- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2000

Washington may be staid and conservative culturally, but Mike Veeck, the man who brought Disco Demolition Night and salutes to duct tape to baseball, plans absolutely no slowdown in his over-the-top marketing schtick.

Veeck was in town yesterday meeting with District of Columbia Sports Commission officials in hopes of completing a deal to bring a Northern League minor league baseball team to the District. If Veeck reaches a lease deal, the Northern League's Catskill (N.Y.) Cougars will move down and start play in May 2001 at RFK Stadium.

"We plan on living down to people's expectations," Veeck, the son of the late legendary baseball owner Bill Veeck, said as a joke. "Yeah, this town's a little bit more buttoned-down, but that's the challenge, that's the aphrodisiac."

No deal was struck yesterday, but Veeck and John Richardson, chairman of the D.C. Sports Commission, will meet again in the coming weeks.

While two local groups push ahead trying to get a Major League Baseball team, Veeck sees his venture as an interim solution to the District's lack of pro baseball. The Northern League is an 16-team independent minor league in which aging former MLB stars are nearly as common as up-and-comers. Tickets will top out at $10, and Veeck seeks an average attendance of 10,000.

"We have absolutely no pretensions and no demands. Nobody owes us anything," Veeck said. "This a a major league town, and Major League Baseball will probably be here within five years, at which point we will happily get out of the way."

Veeck sees a successful Northern League team as a way to show MLB commissioner Bud Selig the major leagues belong in Washington. Many other cities, such as Buffalo and Charlotte, have failed to land major league teams through minor league success. But Washington's difference, Veeck says, is its huge population and the multibillion dollar wealth of its prospective ownership groups.

While Veeck's deal remains far from completion, he comes armed with a long history of executive positions within pro baseball and an investment group that includes actor Bill Murray, singer Jimmy Buffett and Larry Doby, the first black to play in the American League.

"They're a very imaginative group, and we would love to have the Northern League here," Richardson said. "My question is whether they can afford to play at RFK. It's very expensive just to open the doors, and I'm not sure the numbers can work with minor league pricing. But they know the business very well, and anything is possible."

D.C. United pays about $60,000 a game to use RFK Stadium and gains no concession revenue. An average ticket price of $7 and average attendance of 10,000 would yield Veeck $70,000 in ticket revenue a game. Thus, a similar financial arrangement as United's would leave Veeck very little room for other costs, such as player salaries.

Veeck, whose marketing gimmicks also include ball-fetching pigs and a failed attempt to give free vasectomies to fathers on Father's Day, owns pieces of five minor league teams, both within the Northern League and the MLB-affiliated Minor League Baseball. The St. Paul Saints of the Northern League plays to steady soldout crowds and sometimes outdraws the Minnesota Twins in nearby Minneapolis.

Such success, however, would be more difficult with five other minor league teams within a two-hour drive of Washington. But Veeck says he would seek to draw fans only from the District.

Veeck most recently was senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The one-year stint was a disaster. The team's attendance plummeted 32 percent, and the freewheeling Veeck failed to mesh with the corporate culture created by owner Vincent Naimoli.

But Veeck also was distracted by the condition of his 8-year-old daughter, Rebecca. She suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition with no cure that will eventually claim her slight. Before meeting with Richardson, Veeck stopped by Capitol Hill yesterday to lobby Congressmen for additional research funding.

"We've been all over the world seeing things while she still can. I essentially took seven months off last year to do that," said Veeck, whose emotional Hill testimony left him near tears. "But she told me recently that I need to go back to work. I was smothering her. So I'm back at it, and that's trying to have a team here in Washington."

Veeck intends to use the nickname Senators for a local Northern League team despite the fact that the Texas Rangers, the former Washington Senators, and Major League Baseball Properties retain the rights to the name.

"I'm sure there are at least eight people out there who think they own it," Veeck said. "But I'll fight it, and rooting for the other side will be a bit like rooting for Goliath."

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