ROCHESTER, Minn. —
Those were heady days for a little kid from Michigan. For several years, his father, Red Sox righthander Dick Radatz, was the most dominating reliever in baseball — often unhittable and always scary.
At 6 feet 6 inches, with a wicked fastball, Radatz owned Mickey Mantle (12 strikeouts in 16 at-bats, according to baseball-reference.com). After one bases-loaded strikeout in the ninth inning, the Mick exploded.
“It was in a cursing flurry,” said Dick Radatz Jr. “He said, ‘You big monster mother . . .’ and a legend was born.”
Radatz is a member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame but he made only $42,500 in his best contract year. Twice an All-Star, he was one of the more intimidating pitchers ever to play the game. Mantle has been quoted as saying he was the best he ever faced, and Willie Mays as saying he was the only guy he feared.
Radatz Jr. never made The Show, his baseball career derailed by a separated shoulder and broken collarbone in college. Instead, he got his master’s degree in Sports Administration at Ohio University.
He worked for the Dodgers at their spring training site in Vero Beach, Fla., and was general manager of the Red Sox entry in the New York-Penn League. When he was 24, he was running the Red Sox spring facility in Winter Haven, Fla., and serving as GM of the Red Sox team in the Florida State League. He was named FSL Executive of the Year in 1986 and received an American League championship ring from the Red Sox. But three years later, he was gone.
“I got fired,’’ said Radatz Jr., before amending that to being asked to resign.
“I pretty much said in the press something to the effect that the attitude down here is so bad, it’s hurting the development of the players.”
In 1994, he co-founded the Northwoods League, a for-profit summer collegiate baseball league in the Upper Midwest. He is currently president of the wooden-bat league, which has 16 teams and is expanding to 18 next season. With a grueling 70-game season (from late May to early August), it draws nearly 950,000 fans a year, more than three times as much as any other summer collegiate league.
New franchises are going for $1 million each.
Radatz Jr., 54, is worth an estimated $10 million. He drives a Lexus and has homes in Florida, Minnesota, and on a lake in Michigan.
He is sitting on the sports deck at Mayo Field, home of the Rochester (Minn.) Honkers, one of the five original teams when Radatz helped start the league with a $150,000 investment that came from borrowing against his wife’s 401(k) account. He had three other founders with extensive baseball experience, but, he said, “We had no money. We robbed Peter to pay Paul.’’
Radatz Jr. remembers surveying ancient Mayo Field, which was built in 1951 and once overrun by an infestation of raccoons, and decided that a priority was to build a new women’s bathroom.
“If you start losing the women, you’ll lose the kids and the husbands,” he said with a laugh.
But he didn’t have the $50,000-$70,000 estimated cost. So he did most of the work himself.
“I had a jackhammer in my hand,” he said. “I had a cement saw, we had the masks on, there was dust in my hair. We got this done for $7,000. It epitomized sweat equity right there.’’
He built it, and the people came. With all–you-can-eat-and-drink tickets to the sports deck in left field going for just $22, the venue has been named “Best Place To Take Your First Date” by Rochester Magazine.
Behind the ballpark are train tracks, and nearby is the cemetery where Archibald “Moonlight” Graham is buried.
“People don’t believe that Moonlight Graham is a true story,’’ said Radatz, who hops into the Lexus to drive the short distance to the grave.
Graham’s story was an inspiration for the book “Shoeless Joe” and the movie “Field of Dreams.” He played in one game for the New York Giants in 1905 but never got to bat.
But Radatz Jr. said there are more heartbreaking stories than Graham. Take for instance, Hall of Famer Robin Yount’s older brother.
“Larry Yount was a pitcher who made it to The Show [with Houston] in 1971,” he said. “It’s the ninth inning and he comes in in relief. He’s throwing his warm-up tosses and his elbow stiffens up, so he comes out. He never makes it back to the major leagues.”
On opposite sides
In 2012, Robin Yount and Bob Uecker bought the Lakeshore Chinooks of the Northwoods League. According to the league, the last three sales of interest in a Northwoods League affiliate have resulted in an average return on investment of 788 percent for the selling party.
The league is the polar opposite of the Cape Cod League.
“They’re not for profit,” said Radatz Jr.. “Don’t charge admission — pass the hat, literally. We have season ticket-holders, for crying out loud. We sell billboards, we have mascots, sell beer, and all the things a minor league will do.”
The nonprofit 10-team Cape Cod League is more romantic, he said, but not necessarily better. Radatz Jr. goes after the Cape League the way his father used to go after the Yankees.
“We’re definitely a better league overall,” he said. “Let’s be frank about it. They still do get the most talented players in the country, but that gap is closing by the minute.
“We draw more people, we play in better venues, we have the best video production.”
The Northwoods players endure long bus rides to Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ontario. They are unpaid so they can keep their amateur status.
