It goes without saying that Dave Heller is a baseball guy. He is, after all, the Quad Cities River Bandits' managing partner, and he has an ownership stake in three other minor-league teams.
He talks about his first ownership experience - as a business partner with legendary players Don Mattingly (Heller calls him "Donnie") and Cal Ripken Jr. And about road trips to see his baseball idol Tom Seaver when he pitched for the Mets and Red Sox.
When I inquired about his favorite River Bandits player, he quickly answered, "Carlos Correa, without question. ... Great work ethic, great natural ability, great with kids. He'll be a special star. ... The idea of having an overall number-one pick like Carlos here is really exciting to us. Two years later, and he's in the major leagues and tearing it up."
Heller grew up in Baltimore, but he wasn't an ardent Orioles fan. "I wasn't passionate about the Birds the way other people were," he said. "I really kind of just loved baseball writ large. I could watch a Cardinals-Cubs game and enjoy myself every bit as much as watching an Orioles-White Sox game."
Yet the 53-year-old doesn't run the River Bandits - or any other team he owns - like a sports enterprise. In an hour-long conversation last week, the game itself felt incidental. Heller said his model for the myriad improvements, additions, and promotions at Modern Woodmen Park during his tenure was "county fairs. ... I think the idea of bringing some of that county-fair atmosphere into a ballpark is really healthy and fun and productive."
Treating the ballpark like an amusement park might rankle baseball purists, but it's good business - particularly when one considers that minor-league owners manage the venue and not the team. The goal is to get people through the gates - and all the better if some of them only know ERA as an acronym for the Equal Rights Amendment.
So Heller seems well-suited to the challenges of minor-league baseball. While he's a lifelong baseball fan, he comes from political advertising - another field in which you're trying to mobilize even the most reticent people; you must give them a reason to participate. "In politics, people vote in the voting booth," Heller said. "In baseball, people vote with their feet. They show up or they don't. And we work to win everybody's vote here."
It helps that Heller was and remains a hands-on guy. Before our interview, he chatted with a couple that was visiting Modern Woodmen Park as a possible wedding-reception venue. He still writes, directs, and edits commercials for his political clients, and you might have seen him in River Bandits ads - for example, getting wet in a dunk tank or riding the ballpark's zip line.
He personally chose the awesomely terrifying Space Camp ride at Modern Woodmen Park. And he said that despite being technically too tall to ride it, and despite being a little afraid of it, he might get strapped in for an ad.
"If Our Fans Leave Knowing the Score ... "
Minor-league baseball is a strange business in the sense that the ostensible product - the local team - is something over which the organization has little control. But the River Bandits made a smart choice in exercising what control they do have.
When the Bandits' contract with the St. Louis Cardinals ended after the 2012 season, Heller had an opportunity. Because the Cardinals owned their higher-minor-league clubs, the River Bandits didn't get a key benefit of affiliation: rehab assignments for major-league players that bring people to the ballpark. That was one factor in Heller choosing the Astros from among four suitors for a new affiliation.
"The entire time that I owned the team as a Cardinals affiliate, we never got a single major-league rehab," he said. Peoria, he noted, had seven major-league rehabs in 2012 from the Cubs.
"The Astros said they were open to the idea" of rehab assignments, Heller said. "They didn't make any promises. [But] we've gotten their very best players. We've gotten George Springer here, we've gotten Jonathan Singleton here."
There were other considerations, including the fact that the Astros were absolutely dreadful in 2011 and 2012 - giving them high draft picks that can generate excitement (and attendance) for minor-league affiliates. "Their draft position was a part of it, the success of the teams in their farm system was part of it ..., and the rehabs are a part of it," Heller said. "But the biggest part really is the personal relationships with the Astros." Heller said he considers Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and President Reid Ryan personal friends.
