backed up those words with four-year contract renewals, the latest of which runs through 2018.

So where does that leave Manchester?

Doing quite well, actually. The Fisher Cats rank third in the 12-team league in attendance with an average of 4,830. Portland, still awaiting its lucrative summer months, is sixth (3,869).

Solomon has a successful team in Manchester while it remains a Toronto Blue Jays affiliate.

"We do great with Toronto," Solomon said last week while sitting in a skybox at the beautiful Northeast Delta Dental Stadium.

Solomon, a native of New Haven, Conn., said it was natural to want a Red Sox affiliation.

"Any New England team would like the Red Sox," Solomon said. "When I first bought the team, I thought it would make a big difference (in New Hampshire's success)."

But Solomon now realizes two factors.

"I think the Red Sox are very happy with Portland," he said. "And I don't know how much difference (the Red Sox affiliate) would honestly make.

"If you look at attendance, we and the Sea Dogs are pretty even ... I'm seeing now that if the team is competitive and you do all the good things ..."

Solomon has an impressive business resume, especially as a real estate developer. He said the key to owning a minor league team is to run it as a business while still having fun.

"I don't do as well as I do in real estate, but I don't want to run it as a loss," he said.

Solomon is enjoying ownership so much that he bought another team. He purchased the Class A team in Columbus, Ga., and moved it to Bowling Green, Ky.

And Solomon's family caught the bug. His three children, Josh Solomon, Jim Solomon and Jennifer Goorno, bought the New Britain Rock Cats last year.

Is Art Solomon done buying teams?

"I'm not actively looking," Solomon said. "But if I could find another team in the Northeast, maybe a New York-Penn team ..."

Solomon has put his ownership experiences into a book, titled "Making It in the Minors: A Team Owner's Lessons in the Business of Baseball" (McFarland Publishers).

Solomon jokes about his own baseball career ending as an All-Star shortstop in the New Haven Little League. But now he can stay around the game.

"I can't afford a major league team. This was a way to get involved," he said. "When I bought the team, I didn't know what to expect. I knew I enjoyed baseball a lot.

"One of the big surprises for me, unlike other forms of entertainment, you get multiple generations coming out. I've had four generations of my family attend games -- and everyone has fun. It's a blast."

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

kthomas@pressherald.com

Twitter: ClearTheBases

 

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