As the Beavers emerge from the clubhouse to warm up for the game, Paulson turns on the heels of his brown Cole Haan loafers and strides toward the stands. The time has come to promote his product: Triple-A baseball. He walks around the ballpark, shaking hands with the few season-ticket holders who braved the elements. He is smiling, his gunmetal-blue eyes meeting those of the fans, many of whom he knows by name. Each handshake is accompanied by a slight forward lean, which makes his athletic, 6-foot-3 frame feel slightly less imposing. He’s rallying the troops, creating a we’re-all-in-this-together élan.
Plenty of seasoned businesspeople, and for that matter, plenty of rich people, have tried their hand at owning a Triple-A ball club and failed.
And every person he greets smiles back, in part because Paulson’s enthusiasm is infectious, but also because Paulson seems to be what baseball fans in Portland have been waiting for for a very long time: an owner who is, for one thing, actually at the game, even on this lonely night. An owner who might be able to correct all the managerial mistakes and mishaps that have thwarted the team for two decades or more.
Tonight the Beavers are taking on the Salt Lake Bees, a farm team for the Los Angeles Angels that is going into the game with the best record (16-1) of all of Triple-A baseball’s 30 teams (and of all the Major League’s, for that matter). Fans of Portland baseball understand well the significance of this particular game: Back in 1993, the Beavers’ then-owner, Joe Buzas, unhappy with the lease terms of Civic Stadium, moved the team to Salt Lake City, where the Beavers became the Buzz. The move made Buzas, who already had a reputation as a cheapskate, a persona non grata among Rose City sports fans.
For seven summers, Portland had to do without the “Lucky Beavers,” who had called the city home since 1903 (a one-year break during World War I and a five-year absence during the 1970s excepting) and who had become a bona fide Rose City sports institution. Sure, the Single-A Bend Rockies moved their games to Portland to sate the city’s baseball cravings in the interim, but even as Portland cheered them on, everyone knew it wasn’t the same. The Rockies weren’t really our team.
Good riddance, Buzas. Perhaps that’s the message being delivered to Paulson by a middle-aged season-ticket holder ascending the stairs. “Hey Merritt, look what I found,” the man says, proffering a rectangular scrap: a ticket from a 1993 Beavers game signed by Buzas himself.
The Beavers lose tonight, 9 to 4. Pitcher Shawn Estes, who played in the big leagues between 1995 and 2006, is rocked by a grand-slam homer in the sixth by the Angels’ top prospect, Brandon Wood. Nonetheless, two weeks later the Padres call up Estes to join their roster. The same day, the pitcher packs his bags and flies south.
One day after signing Estes, the Padres tap Jody Gerut, the Beavers’ best hitter, who had a .308 average after 27 games in Portland. Which brings up another factor beyond Paulson’s control: As with all Triple-A clubs, the Beavers’ major league affiliate team controls the roster—players come and go at the whim of Padres management. In the NBA, where Paulson worked as the entertainment division’s senior director of marketing and business development for five years, star players served to build excitement and fan bases. “This is the antithesis of the NBA,” Paulson says. “You just can’t market the individual in Triple-A.”