His job? Coming up with pocketful for the Miracle

Published June 25, 1990|Updated Oct. 17, 2005

It's 2 p.m. Friday, a full five hours before Appreciation Night for Jericho the Miracle Dog (and a Florida State League baseball game between the Miami Miracle and the Clearwater Phillies) begins at Municipal Stadium in Pompano Beach. Mike Veeck, the Miracle president, is pacing in the hallway of the team's office complex _ a peach-colored trailer parked outside the stadium. Veeck is practicing his own brand of brainstorming.

"Anybody with a completely moronic idea for a promotion for the July 1 game gets 100 bucks," Veeck bellows.

A female voice from an office down the way shouts something about people playing baseball while riding donkeys.

"Donkeys?" Veeck does an about-face. "Whoa, now we're talking."

As a business enterprise, the Miami Miracle does not have a lot going for it. As a minor-league baseball team, it has even less.

The Miracle is an independent team _ neither affiliated with nor subsidized by a major-league club _ with one of the worst records (16-59) in professional baseball and a horrible reputation for attendance. The Miracle can't even get its location straight. The Fort Lauderdale Yankees are closer to the city of Miami than the Miracle's new home park in Pompano Beach.

Marvin Goldklang, a New York banker who purchased the team last year and moved it from Miami to Pompano Beach, concedes all of the above. He also insists that he has put together one of the strongest front offices in minor-league baseball.

It is a management team that has come up with promotions like Jericho the Miracle Dog, Babes in Toyland Night, celebrity mystery guests and other kooky strategies to get people into the ballpark.

Michael Veeck, son of the original maverick of baseball owners, the late Bill Veeck, was lured out of a 10-year hiatus from baseball earlier this year to come up with these Miracle solutions. Okay, maybe not lured. Perhaps rescued.

Veeck set aside his own advertising company in South Florida to take on the job of Miracle president. Without getting into financial specifics, he says he has taken "a 60-percent cut in life" to make the move.

"My 4-year-old son Night Train (a.k.a. William) even said it was a bad career move," Veeck said. "But I had no choice. It was baseball."

He compares the chore of promoting the Miracle, which counts Jimmy Buffett and Bill Murray among its minority owners, to greasing down a light pole and then trying to shimmy your way to the top while holding a peanut steady on your nose.

"We've done every great promotion we could imagine and we're still not putting a lot of people in the park," said Miracle general manager Bruce Bielenberg. "We've already drawn more people than last season, and considering we just came to Pompano in February and the team has a record like 16-53, that isn't too bad.

"But when Mike is used to getting 30,000 a night in Chicago, it's tough on his ego to have 400 in Pompano Beach. The ideas are there, but the people aren't yet."

Jericho the Miracle Dog was the first idea. Jericho first made Veeck's acquaintance while working as a gopher in a drive-thru convenience store. Jericho would go to the customer's car, take the money in his mouth and bring back the change and the product.

The golden retriever's new job is carrying baseballs and water jugs to umpires during games while wearing a Miracle uniform. He'll also catch a Frisbee between innings if the second-base umpire will toss him one. Jericho watches the game from his doghouse just beyond the first-base dugout in foul territory.

"Jericho is startingly simple and different. He's not like these costumed mascots at big-league games. He's real," Veeck said. "That dog has already gotten us in USA Today, The National, Baseball America and ESPN."

Veeck's other ideas have been hit-and-miss so far.

For Babes in Toyland, Veeck had 1,000 toys donated by a local store and children were allowed to dash onto the field and pick any one they liked. One hundred kids showed up. Another night, the Miracle advertised an attempt at the Guinness record for the longest baseball throw. Veeck recruited a jai-alai player who hurled the baseball a record distance with his cesta.

"Guinness wouldn't accept it. For some reason they felt duped," Veeck said.

Miracle games also feature the Blue Review (loudmouths who have their own box seats from which they verbally abuse umpires), a barber's chair in the bleachers (resurrected from Comiskey Park days) and an occasional mystery celebrity (actually a lookalike mystery celebrity) who appears between innings from a door in rightfield.