“Are we exploiting these kids for our profit?” said Radatz Jr. “My response to that is they’re getting every bit as much out of it as we’re getting. This is an experience that is not available anywhere else in the world at this time.”
Radatz’s success is surprising considering some of the former minor league facilities the league utilizes.
The ride from Rochester, Minn., to Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., is 165 miles without a red light. Radatz talks baseball while identifying nearly every song on ’60s satellite radio. He recalls being terrified to meet the great Hank Aaron as a boy and about driving Tommy Lasorda around Dodgertown in a golf cart after Los Angeles won the World Series in ’81.
“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” he said.
He says his dad was frequently asked the secret to striking out Mantle. It was to start him off with a fastball lower middle in, then climb the ladder on him on each successive pitch, increasing the velocity.
“The harder he pitched, the harder he swung,” said Radatz Jr.
Mantle and Radatz eventually became friends. Father and son once attended a Mickey Mantle golf tournament in Oklahoma — a virtual Who’s Who of Yankee stars.
“Mick would sit on a hole and if you hit within a certain distance, he’d sign a ball for you,” said Radatz Jr.. “So my dad hit one within the circle and Mick signed it, ‘Lucky shot, you [expletive], Mickey Mantle.’ That’s a treasure.”
On the road, Radatz Jr. passes an Ocean Spray cranberry bog in Wisconsin Rapids, which reminds him of the Cape League. He declares that he wants “to crush’’ all the other summer collegiate leagues.
“We’ve changed the game, and no one’s taken notice of it in 20 years,” said Radatz Jr. “We have more players in the NWL that will play professional baseball than in the entirety of the Cape Cod League this year.”
In its 20 years, the Northwoods League has had 102 alumni play in the major leagues, including Curtis Granderson, Ben Zobrist, Andre Ethier, George Sherrill, and Chris Sale. In 2012 alone, 253 former Cape Cod players were on major league rosters.
Radatz Jr. has battled with the Cape Cod League over players. In 1999, he had Lance Niekro, son of former major league pitcher Joe Niekro, signed to a contract, but Niekro instead played for Orleans and was league MVP.
“Unethical behavior,” said Radatz Jr.
But former Cape League commissioner Bob Stead said, “There’s two sides to every story, and I’m going to take the high road. Niekro had in fact signed with the Northwoods League. But Niekro’s college coach, his dad, and the kid himself begged Radatz Jr. to let him play in the Cape League.
“He’s in the business to make money and we’re in the business to provide the greatest environment in the free world to play college baseball. No matter how he frames it, we’re still Hertz and they’re still Avis and always will be.”
Radatz Jr., beaten once, strengthened the language of Northwoods League contracts. In 2004, when Brad Furnish signed a contract with the Northwoods League and then reported to the Cape League, Radatz Jr. had a constable serve him papers as he was warming up in the Wareham bullpen.
“He’s a heck of a business partner,” said former Wisconsin State Senator Dan Kapanke, who mortgaged his homes to build a $1.7 million ballpark for the La Crosse Loggers, the Northwoods League team he owns. “This is all Radatz with a vision. We’re having overflow crowds.”
Getting players ready
Radatz Jr. truly believes he is preparing players for the majors better than the Cape Cod League does.
According to a study he commissioned, Northwoods League pitchers have a lower ERA in their first year of professional baseball than Cape pitchers. The primary reason, he said, is that they get to experience pitching in front of big crowds in minor league venues. They also get used to five-man rotations and long bus rides.
“The Cape is more of a summer league but this is more of a minor league feel,” said Craig Caufield, a Memphis University righthander who is the closer for the Loggers. “The Cape has more premier players.
“You play four times a week there; you play seven times a week here. The travel sucks, it’s rough, but that’s what it’s like in the minor leagues, so it’s just preparing us for the future. “
Caufield made his debut in Madison, Wis., where the Mallards draw more fans than some Double A franchises.
“There’s 7,500 fans and they are ragging on me the whole time,” said Caufield. “They were down to their last out and they had guys on first and second. And they were playing, ‘We Will Rock You,’ while I’m pitching. They didn’t shut it off, and the crowd’s getting into it.
“Them getting pumped up to give me crap made me get pumped up to pitch harder in the game. It was the best feeling ever when you get the last out, pound your chest, and know that you did it.”
Radatz Jr. said the college players learn more off the field than on.
“It’s riding the buses for a long time, getting in a five-man rotation, alcohol, women, nutrition,” he said. “All the things that are going to go on in a professional baseball player’s life, they experience here.”
As league president, he deals with all sorts of crap. Literally.
On a road trip to Thunder Bay, Ontario, three Alexandria players took the lids off the tops of toilets and defecated in the water tanks.
Radatz Jr. ruled out three-game suspensions for the offenders, because they were starting pitchers and that would have no effect on them.
“I called the Parks and Recreation Department and said, ‘You got toilets?’ ” he said. “I had them out at 7 a.m. cleaning toilets. That was my Solomon moment.”