Beyond the choice of affiliation, however, "we have no say as to the product that we put on the field. We are completely at the mercy of our major-league affiliate. We're very blessed that the Astros are a great organization to work with and have given us great players, and we're in first place and we've clinched the playoffs. All of that is wonderful, and we're very thankful for that.
"But we don't market based on the performance on the field. We market based on entertaining families. And that's not going to change, regardless of what the quality is of play on the field. ... If our fans leave knowing the score, we haven't done our job ... .
"Certainly, when the team wins, people leave with a good feeling. And you always want people to leave with a good feeling. But we'd prefer not to get caught up in that game, because you get a down year - and you always get down years - and then you're in trouble. And we don't want to be in that position."
Heller is now in his eighth season owning the River Bandits with his Main Street Baseball business partner Bob Herrfeldt, and the results are impossible to argue with so far.
In the final eight years under previous team owner Seventh Inning Stretch, the team drew roughly 2,200 fans per game. Average attendance decreased in each of the three years following a 2004 season showcasing major ballpark renovations as part of the River Renaissance initiative.
Under Main Street Baseball over the past eight seasons, attendance has averaged more than 3,600. It jumped 53 percent from 2007 to 2008 (following the ownership change), and last year - with the opening of Modern Woodmen Park's Ferris wheel - the team brought in nearly 3,900 fans per game. Average attendance last year and in the current season is more than 12 percent higher than in Heller's first year as owner.
One might attribute some of that to 2011 and 2013 Midwest League championships, and a 69-36 record this season entering play on Tuesday. But Heller said on-field success provides at best an "incremental" bump in attendance.
"We've really just tried to be the most affordable, family-friendly institution in our region," Heller said. "We've tried to make everybody in this community understand that our fans - the people of the Quad Cities - really are the most important people in the world to us. And we try to make them feel that way every time they step foot in the ballpark."
He noted the signs that greet people when they enter, touting Modern Woodmen Park as "the friendliest ballpark in America."
"Those aren't just words," Heller said. "That's an ethos that we try to live every single day. ... We've empowered every person who works for the River Bandits - no matter who they are - to fix things ... so that everybody leaves here with a great experience. And if you're not having a great experience, we want you to come tell us what we can do to make it right for you. And odds are we will."
He added that although he's the quite-visible owner of the Bandits, "managing partner is just a title. We do things here ... by consensus" that includes Herrfeldt and the team's general manger and assistant general managers. "We move as one."
Freeing the Ferrari
On our first visit to Modern Woodmen Park this year, we had a problem. We purchased an all-you-can ride wristband for our seven-year-old daughter, but we were accidentally given the bounce-house-only wristband. And, despite us noting that our daughter wanted to ride the Drop'N Twist over and over, the cashier neglected to mention that the ride was not operating that night.
When we brought this to the attention of another amusements cashier, a manager was called, and he refunded the price difference between the two wristbands and swapped out the inflatables band for an inclusive one. Talking to him, we learned he'd come to the Bandits from Walt Disney World - another organization that makes customer satisfaction a top priority.
We didn't realize, however, that the man who helped us was the team's assistant general manager of amusements, Mike Clark. "I recruited him," Heller said. Clark - a Moline native - has an MBA and is on the Bandits' senior-management team, yet you'll see him milling through the crowd during games.
So far this season, I've been to Modern Woodmen Park for River Bandits games a handful of times. Twice involved free admissions for our daughter - through her school and a community group. Twice we've taken out-of-town guests - once just for the Ferris wheel, once for that attraction and the Space Camp and Drop'N Twist rides and the Friday fireworks. We've spent a fair amount of money on food and entertainment.
And in all those visits, I didn't watch more than a few pitches at a time.
From getting a problem fixed with no fuss to our overall experience, this is exactly what Heller wants at Modern Woodmen Park.
When he first saw the ballpark in 2007, he said, "I fell in love right away. ... The location, the bridge, the river. ... It was the quickest and easiest sales job anybody ever had to do."
