Can Merritt Paulson get people to come out to the ballpark and convince the city to love its 105-year-old baseball team so much that they buy season tickets? He’s banking that he can—by being the public face of the Beavers and by billing them as a community product that “makes the city a better place for families to be.” If he succeeds in building both the Beavers’ and Timbers’ fan bases, in making their games must-see events, he may turn Portland into what he believes it can be: “a great sports city.”
The aluminum bat chimes as Paulson laces a pitch over second base. It’s another night in April, a slightly warmer one, and Paulson is taking batting practice on the field after the game has ended and the fans have left the park. “That was a little high; bring it down,” he admonishes groundskeeper Jesse Smith, who is tossing pitches. Ding! Paulson pops the next one up to left. “That was a little inside.” Then he gets a pitch he likes and drives it to deep center, where it takes two bounces and stops on the warning track. “If that had been to left, it would have been out of here,” Paulson says, a smile on his face.
“Merritt was a good Little League shortstop. We took him to his first Cubs game at Wrigley Field when he was about 5.” Written in an e-mail, this is all that U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Merritt Paulson Jr. says when queried about his son’s athletic abilities. (The elder Paulson is a minority—but silent—partner in Shortstop LLC, the holding company that Merritt founded in order to purchase the Beavers and the Timbers.) Merritt doesn’t hesitate to clarify his father’s comment. “I was an All-Star shortstop the last three years I played Little League.”
Even if you didn’t know that Merritt Paulson came from such a high-profile family, or that he grew up in Barrington Hills, Illinois, a wealthy suburb of Chicago, you’d probably peg him as more of an East Coast type. He prefers slacks, pressed pastel dress shirts, and loafers, but then, he’s been here only a little over a year.
About a week after the teams’ purchase was finalized, in late May 2007, Paulson moved to Portland for good. As he had done during the weeks and months leading up to the deal, he took the Jet Blue flight from New York City. And as usual, he flew coach and secured a seat in an exit row, which he says is the only area spacious enough to accommodate his long legs. Before he moved out West, Paulson made his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he and his wife, Heather, rented a 900-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment. After looking at some 20 properties in the Portland area, they bought a three-bedroom house in Lake Oswego.
Only about half of the owners in the 16-team Triple-A Pacific Coast League (PCL) to which the Beavers belong live in the city or town where their franchise plays. But Paulson has always believed in the value of local ownership. “You have to be able to truly understand the market,” he says. “You need to be eating it, drinking it, and breathing it. How can you do that if you’re an absentee owner?”
Branch Rickey III, the president of the PCL—and the grandson of Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who broke baseball’s color line by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers—says that “the heart and soul of a franchise is its ownership,” and not the city in which it plays. “Ownership is everything,” he says. “If there’s one problem owners run into, it’s running a franchise they have no genuine personal interest in.”
Rickey will tell you that 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. Profit margins can be narrow, and running a successful team—one for which game attendance, support from local businesses, support from local politicians (and, thus, return on investment) all go up—requires the kind of hands-on, day-to-day management and cost control that many owners haven’t been all that inclined to undertake. Paulson, Rickey says, isn’t one of them.