Sports Business

SPORTS: From ticket manager to 'Mr. Baseball' in 50 years

June 26, 2006

Not surprisingly, Indianapolis Indians President Max Schumacher and Victory Field, his own field of dreams, have something in common.

Neither Max nor the ballpark looks anywhere close to their age.

And by the happy coincidence of timing,

there will be a double celebration at that downtown beauty of a ballpark July 16.

Recognition will be made of Victory Field's 10th anniversary. Hard to believe, but it's been a decade since that pristine night, July 11, 1996, when the gates flew open and the paying customers poured in for the first time.

I still remember the goose bumps that came with the first pitch, then watching the sun set and the lights come up on the city's skyline. What a backdrop for baseball it was ... and continues to be.

It's also fitting that on July 16, friends, civic leaders and baseball fans will gather to pay tribute to the 73-year-old Schumacher-Indy's Mr. Baseball-in honor of his 50th year with the franchise.

Yes, it's also hard to believe it was 50 years ago this September when Schumacher-fresh out of the Army-sat in the Fidelity Bank office of Frank McKinney Sr., then the Indians' chairman of the board, interviewing for the job of ticket manager.

At the end of the interview, McKinney penned a note to Ray Johnston, the Indians' general manager at the time. "Here's your new ticket manager," the note said.

And the rest, as they say, is history ... 50 years' worth.

By his third season with the club, Schumacher-a Shortridge High School and Butler University grad (where he majored in journalism)-had added publicity director to his duties. By the fifth year, he had become general manager. By his 12th year, he was the team's president.

What has followed have been 31 years of consecutive profitability, the move from the romantic but crumbling confines of Bush Stadium to Victory Field, and general recognition of the Indians as one of the elite franchises in all of AAA baseball.

Schumacher is known and highly respected throughout all of baseball, and the recent awarding of baseball's 2009 Winter Meetings to Indianapolis-to take nothing away from our wonderful city and all it has to offer-is no less than a Lifetime Achievement Award for this decent, kind gentleman.

Good things do happen to good people.

Like seeing Victory Field rise out of a wasteland by White River. It was a parking lot for Colts games in which you parked at your own risk because of all the litter and broken glass.

There was-as difficult to believe as it seems now-no small amount of opposition to leaving Bush Stadium on West 16th Street and coming downtown. But Bush was clearly falling apart. And, besides, how do you say no to Max Schumacher?

Republican Mayor Steve Goldsmith got on board. The state, then led by Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh, donated the land. Of the $18 million needed, the Capital Improvement Board came up with half, the Indians pledged $5 million, and Jim Morris and Gene Sease went out and raised the rest from benefactors-the typical Republican-Democrat-public-private partnership effort we've seen time and again.

Under the leadership of Schumacher and Cal Burleson-to whom Max handed over the general manager duties in 1997-Victory Field looks as if nary a beer or a mustard packet has been spilled. Talk about tender loving care.

"The challenge to ourselves on Opening Day in '96 was to make it look as good when we hosted the Triple-A All-Star Game five years later," Schumacher said. "Then we challenged ourselves to still be saying that at the end of 10 years. "The new ballpark has just been so wonderful. It's been the perfect way for me to move into the sunset of my career." The good news is that sunset will last awhile. Max is observing his own daylight saving time. He has no plans to retire. "As long as I feel good and feel like I can make a contribution," he said. "I mean, just coming to work every day is so enjoyable. Just being around a ballpark ..." His voice trails off. Time really does fly when you're having this kind of fun. "It seems like just a few years ago that I was coming out of the Army and being interviewed by Mr. McKinney," he said. "It doesn't seem possible that was 50 years ago. Talk about being in the right place at the right time."

Yes, but it took the right man to make that right time last 50 years.

Here's hoping Max and his ballpark stay forever young.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com.
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