Just imagine: You love baseball so much that you don’t just score each game, you meticulously record every pitch — speed and location, on a scoresheet you designed yourself.
You don’t just buy season tickets to the Mariners for 25-plus years, you buy season tickets to spring training in Peoria, Arizona, too.
You don’t just monitor the M’s minor-league prospects, you get on a plane and go to places such as Jackson, Tennessee, to check them out yourself.
And then, just imagine: You sell your successful waterproofing and spray-foam insulation business in Tukwila, the one you worked 22 years to build up, to Firestone Building Products. And then you use the windfall to fulfill a lifetime dream by purchasing a minor-league baseball team.
You do this in October 2018, proudly becoming, with your wife, the new owners of the Missoula Osprey of the short-season Pioneer League. You move to Missoula for the 2019 season, having the time of your life from June to September at the lowest rung of the minors, because it’s baseball, and it’s yours.
And then, just imagine: COVID-19 hits with a vengeance and wipes out the 2020 minor-league season, for which you had a million ideas dancing in your head. One of them was changing the name of the team to drum up more interest, so now it’s the Missoula PaddleHeads, which I’m sure you know is the slang term for the rack of a moose.
And then, on top of the financial gut punch of losing an entire season of game revenue, imagine you face the very real possibility that MLB is going to say, poof, you’re gone. If that happens, not only will your team no longer be affiliated with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but your entire league — eight teams throughout the Rocky Mountain region that provide the only real-life pro-baseball exposure for many of those communities — simply will cease to exist in its current form.
Meet Peter Davis, a 70-year-old Mercer Island native and Seattle resident who is finding that fairy tales don’t always have a happy ending — though he’s not giving up on his. Not by a long shot.
“It was a 25-year dream,” Davis said. “Do I regret getting into it? It’s been a very different ride than we anticipated.”
Davis is clinging — for dear life — to the belief that it’s all going to work out. At this point it seems to be more of an act of faith than anything concrete. Davis wonders what happened to the idyllic scenario he thought he and his wife, Susan Crampton Davis — who’s not a baseball fan but happily supports her husband as co-owner — were walking into.
“It’s all about baseball to me, because my happy place is in a baseball stadium,” he said. “So then you finally get this dream, and a year later you get kneecapped. It’s like, ‘Oh, wow, this is a whole different deal than I ever even possibly anticipated.’ “
In case you’ve been distracted by MLB’s messy negotiations with its union, it has also been engaged in equally messy negotiations with Minor League Baseball.
The Professional Baseball Agreement that governs the relationship between the MLB and MiLB expires in September. The story broke last October in Baseball America that MLB is seeking to eliminate 42 minor-league teams — and it has been widely reported that the entire Pioneer League is on the chopping block.
The revelation gobsmacked Davis and many other minor-league owners.
“I had no inkling at all until it was public and everyone else knew,” he said. “The 42 teams — that was a shocker to all of us.”
MLB’s stated goal for this contraction is to eliminate subpar facilities, improve the geographic alignment of the minors and enhance conditions for players, including higher pay.
However dire it might seem for the PaddleHeads, Davis is resolute in his belief that it will work out in the end.
“Our hope is, we keep an affiliation with some team in some way, shape or form,” he said. “What that is, nobody knows. It’s a big, open question mark in all of our minds. That’s what we would love, and the whole Pioneer League would love. We’re doing everything we can do every day to make that happen.”
MLB says it intends for all the minor-league teams that are thrust out of affiliated baseball to keep their teams. But that is highly problematic to owners who would see their franchise value plummet and their expenses potentially rise under the ideas being kicked around. These include membership in a “Dream League” comprised of players who weren’t drafted, participation in a summer wood-bat league for college players, or joining an existing independent league.
Davis says flat-out, “A wood-bat league is impossible. The difference in both play and in the value of the franchise are very dramatic. I don’t think you’ll ever see us be a wood-bat league. There might be some other choices out there, but I don’t think you’ll see us become a wood-bat league.”
Like many hard-core baseball fans, Davis is deeply disturbed by what MLB is doing to baseball at the grassroots level. He has seen firsthand what minor-league baseball can mean to a community such as Missoula.
“We’re so critical to the vibrancy of all these communities in the summer,” he said. “It’s just fundamental. Baseball is supposed to be America’s pastime, although Major League Baseball is doing their best to destroy that.”
Davis took a circuitous route to the Paddleheads, but his affinity for baseball was always looming in the background. After graduating from Mercer Island High School, he studied theater in college. But after 10 years designing scenery for plays, Davis realized, “It was a fabulous profession, I made a ton of great friends — and I was broke.”
For a few years he managed a ballet company in Tucson, Arizona, before returning to Seattle for a 10-year stint as the managing director of the Intiman Theatre. Davis ran the fundraising and business side of the operation, but after a decade he sought a new challenge and in 1995 took over the family business, Gaco Western, from his father.
“It was bankrupt in almost every possible way — morally, spiritually, financially,” he said.
Davis was so successful building up the company that when he sold it to Firestone in 2017, he suddenly had the means to pursue his hidden dream. The thought of owning a minor-league team, even a small part, appealed to his baseball sensibilities. And the challenge was appealing.
“As a season-ticket holder, you say, ‘I can do that.’ Particularly since I ran the theater for 10 years,” he said. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m just selling tickets to something different.’ And raising money for something that’s too fun for words.”
Davis’ original quest was to buy into a Mariners minor-league franchise — even 1 percent worth. But when that went nowhere, Davis consulted with a broker, who told him there were three teams available — one in Illinois, one in Alabama and one in Montana.
Davis opted to pursue Missoula, closest to Seattle, learning that the Osprey already had a buyer in line whom he could join as a partner. Davis moved forward with that plan until his would-be partner had to pull out — “he was a guy with a lot of passion and no money.”
The broker told Davis the amount of money it would take to make the Missoula deal happen. That number has not been made public, but minor-league teams of that size have gone in the neighborhood of $5 million to $7 million.
“We’re building a house on Friday Harbor, and I was standing in the middle of a construction site,” Davis recalled. “I said, ‘We can do that.’ The broker said, let me call the owners and see if that’s good enough for them. Ten minutes later he called me back and said, ‘They’re good.’ ”
The next day Davis and his wife flew to Missoula to consult with the previous owners, Mike and Judy Ellis. They watched a game at Ogren Park and then got down to business.
“We met with the owners afterwards, had a drink at a local bar,” Davis recalled. “Susan just charmed them to death. She was wonderful. At the end of the drink we owned a team.”
The couple plays to their strength in running the PaddleHeads. Peter concentrates on marketing, sales and the financial side of things. Susan, who used to work in human resources for the Gates Foundation, handles HR and strategic planning.
“She actually doesn’t like baseball, but she’s been incredibly supportive,” Peter said. “She loves the fact I love it, and our kids love it a lot. She’s been 100 percent behind it. She’s as involved in running the team as I am because she’s a lot better at a lot of this than I am.”
Peter admits that in their naive enthusiasm, they made a host of mistakes in running the team last year — but felt they had learned from every one and were on track for a bountiful 2020 season. Until all hell broke loose.
Davis repeats that he still foresees a happy ending for the Missoula PaddleHeads. He declares that he doesn’t regret buying into minor-league baseball.
“Now, a year from now, if we get completely kneecapped and everyone walks away from us, and the league goes bankrupt or disbands, I’m going to say, ‘Oh, crap, that was a waste of a whole lot of money,’ ” he said. “But I remain convinced we will figure out a way through this.
“I keep saying to everybody: Baseball will be back in 2021, and it will be fabulous. It’s moved to the irrational state, there’s no question.”