When Tom Kushner cruised the streets of Bridgeport in the 1980s as a volunteer ambulance driver, the wide-eyed Fairfield University undergraduate was unsettled by what he saw, scarcely imagining he would ever willingly return to those unquiet streets.
Now more than twenty years later, the New Canaan business executive is not only back in Bridgeport but staking a claim as a principal investor in its minor league baseball team, the Bridgeport Bluefish, which plays at what Kushner and his partners regard as their own “Field of Dreams.” The Ballpark at Harbor Yard is an undeniable gem, overlooking Long Island Sound and passed every half hour or so by Metro-North trains, whose whistles blow in greeting to fans watching home games on warm summer nights.
But those fans have been less in evidence of late. During the 2004 season, the ballpark was often only half full. Kushner and his partners are fixing to change that.
“We want to see a lot of smiles in that stadium,” Kushner explains. “I’m sure there are financial goals, but in the first year of a turnaround situation, we have got to put fannies in the seats, make ’em smile, make ’em come back.”
Only eight years ago, the Bridgeport Bluefish burst onto the scene with much fanfare as part of the brand-new Atlantic League. A minor league baseball enterprise not formally connected with the major leagues, the Bluefish has featured both past and future major leaguers and topflight minor-league talent looking for a fresh opportunity to draw some eyes. Boosted by fan buy-in, the Atlantic League took off right away. None of its franchises had more success coming out of the gate than the Bluefish, which set league attendance records that remain today.
But the good times didn’t last. First came 9/11, then the imprisonment of Bridgeport’s longtime mayor and biggest Bluefish backer Joseph Ganim. The city clashed with Bluefish cofounder and then chief owner Mickey Herbert about the Harbor Yard lease. Last year, having fallen an estimated $4.5 million in the red, Herbert announced he had had enough.
For a time there were fears the Bluefish might pull up stakes like other Connecticut sports franchises of the recent past. Enter Kushner, a senior executive with AIG Financial Products, and his friend Tom Schneider, an executive at the Rowayton-based Graham Capital Management hedge fund, who lives in Westport. Together with longtime Bluefish co-owner Mary-Jane Foster and her husband, Jack MacGregor, both of Bridgeport, they assembled a team of fellow investors who bought the Bluefish in December 2005 for an undisclosed sum. Since then they have set about rejuvenating the ball club with infusions of new capital.
Call them crazy, call them spendthrift, but they have a plan to turn things around.
“The team has lost money every year it has been in existence,” Schneider explains. “Realistically, to come in and change that in a year is going to be hard. But with our financial backgrounds, we can do a lot of things with the business side of it.”
“I did a fair amount of reading on how people make money in the minor leagues,” Kushner adds.
“You buy an undervalued franchise that can’t make any money, and then you move it to another city and make it work. That was certainly a way we could have gone, but we chose not to. If you look at the demographics of Fairfield and New Haven counties, it’s a marketer’s dream. If you can’t make that work, there’s something wrong with you.”
Kushner shares a laugh in the living room of his New Canaan home with two other local members of the investor group. Mike Kramer runs Kramer Capital and specializes in restructuring troubled businesses, including some professional sports franchises. Peter Trager is a colleague of Kushner’s at AIG Financial Products.
What’s the attraction of the Bluefish for this trio of Yankee fans? As they describe it, it’s an opportunity to engage more deeply in the game they love, as well as ensure that the experience remains available to others in their community.
“It’s an easy trip for any sports fan,” says Kramer, who resembles legendary
Yankees right-fielder Hank Bauer with his round face and buzztop haircut. “You don’t have the hassles of some of the Yankees or Mets games. It’s very close, convenient to get to.”
“Also the price,” Kushner notes. A clean-cut man of conservative bearing, whose spectacles give him the appearance of an amiable accountant, Kushner was prompted to make the purchase in part by an old friend, Yankees manager Joe Torre, whom he has known since childhood. “I have tickets behind home plate,” Kushner says. “When I take my kids to Yankee Stadium, I’ve spent $350 before I park my car. For a fraction of that, I can see a Bluefish game, buy some beer, have a couple of pretzels.”
Trager, short and lean, makes his points with a nervous energy that defines his spark-plug persona among the group. Kushner calls him “a real idea generator for us.”
