My Cup of Coffee in the Majors
Is all networking the essence of success, that is,
better than working independently? Well, if your life is all dialed in with a bunch of highly paid celebrity superstars, such as I was in the early 1990s, with Major League Baseball, then you are in for a wild ride. Especially if they stupidly commit a near suicide with the baseball strike of 1994-1995, an experience officially ended with the court decision by now Supreme Courty Judge Sotomayor.
How was my cup of coffee with the majors? My answer begins with a description of a lavish boardroom in Scottsdale, Arizona, as a bunch of publishing entrepreneurs are celebrating the accomplishment a hard-won affiliation with Major League Properties, Inc.
We are all there, feeling like we had finally made the Bigs. The entire staff was sitting beside a long, magnificent table and I remember there was a big blowup on the
wall of a famous black and white photo of Babe Ruth saying goodbye to fans at
There I was, the managing editor of a new magazine, The Diamond, the
official history magazine of Major League Baseball. The Boys, my bosses, who
had given themselves all grand titles ---- VP this, executive of that, CEO of ad
infinitum ---- spoke in solemn and reverent terms about what it meant to get the
licensing for a product that would go out to every major league season ticket
The guy who hired me at The Diamond was Ron Bianchi. When I first entered
the finely adorned, wood-paneled offices of the controlled-circulation glossy magto-
be, there was no one in there but the Boys. Bianchi had tons of baseball
memorabilia on his desk and we talked about the greats of baseball literature.
Ring Lardner, Roger Angell, Thomas Bosworth -- the poetry of Donald Hall. It
was music to my ears.
Bianchi was an idea-a-minute guy. Nothing was too big or farfetched. A
dreamer who made people believe in his dreams. His father was some kind of
judge back East, and he once told us a story about he'd been a PR person for
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the Three Mile Island incident.
For more than a year he worked to get an interview with Fidel Castro about
his pitching career with the Washington Senators organization, and eventually
made all the connections to travel to Cuba for the meeting. But it never took
place. Bianchi's Cuban contact disappeared mysteriously while he was there,
and he was left stranded as he waited for "the call" to meet Castro. But it was a
great story when he got back. And as time wore on, Bianchi, who liked to put on
a kind of mafiaso demeanor, looked more and more like some Jeffersonian relic
with his blown-back, graying mane of hair.
Interestingly, he was the first guy to tell me about the Internet. I think it was
1992. He plopped a copy of Wired on my desk, a form to fill out from
Compuserve, and said, "This is the future, Bubby. This is where it's all going to
be at someday." I looked down at the stuff, placed on top of my pile of
manuscripts and proofs, and thought, Shit, one more thing I'm going to have to
take care of.
Anyway, if Bianchi had a nemesis in life in those days, it was Michael
Bernstein of Major League Properties in New York. Bernstein was some redheaded
piece of work, from the stories Bianchi told after trips to New York.
Bianchi described Bernstein as a demonic street-fighter, a cussing, cursing,
cynical, unhappy human being who quite probably wished he'd been able to pull
off The Diamond himself, rather than have us do it in the Netherlands of Arizona.
One of the biggest points of contention was this: Major League Properties had
right to review all of our content and advertising before we went to print.
This became a bigger and bigger problem. If the moguls of Major League
Baseball are notorious for their stupidity, imagine what their publicity and
licensing machine is like. Even though MLB allowed alcohol to be served at most,
if not all, major league ballparks, Properties wouldn't let us sell advertising to any of the beer companies. A huge loss for a magazine in need of paying revenue.
The restriction was so tight that if an advertiser didn't have a franchising license
from Major League Properties, or at least their seal of approval, we couldn't get
the ad. I'll never forget the day we landed a $300,000 contract for a long-term
two-page spread from a company that made leather jackets with classic baseball
images woven into them. We shuffled our pagination and planned out a whole six
months worth of stuff and everybody was on a real high for this big time
magazine startup. Our first big source of actual revenue.
But then, a few days later, Major League Properties told us we couldn't run
the ad campaign because the company had no official license to offer such
They reviewed our stories, too. We would fax our working drafts to Bernstein's
assistant (who I called "The Chimp.") She didn't seem to know much about
baseball and had certainly never played the game. But she had to read a lot of
our stuff because Bernstein, running his own baseball version of Pravda in New
York, didn't have much time for reading about Ty Cobb, Josh Gibson or the
I called her "The Chimp" because of that Disney film about the guy who taught
his chimpanzee to judge the quality of television shows. If the Chimp didn't clap,
well, it didn't run.
I talked this dean of baseball literature, Mark Harris, who wrote "Bang the
Drum Slowly," into writing an article for us. We sent it to Properties and they
objected to it, a story about the only man ever killed in the majors by a beanball.
"Too depressing," the Chimp said.
I sent it back to Harris for a rewrite, very apologetically. After all, who were we
to tell this literary dean of baseball that tragedy wasn't serviceable content at our
He re-wrote it, but later printed the original version, of course a much better
version, in an anthology of his writings.
We had a story about Babe Ruth, in fact a lot of stories about the Sultan of
Swing, and we could never get anything in about how he was a womanizer and
drunk and the first ubermensch of American sports. We were supposed to be an
authority on baseball history and we never once used the words "tobacco" or
"spitting" and you can bet the Babe's regular visits to the whorehouses of New
Orleans during spring training never made it into even one faxed document to
Major League Properties. Ty Cobb, the personification of evil in terms of
personality traits, was equally problematic. Never ran a story about old Ty,
especially not his high-flying spikes.
No, we kept all of that that visceral stuff that history is made of, heck, stuff that
good stories are made of, like tragedy and human frailty, out of The Diamond.
Bianchi had this story idea about an old Dodger pitcher who committed
suicide because of some kind of love triangle involving Ernest Hemingway, but
he never wrote the story because of our deal with MLBP. He just didn't want to
hear Bernstein howl, with that brackish New Yorker accent, from his offices to us
over the telephone speaker.
With advertising revenue limited due to our licensing deal, we were going,
going, deep, deep into the red. So Ron and the Boys -- the VPs this, execs that --
had to find inventive ways to keep the magazine funded until we could figure out
how this thing was supposed to pay for itself.
Didn't work, though.
They brought in some guy with ties to the Vatican, supposedly, to pull
together his investors. I remember there was talk about some guy named Abu,
who was going to rollover funding from Africa. Another guy had a heart attack
right before he was to provide venture capital. Or so we underlings were told. We
eventually found one main sugar daddy, Gordy Hormel, of the hot dog
conglomerate, but he eventually stopped sending checks with the onset of the
Major League Baseball Players Association strike of 1994.
The magazine closed after 9 issues, out of business with at least $5 million in
debts, probably more. Bianchi and the rest of The Boys never really recovered.
They were a considerable scandal in Scottsdale as the lawsuits started to pile up.
I guess the moral to the story is you have to be careful about the motivations
of your partners. They may not have your best interests in mind.
Bianchi never learned that lesson. He tried for years to get The Diamond back
up and running, and apparently he kept borrowing money from every stranger
and more nefarious sources. I used to put him on my resume as a reference.
Until last year, that is, when I found that he had been murdered, in a mob-style
hail of bullets. They found him full of holes in a forest near Payson, Arizona. I
imagine that just before he died, Bianchi was marveling at his life's story, how
someone might find a source for literature in his end.
Who killed him? Some former affiliate had just had enough. That's my guess.
Like I say, affiliates may not have your best interests at heart ...
An excerpt from