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‘Button-down maverick’ owner leads St. Paul Saints to new stadium, playoffs

Marv Goldklang says of the Saints’ three owners: “I call myself chairman, I call Mike president. Bill is director of fun.”

Marv Goldklang: "We live in a tough world without enough to be joyful about. I think when 8,000-some-odd people come into this ballpark, it’s a joyful experience for them."
MinnPost photo by Tony Nelson

Sports barons Zygi Wilf, Glen Taylor and Jim Pohlad are familiar figures in Minnesota media coverage, but another shrewd owner — Marv Goldklang — long has been building a professional sports franchise here while staying largely out of the spotlight.

Goldklang, a lanky, independent-minded lawyer completely hooked on baseball, has been the principal owner of the minor league St. Paul Saints since he, promotional genius Mike Veeck and actor/comedian Bill Murray co-founded the baseball team in 1993.

The Saints, playing in a new stadium, have emerged this year as the runaway attendance leader in their 13-team American Association, and the team has been winning three out of every four games. The Saints clinched a playoff berth in mid-August, and will be hosting the first round of playoff games after Labor Day in their new $65 million home, CHS Field, in St. Paul’s Lowertown. The stadium is also attracting big audiences for non-sports events, including 13,000 — almost twice the venue’s seating capacity — for the Walker Art Center’s Cat Video Festival on Aug. 12.

A generation ago, Goldklang was minting money handling corporate deals as a partner at an established Wall Street law firm. Then he left to turn his passion for baseball into a business. Shortly after the 1989 season ended, he purchased the Miami Miracle. The franchise had no employees, no players and no stadium. Searching for someone to help revive the franchise, Goldklang hired Mike Veeck, who had tried and failed for a decade to land work with a Major League team. The teams’ prickly owners, angered after one of his promotions went haywire, blackballed him. But today, the Veeck name is a baseball brand, thanks mainly to the fabled promotions and willingness to challenge authority of Major League owner Bill Veeck. Mike, his son, has carried on that tradition.

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Marv Goldklang has popped up in one baseball niche after another ever since he bought minority stakes in the mighty New York Yankees and the lowly Utica (N.Y.) Blue Sox decades ago. He retains his Yankee stake, estimated at 3 percent by baseball writer Alan Schwarz. The son of an appliance store owner in suburban New Jersey, Goldklang pitched for the University of Pennsylvania. In a self-deprecating nod, he discloses in his Saints biography that he once hit four consecutive batters with four pitches — a school record.

He was a leader in establishing the independent Northern League in 1993, when leagues unaffiliated with Major League teams were almost an endangered species. Today, 41 teams play in four independent leagues, including the American Association. Goldklang owns both big-league farm clubs and the independent Saints. He has pushed to bring pro baseball to Israel, Puerto Rico and Cuba.

Now 73 with 14 marathons under his belt, he appears more fit than most men half his age. While Goldklang has forged strong relationships with Major League teams — for example, the Saints and Twins are doing a joint promotion on Sept. 3 — he has not been afraid to shake up the status quo. He famously exploited a loophole in baseball’s amateur draft to turn around his Miracle team. Traditionally, only Major League clubs participated in that process, but Goldklang broke with precedent. Soon afterward, the gods of baseball zapped the loophole.

A few years later, when the Saints began play, then-Twins general manager Andy MacPhail was prominent among those who suggested the Saints would quickly fail. The Twins claimed fans would reject the sometimes rainy, mosquito-ridden outdoor baseball served up by the Saints. Instead the Saints, poking fun at the sanitized confines of the Metrodome where the Twins were playing, quickly took root and became a financial success.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where Goldklang earned an undergraduate business degree, cited data from Alan Schwarz in 2005 to illustrate that success. Schwarz reported that by then, the combined value of four teams Goldklang led — in St. Paul, Fort Myers (FL), Charleston (SC) and Hudson Valley (NY) — had risen to $30 million from $2.5 million in 1989-93.

The Saints’ zany promotions endure. Veeck and Murray are still in the mix as co-owners, but Saints staffers engineer much of the fun now. One of their most popular stunts this year: a between-innings pillow fight, in the stands. As Stew Thornley, author of “The St. Paul Saints: Baseball in the Capital City,” notes, Goldklang embedded risk-taking as a critical element in the team’s culture and strategy. “Marv gave Mike free rein to take chances.”