Beyond what he saw, he also saw the untapped potential - basically all the things Heller has added since buying the team. "Everything you can't change about this ballpark is perfect," he said. "And all the things that aren't perfect are the things that you can change. ...
"The biggest thing was you have a 360-degree concourse here - people can walk all the way around the ballpark - but there was nothing going on between the two foul poles. It was just an empty walkway. Having a 360-degree concourse and not utilizing it is like having a beautiful Ferrari and locking it in the garage. What's the fun of the Ferrari if you can't drive it? What's the fun of a 360-degree concourse if there's no reason for people to be walking around it? ...
"The process has been creating destinations all along the concourse, all along the entire circumference of the ballpark. And not being afraid to try new things, and letting our fans decide what works and what doesn't."
There are the Ferris wheel and the other rides and the bounce houses and the zip line. More concessions stands. A carousel planned for the newly expanded concourse deck on the third-base side.
Notice how shrewdly the Bandits have used their limited space, with expansion possibilities restricted by the Mississippi River, the LeClaire Park bandshell, Gaines Street, and train tracks. "We're pinned in," Heller said, "and the only place we can go really is up." So attractions tend to be vertical (the Giant Wheel, the Drop'N Twist) or have very small footprints on the ground (Space Camp).
And, crucially, there have been things that haven't worked nearly so well and have been quickly ditched.
"We're not afraid to fail," Heller said. "Let's try things. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. I'm not going to be angry or blame anybody. I'd rather try things and fail with the best of intentions than not try at all."
There was the Tiki bar that didn't withstand Iowa winters particularly well, replaced with the Built Ford Tough deck. The rent-able bed in the outfield whose novelty wore off after a few months, replaced with the Miller Lite deck. (Yes, just about everything in the old John O'Donnell Stadium - including of course the name of the ballpark itself - has been for sale under Main Street Baseball.)
But Heller wants Modern Woodmen Park to be a destination even when there's no baseball being played. So the Ferris wheel is open on weekends when the Bandits are out of town, and as a result ridership of the attraction is projected to grow from 68,000 last year to 84,000 this year.
Heller said he's proud that the park hosts roughly 40 wedding receptions a year. "I love the fact that we do more weddings here than any other team in our league," he said.
"We only have 70 home games a year - maybe a few more if we make the playoffs," he continued. "If we have one of most beautiful venues of any type anywhere in the region, and the best minor-league ballpark in the country, how can we get people to come here the other 290 days of the year? ... When we can make this ballpark relevant every day of the year, that's when we've maximized our potential. We're still a ways away from that."
The Intersection of Politics and Dreams
Heller tells the story about himself and Mattingly - a six-time All-Star first baseman with the New York Yankees who's now manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers - when they were business partners in a team in Georgia.
"He'd go to a meeting of the chamber of commerce," Heller said, "and he'd say, 'When Dave and I were seven years old, we both had dreams. I dreamt of becoming the first baseman for the New York Yankees, and Dave dreamt of owning them."
There's some truth in this anecdote. "Even at seven years old," Heller said, "I knew very clearly the limitations of my abilities" as a baseball player.
Yet Heller's path to ownership was less about fulfilling a lifelong dream than about what he called another man's "self-interest." Heller said that without the encouragement of his attorney, Stan Brand, his ownership of minor-league baseball teams "never would have happened."
Both men have long associations with Democratic politics. Brand worked for Tip O'Neill and has represented George Stephanopoulos and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Heller's Main Street Communications firm runs campaigns for Democrats, and he did polling for U.S. Representative Lane Evans from 1986 to 1990. (Despite that Quad Cities connection, however, Heller didn't visit the area until he was exploring buying the local team in 2007.)
And in addition to being Heller's attorney, Brand has since 1992 been Minor League Baseball's vice president.
"He and I would get together, and we would invariably end up talking about baseball," Heller said. "Over the course my career, I've helped elect 25 different members of Congress. And I think Stan looks at that roster of clients and says, 'Boy, it'd be nice to have somebody who had a lot of skin in the game be able to lobby for us in terms of our legislative agenda in Washington.' And so he said, 'You really ought to go into minor-league baseball.'"
