By David Mullen
Professional baseball is returning to Dallas, and the man behind the Southwest League of Professional Baseball thinks it will be big hit.
Mark Schuster, president and CEO of Ventura Sports Group, has the vision of rapidly growing a league of six independent teams, one in Joplin, MO and five in Texas, including putting a team in a completely renovated Reverchon Park baseball field in the Oak Lawn area of Dallas. Joplin (Miners), Waco (BlueCats) and Royce City (Millers) are already on board, with two more teams joining soon. “I am excited about all of our cities,” Shuster said, “but I super excited about how special this [Dallas] could be.”
Apparently, so are people in Dallas. A contest to name the Dallas franchise has already garnered more than 2,000 email responses.
Baseball in Dallas dates back to the 1870s. The new Southwest League will play a 112 game schedule in spring 2019, with 56 home and 56 road games, and then a four-team playoff. Waco and Royce City will have new baseball parks. Reverchon Park will expand to 2,000 box seats and approximately 2,000 additional seats, which include grass areas. The park will have a video scoreboard and an artificial turf field. Most game tickets will be $8 to $15.
A New Jersey native, “I ended up going to North Carolina to Elon University to play baseball,” Schuster, 52, said. “During my junior year, it became obvious that I was not going to follow my passion for baseball on the field. I was a good player, but I just wasn’t that kind of player. But I knew I wanted to stay around baseball.” He continued his education and received a degree in sports marketing.
Just after the movie “Bull Durham” was released, Schuster became food and beverage director for the Durham Bulls minor league franchise. “I got to learn the business from a great organization,” Schuster said. “I was a guy with a college degree that was making hotdogs and lugging beer kegs. But I wanted to learn it from the ground up.”
Soon after, Schuster became general manager of the Cleveland Indians class-A affiliate Burlington Indians in Burlington, N.C. and then became vice president and general manager of the Minnesota Twins class-A affiliate in Fort Myers, FL where he would serve for three years. He also ran spring training for the Twins. “It’s a very transient business,” Schuster said. “You’ve got to go to a lot of places in the sports business to get to where you want to get to.”
In September 1996, Schuster was recruited to become vice president and general manager of the Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs, a Class-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, which included actor Bill Murray and Mike Veeck (son of baseball Hall of Famer Bill Veeck) on the management team. He also had stints with the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres and the Portland Timbers professional soccer team.
“I decided I was going to build a company owning and operating minor league ball clubs on the independent side,” Schuster said. Today, minor league teams are either affiliated, where major league teams own player contracts, or independent, where the team owns the franchise itself and owns the player contracts.
“I like the independent model,” Schuster said, “because it allows us to do more than just baseball. We could do concerts, festivals and events. Treat it [the venue] not just as a baseball stadium.”
In September 2007, Schuster built the $20 million state-of-the-art stadium in Grand Prairie where he owned the Grand Prairie AirHogs minor league team until 2010. When faced with the daunting task of building new stadiums in other markets and rebuilding Reverchon Park, he said, “We built Grand Prairie in seven months.”
Schuster’s experience in ballpark construction and management has led him to this conclusion. “People don’t go to game like they used to and sit in their seat like they did 20 years ago. They want to mingle, stand up, drink and talk to their friends. You cannot operate a multipurpose venue with minor league baseball and not have beer and wine. It is the lifeblood of the organization. When you go to a ball park, you want to have a hot dog, some popcorn, and have a beer or a soft drink.”
Even though the park will have eight private suites, Schuster is very high on the ambiance Reverchon delivers. “We don’t think Reverchon should cater to a big corporate market,” Schuster said. “Reverchon should be about people coming down the trail on their bike or walking there or taking an Uber. It should be an experience for the family.”
Teams will be made up of 22 players and two on an injured reserve list. Clubs will operate under a salary cap. “Getting the players is one of the easiest parts. It is very counter intuitive. Major League Baseball drafts 30 rounds of guys every year. Let’s say they sign 60 percent of those guys. There are really good players that may be released out of spring training or during the season. The market will be flooded with great players. We will be known as the league of second chances.”
It is fitting that Schuster is giving baseball in Dallas and Reverchon Park a second chance.