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Hersh's pursuit of more teams gets bogged down
by Will Lingo
David Hersh is one of the most interesting people in minor league baseball. But will he be able to stay in minor league baseball?
The first time I remember talking to him about a brouhaha he was involved in came at the 1994 Winter Meetings in Dallas. Baseball was in the midst of its nuclear winter, and Major League Baseball was officially ignoring the entire proceedings.
About the only real story involved an orphan franchise in the Southern League. The league's team had been forced out of Charlotte when that city's team moved up to Triple-A, but plans for new cities fell through. The team spent one season sharing a ballpark in Nashville, followed by a disastrous run in Wilmington, N.C., before ending up in Mobile.
But before those solutions, Hersh proposed moving the team to Puerto Rico. It was a creative solution to a sticky problem, and Hersh pursued it with vigor even though no one else seemed interested.
That idea didn't pan out, but Hersh has pursued plenty of others. At the time he was owner of the Southern League's Memphis Chicks, and he moved the franchise from Memphis to the unknown city of Jackson, Tenn., for the 1998 season.
The team became the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx, and it looked like a match made in heaven. A new ballpark and early success at the gate led to smiles all around.
It hasn't worked out that way. Hersh sold the Diamond Jaxx in 2002, and now the city of Jackson and Hersh are involved in nasty litigation against one another.
The lawsuits are still a long way from resolution, but in the meantime they may be affecting Hersh's ability to continue as a minor league owner. He isn't currently involved in any ownership groups, and the group buying the Battle Creek Yankees (Midwest) had to cut him out in order to gain approval.
Working His Way To West Tenn
Hersh, 49, grew up in Philadelphia and got involved in minor league baseball soon after he got out of college. He worked in the Midwest League for the Burlington Bees and Appleton Foxes in the late 1970s, then bought the old Portland Beavers in 1979.
Hersh sold the team to go work in the Yankees' player development department in 1984, but lasted just a year in that job. He didn't return to baseball until 1992, when he bought the Memphis franchise. That lasted until he moved to West Tenn.
In both Tennessee cities, Hersh drew both praise and criticism and left with financial disputes about unpaid bills. Many didn't like the way he moved the Chicks out of town, but others said his efforts to get a new ballpark woke up the city and paved the way for the Memphis Redbirds and AutoZone Park, which have been a monumental success.
Hersh found his ballpark in Jackson, and the first few years there were successful. But the relationship between Hersh and the city soured and attendance started to slip.
The normally loquacious Hersh can't say much about what's going on now because of all the litigation. He charged that the city failed to provide financing and other payments it promised to him and interfered with his business, while the city and some of his former partners say he owes them thousands of dollars.
He has made public statements through depositions in the case, however, saying that because the city of Jackson did not come through with all the financing it promised to him, he operated in a financial hole until he was forced to sell the team.
Hersh accused the mayor of conspiring with wealthy friends to force him out, according to the Jackson Sun. He also revealed in his deposition that his ownership group owed about $2 million to creditors when it left Memphis, but he said every debt he owed in Jackson has been paid. He also admitted his payroll checks bounced at one point and that he often took 60 to 90 days to pay the team's bills.
Looking For The Next Franchise
Hersh also said in his deposition that he initially had none of his own money invested in the Memphis or Jackson franchise, only "sweat equity." He said he eventually invested between $500,000 and $750,000.
This has become a sticking point with several of the franchise purchases Hersh has tried to make in the past couple of years, to say nothing of the lawsuit hanging over everything. As part of the lawsuit, Hersh has said negative information spread by city officials in Jackson caused deals to fall through with Portland, Ore. (Pacific Coast); Harrisburg (Eastern); Tacoma (PCL); Lexington (South Atlantic); Battle Creek; Tri-Cities, Wash. (Northwest); and Oklahoma (PCL).
In Battle Creek, the Midwest League initially rejected the proposal for Fun For Michigan to buy the team with Hersh involved, but it allowed the group to restructure the deal and approved it. The group did so even though Hersh had been the front man for the ownership group since it had announced its plans to buy the club.
A similar story has played out in other cities, though not quite as publicly. An ownership fronted by Hersh comes in announcing plans to buy the team, but the proposal languishes and eventually goes away.
And until the mess in Jackson gets resolved, Hersh probably won't be able to get back in the game.
You can contact Will Lingo by sending e-mail to [email protected].