This was 2001, and Brand introduced Heller to Ben J. Hayes, president of New York-Penn League and now Heller's transactions attorney for baseball. Heller bought his first team in 2002, and he owed that team until 2008.
"I was thinking I loved the game, and I thought it would be fun to have a small stake in a minor-league baseball team," he said. "That wasn't exactly what turned out."
That first ownership experience didn't go as envisioned.
"The plan was always to find a permanent home for" the team in the Midwest, Heller said; its Georgia venue was supposed to be temporary after the team had bled money in its previous city. So he, Mattingly, and Ripken had a deal to build a $25.5-million park for the team in Evansville, Indiana.
The mayor, Heller said, needed to assemble 24 parcels of land for the development. "He got 23 of them. And the 24th was where home plate stood, and it was owned by a triple-X pornographic bookstore who would not sell."
As Heller continued this story, politics crept in. "And then the mayor of Evansville - a freshman Republican - canceled the project on April Fool's Day 2003. I remember it like yesterday. He had filed an eminent-domain claim to take the land so he could get the ballpark built. And the owner of the pornographic bookstore sued him. And the day he was to be deposed - April 1 - he was feeling so much heat from the right wing of the Republican Party about eminent domain for a private entity that he canceled the project."
So the team stayed in Georgia until Heller sold it in 2008.
"What I learned there is, in minor-league baseball, you are so dependent on the quality of the market," he said. "The fellow who had the team in Columbus, Georgia, before I did moved that team into a brand-new ballpark in the suburbs of Cleveland. He drew 700 fans a game in 2002 [in Georgia] and 5,500 fans [in Ohio] in 2003. He didn't wake up smart one day. ... It wasn't him and what they were doing; it was the market."
That lesson has been reinforced by the Quad Cities, which Heller called "a great market with the best people you'll find anywhere in the country. Having been in an undesirable market for a number of years, I can appreciate far more than most what it means to be in a wonderful market."
Heller now calls the Quad Cities home - his family lives in McClellan Heights in Davenport - and his Florida house is presently on the market.
But even though Heller has settled in the Quad Cities, he hasn't settled for just the Quad Cities. In 2010, Main Street Baseball bought the High Desert Mavericks in California. In the past year, Heller has bought the Billings Mustangs (in Montana) and the Wilmington Blue Rocks (in Delaware). After a court battle, Heller is proceeding with a purchase of the Binghamton Mets in New York. (The plan is to sell the current Delaware team to the Texas Rangers - who would relocate it - and then bring the Binghamton team to Wilmington. This would represent an upgrade from A baseball to AA in Delaware.)
"We do things differently here than most teams do across baseball," Heller explained. "And I think that a lot of what we have done in Quad Cities is exportable to other communities. And we bought the other teams to export some of those ideas and see if we can move the needle in those communities, too." While Heller said he won't install a Ferris wheel at other parks, the goal is to have signature attractions at each stadium.
And there remains a dream - birthed with his first team purchase - of starting from scratch with a stadium. "I would love one day to be able to design a ballpark that incorporates all the rides and attractions and games and fun stuff that I would like to see at a ballpark," he said. "Not just a blank slate, but unlimited space. The one thing that [the River Bandits and] the other three clubs have in common, unfortunately for me, is that in each instance we are completely penned in."
But Heller swears his heart remains in this community. "Baseball is the greatest game out there," he said. "And it's such a humbling thing to be able to be the steward of the team in this great community. I love the Quad Cities passionately."
Of course, any smart owner - particularly one with the political experience of Heller - is going to say that.
But the sentiment seemed genuine, particularly when I asked Heller how long he plans to own the River Bandits.
"My fondest dream," he said, "would be for one of my two sons to become the first player/owner in the Midwest League."