“My deal is I’m a sports junkie,” Trager says. “I play on a men’s softball team with Tom [Kushner]. I have two daughters, Sydney, twelve, and Jacqueline, ten, so I have to coach two teams. I’m always on the field. This is an extension of my passion. I’m finally doing something for myself.”
Not to mention the greater Bridgeport area. The Park City has always regarded the Bluefish as a beacon of hope, or what Paul Timpanelli, president and CEO of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, calls “a wonderful morale booster, a wonderful community booster.” For a few years, the team did deliver. Then-manager Willie Upshaw helmed a winning club that sold out the stadium regularly and won a league championship in 1999. Then it all began to crumble.
Charlie Dowd, who has been the Bluefish general manager since the beginning, was there to see the team’s front office literally shut down as Herbert struggled to deal with mounting debt.
“It got to the point where last year we didn’t even have an advertising budget,” Dowd recalls. “In a business based wholly on discretionary consumer spending, that’s a real challenge.”
Total season attendance slipped from 242,000 in 2004 to under 200,000 last summer. The negativity off the field, including contentious lease negotiations between Herbert and the city of Bridgeport, was filtering down to the field, and the team suffered its first losing season under manager Chico Lind.
“The main problem, I feel, was Lind’s continuing negative remarks toward his players during the second half of the season,” notes Connecticut Post sports columnist Chris Elsberry. “Instead of yelling at them privately behind closed doors, he did it publicly in the news-paper. That had to alienate many, if not all, of the players.”
Watching the team’s decline hurt many of its fans, particularly cofounder Mary-Jane Foster, who with her husband still controlled more than 10 percent of the franchise. She remembered the good old days with Upshaw, the 1999 crown, and a city that embraced a team it had once joked about naming the “Bridgeport Drive-Bys” or “Bridgeport Bankruptcies.” Those glory days could be recaptured with the right investment team, she believed. So last summer she set about assembling such a group.
Meanwhile, well outside the city limits, Kushner and Schneider were having a conversation with Steve Kalafer, owner of another Atlantic League team, the Somerset Patriots, in Bridgewater, New Jersey.
“Initially Tom and I were just interested in getting into some facet of baseball,” Schneider remembers. “Steve said if we were interested, why not buy the Bluefish. We had no idea it was for sale.”
Schneider’s zeal for baseball is every bit the equal of Kushner’s, though his team is the Mets — so much so that he bought a home in Port St. Lucie, Florida, so he could spend time there during spring training. As Kushner consulted with Trager and Torre, Schneider got in touch with Mary-Jane. He learned that she was in the process of assembling her own group of investors, and a series of meetings at Bridgeport-area restaurants was scheduled between the two groups.
“I put on eight pounds during those two months of negotiations,” Kushner chuckles.
Revisiting Bridgeport was a surprise to Kushner, who expected crime scenes and found elegant bistros instead. The city still has its share of dicey neighborhoods, as the desolate streets that surround Harbor Yard silently attest. But he found more to like than dislike about the Park City, and Kushner soon became a Bridgeport booster.
Also selling him on the city were his experiences at Harbor Yard with his three young children, Emilie, Daniel and Katie.
“I went with one of my daughters’ YWCA princess tribe,” he recalls. “We sat by the third base dugout. One of the ballplayers threw up a ball that hit the top of the dugout, and one of the kids got it. They were right in on the action.”
You are never far from the action at Harbor Yard unless you want to be. There is a special area in the stadium where children can go and play if they tire of the game, and the team has engaged fans in the past by shooting T-shirts into the stands and videotaping spectators, then projecting those images on the stadium scoreboard. The camera and the T-shirt gun were broken last season, but both are being brought back.
“At Yankee Stadium, at best you see on the scoreboard, ‘The Yankees welcome Cub Scout Troop 714’ along with 500 other groups,” Trager says. “At our stadium, we’re welcoming Cub Scout Troop 714, and they may be sleeping over on the field that night.”
Of course community outreach has its limits. Kushner sighs at the discovery that his son had been offering batboy positions to all his friends at school, not to mention promising each of his teachers they can throw out the first ball. It’s a generational vortex, for sure.
“Growing up, I’d be lucky going to two or three Yankee games a year,” Trager says.
While attendance has been light of late, the Bluefish attract a hard core of loyal fans. Neal and Mary Balkun of New Canaan have been taking their son T.J., now sixteen, and daughter Kelly, now thirteen, to Bluefish games since the inaugural season. (Two other children still too young to come along wait in the wings.)
