It was 1979 and amidst a cloud of cigar smoke and bluster, a 22-year-old kid from Philadelphia rode into Portland to rescue the Portland Beavers from decades of mediocrity and boredom.
David Hersh bought the Beavers for less than $300,000 -- in typical Hersh fashion, not with his own money -- and a year later found himself in financial trouble that caused a lot of creditors to be paid back at 67 cents on the dollar. But at the time, a lot of baseball fans in Portland really didn't care about his finances because Hersh brought fun, excitement and an air of "What will he do next?" that has never been matched in that old ballpark before or since. Many of his loyal backers felt the same way, too. He charmed a good portion of this city and I've found the mere mention of his name around here still brings a smile to many a face.
Hersh sold the team in 1983 after winning the Beavers' first pennant since 1936. And make no mistake, winning a championship was bigger for Hersh than it was for most minor-league owners. He burned to win, promised it to fans and he delivered. He went out and supplemented his teams made up of players from parent Pittsburgh and Philadelphia organizations with free agents of his own. Hersh brought Willie Horton, Luis Tiant, Dick Davis and several other free agents to Portland who were instrumental in the team's success. His 1983 PCL champs with John Felske at the helm were a terrific team that Portland Beaver fans fell in love with.
But Hersh also came to Portland with big-league dreams. He tried his best to convince politicians this was a big-league town, something he believes to this day. He tried to point out the vast potential of the market and what big-league sports could do for a city. And he put his money where his mouth was, staging promotions that were way beyond the usual minor-league variety.
His 1979 old-timers game has never been matched in minor-league baseball, to my knowledge. Hersh brought Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews, Whitey Ford, local Beaver legend Sam McDowell and Joe DiMaggio to what was then Civic Stadium. It was an incredible promotion. And so were the exhibition games in Portland against big-league teams, which Hersh took to another level with pre-game home run-hitting contests for what was then serious prize money.
Hersh would stand near home plate with a cigar in one hand and a fistful of hundred-dollar bills in the other, ready to reward players for home runs. it was in this setting that the Pirates' Willie Stargell hit his first of two HR Derby homers into the balcony of the Multnomah Athletic Club, a monster blast that provided an incredible thrill to those who watched it happen. But there was another exhibition game I remember, too, against the Philadelphia Phillies in 1983. In that one, Mike Schmidt played about half an inning for the Phils but Charlie Hustle, Pete Rose, went the full nine innings, went five-for-five at the plate and finished it with a belly-flop dive into third base for a triple. "I like to play baseball," Rose told me after the game."Doesn't matter where."
Well, David Hersh likes Portland. He left the Beavers after the '83 season to take a job working for the New York Yankees and George Steinbrenner, a deal that beat the odds by lasting a year, given the personalities of the two men. He floated around minor-league baseball in Memphis, then Jackson, Tenn., and once had a deal to buy the Tacoma Rainiers before the PCL killed the deal. He ruffled feathers of bigwigs wherever he went, of course. It's an old habit that I can fully appreciate.
But the big news is that he's back in Portland. He's always loved it here and still has a significant core of investors and partners from his Beaver days who would follow him into just about anything. I'm not quite sure yet what he's up to here but have been told it has nothing to do with baseball at this point.
Whatever it is, I'm sure of two things: No 1, He'll have a lot of fun, as will his partners. No. 2, Hersh thinks big. He loves to shake things up. When he finally says what he's going to attempt to do here, I'm probably going to be surprised and will doubt his sanity. Hey, it's what I've always done. I'm positive he won't find the attitudes and political climate much different in these parts than he did in the early 1980s. People here still don't think Portland is capable of much in the way of big-time sports. The politicians running things around here still don't know whether a football is stuffed or pumped and see no value in pursuing an answer.
But Portland needs David Hersh more than ever. And more like him. He is a visionary who aims high.
Yeah, in Portland. Pretty amazing, huh? We'll keep at eye on Hersh for you, and ... as Sherlock Holmes used to tell Dr. Watson at the beginning of an exciting new adventure, "The game is afoot!"