All for Love of the Game

Art Silber’s dedication to baseball started with his talks with Jackie Robinson and has led him to building a team that is now in desperate need of a new home.

Art Silber’s dedication to baseball started with his talks with Jackie Robinson and has led him to building a team that is now in desperate need of a new home.

By David Gignilliat

Photography by Francis Tatem

Each spring, on Opening Day, Potomac Nationals president and owner Art Silber makes the walk from the home clubhouse at Pfitzner Stadium to the first-base coach’s box. 

The trip to the coach’s box is a short one, maybe 25 feet as the crow flies. The box is rectangular, confining only in the sense that it’s outlined before each game in chalk or lime. That space, located just to the right of the first base bag, is Silber’s virtual office for several home dates each minor league season. 

Baseball rules decree, but rarely enforce, that Silber not leave the box during the home team’s half-inning at the plate. His responsibilities in the box are direct and straightforward, yet critical. In baseball, a deliberate game of nuance and strategy, it’s often the smallest of details that divide the winners from the losers. 

Should the runner stay at first or advance to second? How many outs are there? What might happen next?

One of the unwritten roles of a first-base coach is to be an on-field cheerleader, a friendly face to root players on in the batter’s box, at first base or as they round the bag headed for second, third and, hopefully, home. The Potomac Nationals play in the Class-A Carolina League, and are one of over 150 minor league teams affiliated with major league baseball clubs. Single-A, as it is often referred to colloquially, is home to many athletes— signees fresh out of high school, junior college, or four-year colleges—who are at the beginning of what they hope is a long, productive career as a professional ballplayer. While adjusting to life as a professional—on buses, on the road, on their own, perhaps for the first time—they are hungry to learn, to excel, to get better and, ultimately, to get noticed.

It is rare for a minor league baseball owner like Silber to actually coach on the field. In 1977, media mogul Ted Turner once managed the Atlanta Braves for a day, but that was more of a publicity stunt. For Silber, the routine is real, as real as a double into the gap, a coaching role that suits Silber well. He likes to stay involved. During the baseball season, he leaves his home in West Palm Beach for a suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner. A lifelong baseball fan, a former high school and collegiate athlete, and the “oldest first-base coach in professional baseball,” the sport is in Silber’s blood. Even at 72, he still has the gait and carriage of a former athlete. The passion for the game, that’s still there too. It’s a part of who he is, and was. 

“The first game of every season, when I walk out to first base, I bend down and I pick up a few blades of grass, and I really recollect on where I came from … as a poor kid on the streets of Brooklyn, [first] using a broomstick to hit a ball,” remembers Silber in a recent interview with Northern Virginia Magazine. “So, it’s a little bit hard for me to put it all together without feeling a great sense of emotion.” 

“We Were Street Kids” 

Silber grew up in the shadows of Ebbets Field, one of baseball’s exalted bygone cathedrals. The stadium was once home to the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers, before the club headed westward to Los Angeles for the start of the 1958 season. For baseball fans of a certain vintage, Ebbets Field is diamond nostalgia at its purest, part of the pantheon of great American ballparks. Located in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, the stadium was just a few blocks away from the stickball games of Silber’s youth. 

“I think the sewer was home plate.” 

Silber grew up in the Crown Heights part of Brooklyn, N.Y. In the 1940s, the neighborhood was a mix of newcomers from Jamaica and the West Indies, African-Americans from the South and a large Jewish population. “Brooklyn was such a melting pot of minorities at that time,” recalls Silber. 

“And the left rear tire of a Chevy is first base.” 

Ebbets Field was at 55 Sullivan Place. That address no longer exists, and the stadium’s former space is now home to high-rise apartments. From the age of 7 to 15, Silber used to camp out on the corner of Sullivan and Bedford Avenue, hoping to spy some of his beloved Dodgers as they made their way to work. 

“Another sewer is second base.” 

One Dodger in particular seemed to capture young Silber’s imagination, a speedy five-tool second baseman from Cairo, Ga. A man named Jackie Robinson. In 1947, Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier, ending decades of racial segregation.

“And all of the sudden, this magnificent [man] was a hero, not only to the African-American community but to most other minorities,” says Silber, who is Jewish. “He came to play baseball, and it helped to kindle that passion that I had.” 

“And the right front tire of a Ford is third base.” 

“We were street kids. We’d wait for [Mr. Robinson] on the corner. He had a blue Chrysler, and he would drive down Bedford Avenue, and there was this Mobil gas station across the street. And he’d stop, and an attendant would come out and take the car and park it in the back of the gas station,” he recalls. “And I would walk a whole block with him to the players’ entrance. I would always call him ‘Mr. Robinson,’ and one time he said I could call him ‘Jackie.’ And my only thought was that you don’t call God by his first name.” 

