Bloodlines and baselines run deep in the Bavasi family

NEW ORLEANS — Bob Bavasi likes to refer to baseball as "a family disease."

His younger brother, Bill, says baseball is "not a business to us; it's a lifestyle."

Another Bavasi brother, Peter, said he learned from his father, legendary executive Emil "Buzzie" Bavasi, that baseball was a "24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year hobby."

And then there's Chris Bavasi, the second-oldest son of Buzzie and his wife of 64 years, Evit, and the only one of the four not to pursue baseball as a career.

"The honest one," as Bill Bavasi called Chris at Bill's introductory news conference as the Mariners' new general manager last month.

" 'Black sheep' might be more accurate," Chris said with a laugh.

Chris went to Northern Arizona University, fell in love with Flagstaff, and has never left. A former policeman, then a six-term mayor of Flagstaff, he now serves on the school board and is executive director of the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation.

Chris' lone dalliance with a baseball career came as a teenager when he was hired to hoist beer kegs at Dodger Stadium during summer vacation while Buzzie was GM of the Dodgers. Unlike his brothers, the call of baseball did not resonate deep in his soul.

"Did I enjoy baseball and understand it was a special privilege to go to the games? Absolutely," Chris said. "But I felt I needed to do my own thing. Perhaps if I had gone to college another place, I would have done differently."

In college, Chris once sent his father a mock letter of application, giving his credentials and asking for a summer position with the Dodgers.

"I still have the response on Dodger letterhead," Chris said. "It went, 'Dear Mr. Bavasi: Unfortunately, we don't have any openings for someone of your limited ability. Get lost.' "

The truth is, all the Bavasi boys revere their dad (and their overlooked mom), who served as an infantryman in World War II and once, as general manager of the Dodgers' Nashua farm club, challenged to a fight an entire opposing team that had been race-baiting black players Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe.

"Baseball," says Buzzie Bavasi, still going strong at age 89, "is a game of friendships. You don't know when you're going to need someone. You hope your trades are good for both sides. You don't try to outdo someone. If you do, they won't make another deal with you. I learned that from Mr. Rickey."

Buzzie was the architect of a golden era of Dodgers baseball, hand-picked by legendary Branch Rickey to become GM in the fateful season of 1951. Buzzie built four World Series teams, first in Brooklyn, then in Los Angeles. He moved in 1969 to run the expansion San Diego Padres with an ownership stake, and later served a stint as GM of the California Angels.

"What we all got from him," said Bob Bavasi, 48, "is that your handshake is your word, honesty is very important in dealings, and that baseball is an honorable profession and a bunch of honorable guys. They're trying to beat each other, but in an honorable way. It was great values to grow up around."

Also great fun. The family's intercom system would pipe Vin Scully's Dodgers broadcasts to all the rooms in the house. It was not uncommon for players to drop by the house, and the ballpark became practically a second home.

"We grew up in a family where our dad brought his work home," Bill Bavasi, 45, said. "And if he didn't, Vin Scully did."

Chris, now 56, says with some wistfulness, "Our life growing up just seemed normal; in retrospect, it was fantastic. If Sandy (Koufax) happened to show up at our house, for us it was a relatively normal situation. My recollection of childhood is so spectacular, so much fun, I would have stayed there if I hadn't gone away to college."

Evit, the cheerful baseball widow, kept things humming wherever the family happened to alight in the itinerant baseball life.

"She had influence on all of us," said Buzzie from their home in La Jolla, Calif. "If not for Evit, we would not have been a success. She's still a marvelous lady, the prettiest 86-year-old you'd want to see."

Said Bill: "They went through a depression and a World War we've never gone through. It's reasonable to say I'm not sure I'm going to be half the man he was, and I feel the same way about my mom. She's a pretty tough bird."

Those were halcyon days in baseball, when, as Bob said, "My dad got to play baseball cards for a living. There was very little constraint of your ability to trade. He got to do for real what we all did as kids for laughs."

That all began to change when free agency hit in the mid-1970s, and the contracts inexorably skyrocketed.

"When I was in it, it was a game," said Buzzie. "Today, it's a business. GMs today are really personnel directors. They deal only with the players. In my time, you had to do everything — tickets, advertising, radio, TV. It's a tough game now. I didn't have to worry about agents."

Eldest son Peter, now 61, followed Buzzie into baseball, serving as president in Toronto and Cleveland and GM in San Diego. He later directed the international sports practice at Hill & Knowlton public-relations firm and was president of ESPN SportsTicker.

Bob took a different route, becoming a lawyer and then following his baseball heart to Everett, after purchasing the Class A club there in 1983. He and his wife, Margaret, ran the team before selling in 1999.