"I have kids of my own and they love this stuff," said Miami manager Mike Easler, a former big-leaguer with Pittsburgh and Boston. "My little girl raced the dog on the field and my oldest girl sang the national anthem. Mike is fun. He's creative. He's also somewhat eccentric, but the world needs more of that. It's good, clean fun."

It's about 45 minutes before game time and it's business as usual in the peach trailer next to Municipal Stadium.

Two clowns who will entertain children during the game stroll around without getting a second glance. Two girls from Hooters restaurant pick up signs they will display on U.S. 1 to attract motorists' attention to the ballgame.

Veeck himself will end up missing the first few innings because he wants to be in the office to answer the phone. With rain clouds overhead, people have been calling the office to find out the game's status. Veeck is intent on answering every call and talking every potential customer into showing up.

Technical glitch: Jericho the Miracle Dog steals the baseball used in a booth where fans can have their pitches timed by a radar gun.

Veeck, 39, inherited his late father's somewhat irreverent attitude toward baseball and good times, which has made him something of a pariah among the game's establishment. When the elder Veeck was forced to sell the Chicago White Sox because of financial problems in 1980, marketing whiz Mike Veeck was out of work. It took him two years to realize nobody else in baseball was going to offer him a job.

Goldklang heard of Mike through Baltimore Orioles general manager Roland Hemond, who worked with the Veeck family in Chicago. Goldklang called two general managers to check for references. The word: super baseball man because of his radical ideas; not well liked because of his radical ideas.

"I loved Daddy dearly. He was a wonderful man and my best friend," Veeck said. "But in terms of me getting a job in baseball, having the Veeck name was a killer. I used to sit around dreaming what it would be like to have the name Smith. If Mike Smith had done some of the hustles I had in Chicago, he would have everybody banging on his door."

In just over four months, Veeck already has alienated some baseball people. Taking advantage of a little-known rule, the Miracle participated in the amateur draft earlier this month and selected 16 players (13 have signed).

(The rule allows independent minor-league teams to take part in the draft following the first three rounds.)

Veeck also has drawn a reprimand from FSL officials for flying a banner over the Yankees' minor-league stadium in Fort Lauderdale that poked fun at owner George Steinbrenner and encouraged people to bring their Yankees ticket stubs to a Miracle game for free admission.

"Aaah, nobody has a sense of humor anymore," he said ruefully.

Just as his father is remembered principally as the man who brought midget Eddie Gaedel to the plate in a major-league game in 1951, Mike Veeck is mostly remembered for one particular promotion.

Does Disco Demolition ring a bell?

Between games of a doubleheader in Comiskey Park in 1980, Veeck and a disc jockey schemed to end the disco craze by blowing up records on the field. The promotion was a little too good. It drew 50,000-plus spectators who stormed _ and destroyed _ the field after the explosion. Police were called in and the second game of the doubleheader was called off.

"I apologized publicly for that. But just once," Veeck said. "An airliner going down is a tragedy. Canceling a ballgame is not."

It's 9:30 p.m. The Miracle is well on its way to a 6-1 loss to Clearwater. The highlights of the night have been Jericho's performance with the umpires and his trip around the field in the back of a pickup truck filled with balloons and streamers.

Technical glitch: Marilyn Monroe turned out to be the mystery guest but nobody told the PA man she was coming out between the sixth and seventh innings. Marilyn is standing in rightfield for a good 60 seconds before he notices. By then, the umpires are ready to play ball and Marilyn is shooed off the field.

Still, Mike Veeck is a happy man. The crowd is big _ by Miracle standards. He doesn't have the official word yet (it turns out to be 1,505) but he's sure it's the second best night of the season.

When the game ends, he sits in a bleacher seat and talks optimistically.

"It's coming," he said. "It's coming together."

He has inched a little farther up the light pole and the peanut is still holding steady on his nose.