Welcome to Ben's Bookshelf, a recurring offseason column that will highlight Minor League books of note. Interested in submitting a book for review or providing your opinion on recent Minor League-themed releases? Then send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @bensbiz.
If there's one thing that everyone can agree on when it comes to baseball books, it would be this: there sure are a lot of them.
A search for "baseball" in Amazon's books department yields a whopping 37,648 results, ranging from era-defining classics ("Ball Four") to buzz-generating debut novels ("The Art of Fielding") to off-the-assembly-line inspirational tomes (Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul). Yet within this world of printed word abundance, it's nearly impossible to find anything of substance dealing with the oft-overlooked but vitally important subject of running a modern-day Minor League Baseball team.
Into this void steps Arthur Solomon, owner of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats and Bowling Green Hot Rods and, now, author. His new book, "Making It in the Minors," subtitled, "A Team Owner's Lessons in the Business of Baseball," offers a thorough overview of what goes into running a Minor League club. (In keeping with the community-minded approach that is so integral to the industry, all proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to Minor League Baseball charities.)
While the Minors operate on a much smaller financial scale than Major League Baseball, purchasing a team still represents a serious investment -- anywhere from $4 million for an underperforming short-season club to approximately $35 million for the cream of the Triple-A crop. Solomon, a lifelong baseball fan who splits his time between Rhode Island and Massachusetts, made his money in the worlds of finance and real estate and brings the analytical rigor and business acumen that made him successful in these fields to baseball.
The Minor Leagues were a world he had no knowledge of before researching the purchase of a team as a potential gift for his new bride. As such, he considers himself part of a "new breed" of business owners.
"[W]e have created a new culture," he writes in the first chapter. "We are in the service business, the business of saying yes. A prime interest is building partnerships with all of the major groups and constituents in the community. ... And central to achieving this goal of establishing a new culture is the strategy to offer family entertainment. In addition, we also offer quality baseball in a first-class setting. And we accomplish these cultural and business goals while generating a fair profit."
That paragraph establishes the tone of the book in two ways. First and foremost, it serves as a thesis statement, with Solomon spending the ensuing 200 pages explaining how he and other new breed owners have gone about achieving those goal. It's also indicative of Solomon's writing style: while he's always factual and focused, the rapid-fire pileup of tersely stated industry truisms sometimes causes the book to feel like an extended Power Point presentation sans visuals.
But Solomon knows of what he writes and his perspective is invaluable. He has taken a hands-on approach in day-to-day operations since first acquiring the Fisher Cats in 2005, and the baseball bug proved so quickly addicting that he purchased the Columbus (Ga.) Catfish and relocated them to Bowling Green, Ky. The move was motivated by Solomon's desire to start fresh; whereas in New Hampshire he had inherited a team identity that he felt prudent to maintain, Bowling Green was a blank baseball canvas.
"What I wanted was gratification similar to my real estate career, of developing an entity from the ground up," he writes.
Solomon's firsthand account of the journey that led to the Hot Rods' name and identity is one of the strongest aspects of "Making It in the Minors," as it provides a case study of Minor League brand building that should be of particular interest to those within (or seeking to break in to) the world of sports business. At the core of his account is the fundamental industry truth that Minor League Baseball is about far more than baseball.
"We are not vying with other sports events for consumer dollars; our competition comes from theatrical movies, rental movies and concerts," he writes. "The task was to create an entertainment brand that would sustain itself over time, to generate loyalty and to generate repeat business. "
And how does such a brand sustain itself? Solomon provides the answers via detailed chapters on recruiting sponsors, partnering with community groups, hiring staff members, using the stadium for offseason events and, of course, promotions. You may recall that the Hot Rods won MiLB.com's 2009 Promotion of the Year for their trend-setting "What Could've Been Night." Yes, it was built around an alternate reality in which the team had named itself after blind cave shrimp.
Also of note are the chapters in which Solomon delves into the kind of franchises and markets that are likely to interest potential owners and why. He writes that "detailed due diligence analysis" is imperative, as part of process in which fan demographics as well as stadium location and condition come into play. And to his credit, Solomon does not shy away from some of the more arcane but crucial financial considerations. What, for example, is the franchise's projected EBITDA? That's earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization for the acronym-impaired.
"Making It in the Minors" does make some missteps, however. While Solomon's experiences in New Hampshire and Bowling Green have undoubtedly been successful, he rarely writes about mistakes that were made along the way and what could be learned from them. Doing so would have added some variety (and perhaps levity) to what sometimes can feel like a rote recitation of triumphant endeavors summed up via "A good time was had by all"-style platitudes.
Another round of proofreading would also have been beneficial -- Minor League Baseball is sporadically (and awkwardly) referred to as "The MiLB" and the book repeatedly asserts there are 161 affiliated teams as opposed to 160. More troublesome is a three-page account of the regrettable situation that led to the departure of the Portland Beavers, which maintains that after a temporary move to Tucson, "the team started playing in Escondido in 2012 after a new stadium was built." In fact, that club is still in Tucson and slated to move to El Paso, Texas, in 2014 because no funding ever was obtained for a proposed new stadium in Escondido.
On the whole, however, "Making It in the Minors" is a unique and worthwhile addition to the baseball book canon, precisely because it is written from a vital yet almost wholly undocumented perspective. Solomon's enthusiasm for the industry is apparent throughout and his desire to educate others is commendable. "Making It in the Minors" can and should inspire others to do the same.