Sea­hawk gets his feet wet

Seat­tle’s Ryan, a base­ball lover, be­came co-owner of the quirky Pick­les. But he’s al­ready dream­ing big­ger.

Los Angeles Times - - INSIDE BASEBALL - BILL SHAIKIN ON BASE­BALL bill.shaikin@la­times.com Twit­ter: @Bil­lShaikin

As NFL train­ing camps opened this month, the re­frain once again was heard all over the land: Base­ball used to be Amer­ica’s pas­time, but foot­ball is the na­tion’s fa­vorite sport.

For all the time and money the com­mis­sioner’s of­fice spends on stud­ies and fo­cus groups on how to make base­ball more at­trac­tive to young fans, some­one there ought to talk to a gre­gar­i­ous red-haired guy who did not grow up in Amer­ica but de­vel­oped such a love for mi­nor league ball that he bought a team of his own.

He is the punter for the Seat­tle Sea­hawks.

Jon Ryan is mak­ing his money play­ing in the NFL — and in­vest­ing it in base­ball.

He is an owner of the Port­land Pick­les, a sum­mer team for col­lege play­ers. The Pick­les are pack­ing fans into a rick­ety city park ev­ery night, of­fer­ing fun and pun. The mas­cot is a green pickle that bills it­self as “sort of a big dill.”

Ryan, 35, is in his 10th year with the Sea­hawks, af­ter two years with the Green Bay Pack­ers and two with the Win­nipeg Blue Bombers of the Cana­dian Foot­ball League. He grew up in Saskatchewan, where he played base­ball as a kid but pre­ferred lacrosse when he had to choose a spring sport.

Re­tire­ment is com­ing sooner rather than later, and at first he thought about be­com­ing an agent.

He would rep­re­sent play­ers — base­ball play­ers, not foot­ball play­ers.

“I’m not going to say I’ll be sick of foot­ball, but it’ll be nice to do some­thing dif­fer­ent,” he said.

Ryan owns a 10% stake in True Grav­ity, a Toronto-based agency that rep­re­sents four ma­jor league play­ers. Blake Corosky, the man­ag­ing part­ner, said he was sur­prised dur­ing his first visit to Ryan’s home, when the base­ball caps dis­played were the ones from Cal­i­for­nia League teams.

“I just get in my car and drive up and down the state and go to mi­nor league games,” Ryan told Corosky.

When Ryan played for the Pack­ers, he spent his free time at­tend­ing mi­nor league games (the Tim­ber Rat­tlers!) and col­lege sum­mer league games.

He fell in love with base­ball, so hard that he bought a con­do­minium near Phoenix Mu­nic­i­pal Sta­dium so he could go to spring train­ing games ev­ery day. Then he fell in love with co­me­dian Sarah Colonna.

“Our sec­ond week­end of dat­ing, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to spring train­ing with some girl­friends,’ ” Colonna said. “He was like, ‘I lit­er­ally live at spring train­ing.’ ”

Colonna and Ryan, now mar­ried, live in Los An­ge­les. So does Alan Miller, the founder of Col­lide, a mar­ket­ing agency that guides cor­po­ra­tions through mu­sic and sports pro­mo­tions.

Ryan and Miller part­nered in search of a mi­nor league team. Ryan might have been the face of the in­vest­ment group, but not along the lines of Magic John­son in­vest­ing $50 mil­lion into the Dodgers.

“Are you say­ing we can’t af­ford a mi­nor league team?” Colonna asked. “Just barely,” Ryan said. Even a Class-A team can cost $8 mil­lion to $14 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to Josh Nor­ris of Base­ball Amer­ica. The to­tal in­vest­ment for Ryan, Miller and a third part­ner in buy­ing the Pick­les: less than $1 mil­lion.

“This was kind of the per­fect sit­u­a­tion,” Ryan said, “get in there, get our feet wet, learn the ropes, and not lose our home in the process.”

The Pick­les are not an of­fi­cial mi­nor league team; col­lege play­ers can­not be paid. But Ryan is run­ning the op­er­a­tion as if it were a mi­nor league team, with all the pro­mo­tional wack­i­ness that en­sues, and the play­ers get the ben­e­fit of an ac­tive pro­fes­sional ath­lete as an owner.

When Ryan dis­cov­ered the play­ers did not have a movie player on their bus, he got them one. “They can’t watch ‘Bull Durham’ if they don’t have a DVD player,” he said.

He em­braces the stan­dard mi­nor league sell­ing points — af­ford­able tick­ets, cheap food, fam­ily en­ter­tain­ment be­tween in­nings — and proudly notes the Pick­les of­fer 16 mi­cro­brews on tap.

He also em­pha­sizes how fans can get up close and per­sonal with the play­ers, and not just by walk­ing up to the du­gout or pass­ing them along the con­course.

“The play­ers share the same bath­rooms with the peo­ple that are going there,” he said. The sta­dium dates to 1956.

The Pick­les have the usual cap and T-shirt and bob­ble­head give­aways. They also let kids run the bases back­wards.

Ryan im­ported three of his Sea­hawks team­mates for a game, and they all took bat­ting prac­tice and staged a home run derby.

The Pick­les also held “Tackle Jon Ryan Night,” where all the kids in at­ten­dance could swarm Ryan in the out­field and take him down. They did.

Can’t imag­ine the Sea­hawks were too ex­cited by that pro­mo­tion.

“They weren’t told about it,” Ryan said with an imp­ish grin.

The Pick­les open the play­offs Sun­day. Win or lose, their sea­son will be over by next Sun­day — the day the Sea­hawks open their ex­hi­bi­tion sched­ule, against the Charg­ers at StubHub Cen­ter.

Ryan will be back at his day job, full time. The fu­ture could in­clude Ryan and Miller so­lic­it­ing part­ners for bids on teams in the es­tab­lished mi­nor league cir­cuit.

“The next sit­u­a­tion, we’ll go look for big checks,” Miller said. “We are ob­sessed with the crazy, ridicu­lous nu­ances of mi­nor league base­ball.”

If a kid from Saskatchewan can hit it big in the NFL, he just might be able to do the same in base­ball. Put to­gether a win­ning streak of in­vest­ments and a win­ning group of in­vestors, and the pur­chase of all or part of a ma­jor league team might be within reach.

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Ryan said. “That would have to be down the road a lit­tle bit.

“Build­ing a base­ball em­pire starts very small.”

You never know. What starts with the Pick­les could grow into a re­ally big dill.

Ken Lam­bert As­so­ci­ated Press

JON RYAN, left, who is in his 10th year with the Seat­tle Sea­hawks, also is an owner of a sum­mer base­ball team for col­lege play­ers. Own­ing an MLB team would be “down the road a lit­tle bit,” he says.

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