We interviewed Marv Goldklang earlier this month at CHS Field. Here are the highlights. Questions and answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.

MinnPost: Thinking back to when you founded the Saints in 1993 with Mike Veeck and Bill Murray, what was your role with this trio? What is it now?

Marv Goldklang: I call myself chairman, I call Mike president. Bill is director of fun here, and with our Charleston team. I work on developing the strategic vision for the team. I’m the most directly involved in the baseball side of the operation. The first three years, I actually went out and got the players. Over the years, that responsibility has devolved to our field manager, George Tsamis. Now, if he has questions regarding signing a player or how much to pay a player, he generally comes to me.

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MP: The three of you have such different personalities. Is it surprising that you’ve meshed so well together?

MG: I don’t think it’s surprising. We have very complementary skill sets, but also interests. A former employee of ours once characterized Mike as Mr. Outside and I’m Mr. Inside. Mike provides the creative energy and he is a wonderful motivator in dealing with our staff. I focus more at the organizational level, defining who we are, who we want to be. We have functioned very well together. We do have differences of opinion. But I can honestly say that in the 26 years I’ve known Mike and in the probably 30-some odd years that I’ve known Bill I don’t think we’ve had a single argument.

MP: Your home is in New Jersey, but you’ve been traveling regularly to St. Paul for more than 20 years. How would you characterize the city’s downtown, and what role does CHS Field play in its development?

MG: The first time I ever was in St. Paul was in the late summer or early fall of 1992. I don’t think I ever traveled to the Lowertown area until perhaps six or seven years ago. When I first did, I felt as if I was walking through no-man’s land. There was just nothing happening.

The promise and the development of CHS Field have played a large role in [a renaissance]. But it clearly goes beyond that. My wife and I signed a two-year lease [this month] to rent an apartment at the Pioneer Endicott (a residential high-rise at the edge of Lowertown). I would have signed a longer lease if they had been writing them. [CHS Field] is obviously in an area that is developing into an anchor on one side of the downtown.

MP: Where do you see the most development?

MG: My brother is in town visiting. We walked after the game from the ballpark back up to the St. Paul Hotel. We walked up 5th and across Mears Park about 10:30 at night. There were people sitting outside the bars, people all over. It was alive with young people. Not my demographic. There were younger people, who generate a sense of vibrancy for the area.

MP: It takes Minnesotans many years of political debate before they decide to build a sports stadium. When did the seed for a new Saints stadium get planted?

MG: Building a sports facility, particularly in Minnesota, ain’t a walk in the park. It’s a very long process. The first time the idea of a new ballpark for the Saints came up was back in the mid-’90s when Norm Coleman, then the mayor, came to us. When we finally left Midway Stadium last year, I think we were the only professional baseball facility in the country without a single armchair seat.

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MP: What turned the tide that allowed the project to get such a large state grant?

MG: A variety of circumstances. The Saints were successful in conveying the sense that we’re not billionaire sports owners looking for money that will earn us tens of millions of dollars. We’re a different breed. Yes, as a business organization, we’re not interested in losing money. But making money is not why Mike or Bill or I got involved in this in the first place, and it’s not why we were looking to improve what we had. We love the game. We love the community. And we love the manner in which we have been able to develop a product to connect with the community in a very real and direct way. We were successful in conveying that sense to the state, and I think there obviously were political considerations that I’m not conversant with that helped St. Paul get the grant.

MP: The Saints contributed $11 million to build CHS Field, and public subsidies from the state and city provided more than four times that amount. Given that, how are you trying to play a civic role in the community?

MG: I would disagree with the characterization of a subsidy. The word subsidy is thrown around a lot in the discussion that is focused on public money being invested in sports stadia. I view it as a public investment. CHS Field has a benefit in terms of the community, in terms of the public that far exceeds any benefit to the St. Paul Saints. I don’t accept the premise that the money that was coming from the state, or the money that was coming from the city was a “subsidy” for the Saints. I think it was a public investment in a very worthy project that has benefited and will continue to benefit the public in ways that have not as yet been accounted for.