From Banks to Ball fields 

Silber spent the last 12 years of a productive business career as president and CEO of Sterling Bank, a Baltimore-based bank that worked with mostly high-net-worth clients. One of his A-list customers, a prominent D.C.-area real estate developer, was looking to buy a minor league ball club. The client was strong financially, so strong that access to financing was an afterthought. He could buy whatever team he chose, or multiple teams. The client received funding initially for two teams, and, as time went by, Silber began to notice the success his client had with his sports investments. Sensing a productive market segment for his company, Sterling Bank ended up financing baseball deals in other parts of the country. Over time, Silber and Sterling Bank had built up a significant group of customers in the minor league baseball business. 

In 1989, a representative of the then-Prince William Cannons approached Silber inquiring about potential interest among Sterling Bank clients in the sale of the team. Something was different this time.

“I went to my original customer, and he said, ‘Art, You love baseball. You should [buy] it yourself.’ And I had never really considered it,” says Silber. “The more I thought about it, the more interested I was. And I went to the board of directors
at my bank, to see if anybody thought it would be a conflict, and they didn’t.” 

Silber purchased the team, and later retired from the banking industry at age 55. Since taking over ownership, the team has been affiliated with the Yankees, White Sox, Cardinals, the then-Montreal Expos and, now, the Washington Nationals. All-time home run leader Barry Bonds played his first professional baseball on the grounds of Pfitzner Stadium, and scores of current and former MLB players got their start in Woodbridge, including current Los Angeles Angels superstar Albert Pujols. 

The ‘Pfitz’ 

Many things have changed, yet one thing has remained the same—the stadium. 

G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium, to be exact. The “Pfitz” as it is most often known. 

Originally called Davis Ford Park (after one of the main roads, at the time, outside the stadium), it was later renamed Prince William County Stadium a few years later. In 1995, the ballpark was renamed again, this time in honor of former county supervisor G. Richard Pfitzner, who had been instrumental in bringing the Alexandria Dukes to the county. 

But the facility, in spite of the best of intentions, was outdated almost as soon as it was built, Silber suggests.

“The existing facility, when it was built in 1984, was inadequate [at that time], in terms of the players and the satisfaction of the major league affiliate with the clubhouse,” adds Silber. “The ballpark that we’re in right now has a limited life expectancy. … We really have absolutely no amenities whatsoever.” 

Courtesy of Art Silber

Pfitzner Stadium has regularly been named among the worst minor league venues in the country, and is the only structure to be made out of metal, Silber says. The stadium has ample seating, but most of the seats are metal bleachers, not individual seats. There are no club level accommodations or corporate suites. The field has had episodic battles with Mother Nature, including last season’s drainage and field grading woes. The team’s major league affiliate, the Washington Nationals, has been cautious in sending some of the organization’s premium young talent to Potomac. Even last year’s clubhouse renovations, the result of a public/private collaboration between Silber and the county, could optimistically be seen as just a temporary salve. 

The team needs a new stadium, and sooner rather than later. Silber is currently working with the county on temporary sites, possibly one between Interstates 95 and 66, and hopes to announce a new location in the near future. “The [county is] doing everything they possibly can do [to work with us],” explains Silber. “They desperately want us to stay in Prince William County.” 

Even at the minor league level, these types of projects are extremely costly (north of $20M, conservatively), and are sometimes a tough sell in a period of county, state, national and international economic uncertainty. Yet the need for a new site lurks as the not-so-subtle elephant in the room, Silber says. 

“[The current stadium] is not going to last forever, and it doesn’t pay to rebuild the park where it is,” he adds. “We have zero visibility there. There are people who literally live across the street who have no knowledge that there is a professional baseball team there.” 

The Game He Loves 

Despite the stadium quagmire, the future looks bright for the P-Nats and their major league brethren 30 miles to the north. The Nationals finished the 2011 season with an 80-81 record, good enough for third place in the super-competitive NL East division that’s home to perennial contenders in Philadelphia and Atlanta. An exciting young core of major league talent (including former overall No. 1 draft picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper), some recent free agent additions and trades (including a swap with Oakland for frontline lefty starter Gio Gonzalez), a savvy veteran manager (Davey Johnson) and another year of seasoning, has many thinking that contention may come sooner rather than later. 

Maybe even as soon as this year. “It’s just exciting for us. The wonderful thing for our fans is that they get to see these guys when they’re young, and then when they get to actually follow them to Washington,” says Silber, who will be back at the Pfitz in time for Opening Day. “It’s really a win-win for the Washington Nationals, our ball club and the fan base.”

 

(April 2012)

 

 

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