"Peter called one day while he was running the Blue Jays and said, 'Buzzie tells me you've lost your mind,' " Bob said of his decision to purchase the Everett club. "But the truth is, the most fun is in the minors. We were truly blessed. We got the club at a great time, and had a great run, and did OK when we got out.

"Without sounding too schmaltzy, we got to live the American dream of running a business in the American pastime. It was just a wild, stupid idea at the time and it turned out well for us. Although I've never had baseball owners call me and ask how to become a lawyer, I had plenty of lawyers ask me how to become an owner."

Bob and Peter are now principals in Bavasi Sports Partners, which offers consulting on various aspects of sports management. Only Bill remains a full-time baseball man, running the Angels from 1994 to 1999, then succeeding Pat Gillick with the Mariners.

"Bill had great instincts for the game, great knowledge of the game," Buzzie said. "He'd see a player at a ballgame and have an idea what it was all about. I remember when we brought up (Maury) Wills. Billy was 9 years old when Wills became a factor; he was one of the few people who liked him."

One famous Bavasi story involves a Little League game of Bill's that Buzzie, unbeknownst to his son, was able to watch via telescope from their hillside home. He saw young Billy slam his helmet after striking out, an unacceptable display for which he was reprimanded by his father.

"He didn't think I had seen the game, because I wasn't there," Buzzie recalled with a laugh. "But I knew exactly what had happened. Once I was through with him, he never showed his anger again."

Admittedly, nepotism got Bill in the door of baseball's front office, as it did with all his brothers. Bob once served in the Padres' minor-league department as "gofer," then was asked by his dad to fill in as well for an absent employee in the ticket department.

"I was working day and night, just mind-numbing work," Bob recalled. "All the work in the ticket office was done by hand; there were no computers. I was doing this guy's work and my own, and I told my Dad I should get a little raise.

"He said, 'Hmmm. Are you doing your job well?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Are you doing his job well?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Then it seems to me I don't need one of you guys.' "

Buzzie didn't make it easy for his sons, by design. "He didn't make it like you couldn't do it, but you had to want to do it," said Bob.

"I don't think he was all that excited about it," added Bill.

"He was a tough guy to read. I do know if I wanted to do something, and it involved him, I'd better really want to do it. He didn't make it easy."

Said Buzzie: "I didn't try to persuade them (to go into baseball), but once they made that decision, I supported them. I gave Billy a job in the grounds crew (in San Diego). I thought it would discourage him; it didn't."

From his first front-office job in the Angels' minor-league department — reporting, by design, not to his dad but to another executive, Mike Port — Bill had to advance on his own merits, which he did long after Buzzie had left the organization.

"When I joined the Angels, he wasn't sure how Mr. Autry (owner Gene Autry) felt about someone's son coming to work," Bill recalled. "The guy who helped me get past that was (Angels executive) Red Patterson. He felt he knew Gene real well. He thought it was a good idea."

Of all the sons, Bill was the best at evaluating baseball talent, a skill he came about honestly, almost by osmosis.

"You just had to listen, pay attention — keep your mouth shut and listen," he said. "Usually, if I would ask questions, I wouldn't get a whole lot of response. You'd watch a game and (Buzzie) wouldn't say a thing, and then, when (Pedro) Guerrero was hitting, he'd say, 'You know, that guy can hit a little bit.' Then you'd know that guy could really hit.

"He didn't talk a whole lot. Every once in a while he might say, 'We signed a guy, and it was Rod Carew.' OK, great. Or you'd overhear him because he was annoyed that (agent) Jerry Kapstein called on Christmas Eve."

Bill did well enough in his Angels job — eventually advancing to minor-league director — and he survived through three separate GM regimes until ascending to the top job in 1994.

"There were plenty of times where it would have been real understandable if I got fired," he said. "It would have been the normal course of action in baseball. I was lucky. When Buzzie left, it could have happened then, easily. When Mike (Port) left, when Dan O'Brien left, it could have then."

But it didn't, and now the Bavasi dynasty lives on, with each of the sons carrying a memento of their father's roots. One day recently, Buzzie and Evit gathered their sons to bestow his four World Series rings, the gleaming treasures of his 50-year career.

But rather than have them fight over the rings, the parents put them in a cup, with strings attached to each. In a stirring ceremony, each son pulled a string, and got to keep the ring that came up.

"Everyone got what they wanted," Bill said. "Chris got '65, and liked it because it was a year he remembered. Bob got '63, and liked it because he remembered it. Peter got '59, and liked that because it was Buzzie's favorite club, because it was not supposed to be a good club. And I got '55, which was his first.

"We all got something where we had a reason to say, 'That's great.' "

Just like growing up a Bavasi.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or