In terms of our giving back, obviously we are a charitable organization in the sense that we are sensitive to being a part of the community. But what we contribute to the community isn’t reflected effectively by the size of a check that we write to any one particular recipient. It’s represented instead by what we contribute to not only the economic resurgence of the area surrounding this ballpark, but also to the quality of life in the community. We live in a tough world without enough to be joyful about. I think when 8,000-some-odd people come into this ballpark, it’s a joyful experience for them. And I don’t know that you can translate that into dollars and cents. But the value in my view is incalculable.

CHS Field
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
The Saints clinched a playoff berth in mid-August, and will be hosting the first round of playoff games after Labor Day in their new $65 million home, CHS Field, in St. Paul’s Lowertown.

MP: What worries you about the state of baseball in the United States?

MG: One of the major challenges for baseball, for getting more kids involved, is the lack of facilities, particularly in the urban areas. The baseball that you see is generally organized baseball, structured baseball where leagues organize games. What you need are more areas where kids can go, and just with a couple of people, to hit a ball, catch a ball, play. How many kids in an urban area have the ability to go on their front lawn and play catch? The space is just so compressed. A major part of the challenge is creating space.

MP: Describe the quality of baseball in the American Association and the players who compete on independent league teams.

MG: The level of play in our league is most comparable to Double-A baseball (second-highest affiliate level in the minor leagues). It’s almost unfair to compare us proportionately with Major League teams that invest tens of millions of dollars in signing bonuses for the best amateur talent they can find. The players in our league want to prove something. The universe we are focusing on are players who for the most part have been told they weren’t good enough and are trying to prove people wrong.

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MP: This year the Saints have been leading their league and they won a playoff spot weeks before the regular season is set to end. Last year they finished 48-52. Why such a dramatic turnaround?

MG: I actually was down talking with our manager earlier today about that very subject. He feels we have players who just love to play the game, who have meshed as a team. A lot of success in sports can be attributed to the chemistry of a team. If you have a positive chemistry, players will feed off one another and come to the ballpark more motivated, more focused on a team concept than individual performances or individual stats. We have a good team with good chemistry, and the atmosphere here obviously helps motivate them. It’s a good character team. And we have a very good starting rotation.

MP: You are the principal owner of the Charleston RiverDogs. What are your reflections on the June shootings at the historic African-American church there? Were you surprised by the way the community came together and reacted once the tragedy unfolded?

MG: Unlike the situation in Ferguson and perhaps Baltimore, there was no conceivable ambiguity about what happened in Charleston. It was a manifestation of pure hatred. I don’t think there was any segment of the Charleston community that didn’t feel a sense of personal responsibility — not only in the mourning process but in the healing process as well. So there was a unity in the community in the aftermath of the massacre that I have not seen anywhere ever.

We (the Charleston team) happened to be at home. Our first call was to the mayor, Joe Riley, and we asked, “Should we play?” The mayor said, “We are going through the mourning and healing, but we also need to convey to the community the sense that we’re on the road toward returning to normalcy.” He urged us to play and we did play. We donated all of the proceeds of that game to the church and to the family members. Each of our other teams, including the Saints, made contributions.

MP: What’s your biggest takeaway from that tragedy?

MG: It’s that people, whatever their differences, are fundamentally good. Are there people in the Charleston community, as well as all over the country, who have racial biases, ethnic biases? Yes. But there was a recognition that some things cross the line to such a degree that they can’t be tolerated by anyone.

MP: In the early years of your Saints ownership, you personally selected the players. Over time, Major League clubs have turned to sophisticated data analytics, dubbed “Moneyball” after the Oakland A’s practice of picking players. Does the Saints organization use data analytics to choose talent?

MG: I’m old school when it comes to baseball. My son Jeff (managing director of the Saints) isn’t. He talks to me about the velocity of a ball that comes off the bat. Some of my most enjoyable moments in a game are when I have an opportunity to sit with a really good scout, who has been scouting the game for a long time, and just talk to them about what they look for, how they evaluate body language. We don’t use analytics. Might we do better if we did? Maybe, but to me the game would be less fun.