“I think minor league teams play a lot better, a lot harder, than major league teams,” Neal says. “The stadium is more fan- and family-friendly too.”
T.J. has grown into an avid Yankee fan and stats maven, while Kelly focuses on playing softball. “I think this area has a lot of Bluefish fans,” Neal says. “We always meet people from around here at the games.”
Mike Guilfoyle is also a believer in the quality of Bluefish baseball, and he should know. He saved 122 games for them from 1998 to 2003, an Atlantic League record. (He has another for most saves in a season, 40 in 2003.) Now retired and a police officer in Fairfield, Guilfoyle describes the Atlantic League as “highly competitive” and credits the Bluefish with having some of baseball’s best fans.
“They are really diehards who know every inch of the game,” he says. “In the regular, affiliated minor leagues, fans come for the promotion and everyone is gone by the seventh inning. I didn’t sense that in Bridgeport.”
Guilfoyle’s attitude during his Bridgeport playing days, that “this is my big leagues, and I’m going to give it all I got,” is mirrored by other Atlantic League players. Dave LaPoint, a onetime major- league pitching star who was named the new Bluefish manager last February, praises the league for having “the talent without the politics.”
“A lot of organizations are getting smarter and using this independent league as a training ground,” LaPoint says. “Many of the players and coaches have major league experience, and anyone who plays in the conference is a free agent for all thirty-two major-league teams. Some of us feel players are getting better training here than in the majors.”
Each Atlantic League team plays a 122-game schedule, no light load, and players have opportunities to impress major-league scouts with an eye for a bargain. Others just want to prove they have something left.
“There are players who know they are at their last step, so they put forth their best effort,” LaPoint says. Dowd doesn’t think the Bluefish are hurt by their proximity to the major league venues in Queens and the Bronx. In fact, he thinks it helps.
“You benefit from the contrast in pricing and accessibility,” he says. “Also, when you come to Harbor Yard, you sit no more than twenty rows from the playing surface. The kids are going to go on the field and get an autograph before the game. On Sundays they will run the bases. And the physical difference between our guys and their guys is pretty minimal. Many times, I think kids are as happy coming here.”
Kushner and his group see plenty of en- thusiasm to tap into in their own backyard.
“The South School PTC had a fund-raiser a couple weeks ago, and we donated the opportunity to be the Bluefish manager for a day,” Kushner recalls. “I was prepared to take it myself for $500; I figured that was a lot of money for it to go for. But a bidding war ensued. It finally traded for $1,600, and only after my friend stopped bidding when this woman who was bidding against him came over and said: ‘Listen, we’re moving back to Canada, and this is something my son will absolutely flip over. Please stop bidding.’”
Trager sees evidence of a New Canaan fan base too. “After we got involved, I’d go to cocktail parties and get accosted by people, like guys saying that their law firm has season tickets and they take their clients to games, not kids. I’ve had plenty of people come over and say, ‘I’ve been to a game with the kids, and it’s been great.’
“My response is we can do more. New Canaan could be better in getting bigger groups to go, getting the school bands to go. My wife and Tom’s wife are organizing all the elementary schools.”
Under the new management, the team has already more than doubled its front-office staff, adding marketing professionals for the first time in more than a year. Additional capital investment is expected to follow.
“We cleaned everything up from a financial standpoint,” Kramer notes. “Now we are looking at how we can put more money to work. Buy a new T-shirt shooter. Upgrade the video display for the scoreboard. Clean up the stadium. Bring better food, concessions, into the ballpark. Bring better talent, different acts, into the ballpark.”
Not to mention more fans, though the notion that the Bluefish will lose money in 2006 seems a given. “From our standpoint, we’re going to look at it as a success if we get that stadium rocking, if there’s a good feeling going, and people are excited about it,” Kramer says.
“I hope the fans continue to come out and support us, and that we put a good product out on the field for them,” Schneider muses. “I know we’re trying our best to make it fun, and we want to give as much back into the community as we can. We are going to have some promotions, some charitable events, things like that. Each year, we are going to go out and ask for more sponsorship. Get the revenue part of the business going, with sales, corporate events, fantasy events. Continue to put money back into the stadium and make it that much more enjoyable an experience so people keep coming back.”
Some local residents won’t be all that hard to sell. “We’ll be there this summer,” Balkun says, speaking for his family. “Yeah, we’ll be there.”