MP: Have Major League teams gone too far with Moneyball strategies or not far enough?

MG: I don’t know. We’re probably two or three years away from when I would at least be comfortable saying, “Yes, it has a significant benefit” or “No, it doesn’t.” I haven’t seen enough players looking to adjust to what other teams are doing based on analytics.

MP: In 1989, you brought Mike Veeck back into baseball after he went through a difficult period in his personal life and had antagonized some people in baseball.

MG: I was told not to hire him by people in organized baseball.

MP: Why did you take a chance on him?

MG: Desperation. My coming together with Mike was a function of mutual desperation. He was desperate to get back into organized baseball. I’d just purchased a team. I’d already made three offers to people to bring them in as general managers and I’d been rejected. This team, the Miami Miracle, for a couple of years before I bought it, had been characterized by other people in baseball as having been the worst-operated team in minor league baseball.

MP: Mike Veeck has described you as a risk-taker. Tell us more about that.

MG: My wife calls me a button-down maverick. If you look at anything I’ve done in baseball, I’ve taken risks because you have to take risks if you want to put yourself in a position where you’re dealing with a real challenge.

MP: Give us a few examples of risks you’ve taken in baseball.

MG: The investments I’ve made. The Miami team — nobody in his right mind would have purchased that team. My first team, in Erie (PA), also had no Major League affiliation and played at a middle school. Participating in a Major League draft (with the Miami Miracle) was a risk of a very different order. In St. Paul, we gave Darryl Strawberry an opportunity to play for us after his suspension (for substance abuse), when nobody wanted to touch him. He did very well, and went on to the Yankees, where he won World Series rings. Baseball can be a very difficult environment for people with whom the establishment is not comfortable. We’ve done a lot of those kinds of things over the years, where we’ve pushed the envelope and risked relationships with the baseball establishment.

MP: What about coming to St. Paul?

MG: Going into St. Paul was a big risk. Before we came, Andy MacPhail was the general manager for the Twins. I had a relationship with Andy and the Twins in Fort Myers. That relationship was important in 1992. Miami had been without a Major League affiliation. The Twins finally agreed to affiliate with us when we moved to Fort Myers, and I go up to Andy and say, “By the way, we’re starting an independent team in St. Paul.” Andy could have reacted negatively and said, “You’re jeopardizing our relationship here.” I could have wound up again without any affiliation (in Fort Myers). Andy said to me, “Look, if you want to lose your money, be my guest.”

MP: Anything else special about that move?

MG: We started with outdoor baseball. My wife is a wonderful sounding board, kind of my conscience in telling me the direction I should be going. (Marv and Sheila Goldklang have been married 47 years.) I remember her saying, a couple of months after we started, that the Twins had started running ads knocking outdoor baseball, extolling the virtue and the comforts of seeing baseball in the Dome rather than fighting mosquitoes outdoors. I’m saying, “My gosh!” Once she heard that ad, she said to me, “You know, you’ve made it.”

MP: People say fun is two-thirds of the reason why they watch the Saints and baseball just one-third. True?

MG: That probably used to be the case. I have always viewed our product as a family-affordable experience wrapped around a baseball game. What we are finding here (at CHS Field) is that we are getting a much higher percentage of baseball fans.

MP: But it always helps when you’re winning.

MG: It always helps. Fun is good. Fun is great. But at the end of the day, it’s a baseball team we’re putting out there.

MP: Why did you quit your successful career as a lawyer to go into the baseball business?

MG: My father worked hard all his life, and said that one of the luxuries my generation had is that we have much more of an opportunity to choose what we want to do rather than what we have to do to earn a living. I got to a certain point in my legal career where I was a partner doing very, very well at one of the major Wall Street law firms. And I was also turning 40, which probably had something to do with it. So what did I really want to do? I had a couple of passions. Baseball was one of them. I also wanted to develop investment opportunities in Israel. It was a matter of pursuing passions, pursuing things I really wanted to do, so when I got up on a Monday morning it didn’t cause me to feel that I was going to work on a job.

Liz Fedor is an editor at Twin Cities Business magazine. Dave Beal, a free-lance journalist, is a former business editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.