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Home Run

[whitespace] Susan and Bob Fletcher Michael Amsler

Batting a thousand: Susan and Bob Fletcher, co-owners of the Sonoma County Crushers, are partners on and off the field.

Sonoma County Crushers husband-and-wife team are married to the game

By Bill English

ALTHOUGH baseball has no clock, it happens every day. The relentlessly long season has been known to hobble even the most finely conditioned athletes, but the players aren't the only ones who feel the pain and tension of summer's most demanding schedule. Everyone from the owners to the ushers learns to respect the ebb and flow of the National Pastime.

Because baseball can kill you in a million ways.

But it also gives rise to genuine heroes and tales of wonder. The story of the Sonoma County Crushers is one such baseball saga. Five years ago Bob and Susan Fletcher left the insulated corporate world of IBM and embarked on a wild lifestyle detour by becoming the owners of a fledgling professional baseball team. In the beginning, the move seemed audacious, perhaps even foolhardy. The Western Baseball League was new and unproven. The Sonoma County Crushers--who won the league championship in 1998, but got bumped in the first round of the playoffs this year--didn't even have a name at the time. Amazingly, ex-IBM exec Bob Fletcher didn't consider himself a risk taker--he felt confident that he knew what he was doing. Looking back now he realizes he was a hapless rookie with a cheap suitcase and a porkpie hat.

Baseball has taught the Fletchers some hard lessons. "We had no idea what an enormous risk we were actually taking when we first got into this," Bob says as he sits with his wife beside the pristine infield of Rohnert Park Stadium. "Owning a professional baseball team is a deceptively sophisticated undertaking. There are so many micro and macro decisions to be made. And a lot of them have nothing to do with baseball."

DURING the first season, the thinly veiled terror was evident in both Bob and Susan's eyes. They were not baseball people. But suddenly they were flung into an alternate universe with a whole new set of rules. Before long, the curves and knucklers were coming at them from all sides.

"The money issue has always been a big concern," Susan says. "I remember once during the first season when I was facing a payroll of $40,000, and only had $5,000 in the checking account. I'm the one who signs the checks. I had no idea where the money was coming from. Then 10,000 fans showed up over the weekend and the money miraculously was there. But the cash flow through this business was definitely something I had to get used to."

Flying by the seat of your baseball pants is a harsh reality for all the owners of Western Baseball League franchises. Teams have folded or changed owners with alarming frequency. The Fletchers are the only original owners left standing, and the number of teams has shrunk this year from eight to six.

"Most of the time when you run a small business you're pretty much in control of your own destiny," Bob explains. "But in this situation there are a lot of factors you can't control. We could be the healthiest team in the WBL, but if the league fails there'll be no one for us to play. Even the weather can cause you problems. This summer has been the coldest we've experienced, and even though we didn't have a single rainout, I think it cost us some attendance."

Fortunately for the Fletchers, the WBL seems stable at the moment and is set to expand into Yuma and Scottsdale, Arizona, next season.

THE FLETCHERS' 30-year marriage appears to have blossomed in the hothouse environment of Crushers' baseball. Clearly, the couple have survived the minor-league baseball wars together and now have the confident air of veterans. They claim they no longer have the horrible doubts that haunted them during the first few years.

"I think Bob is happier than he's ever been," says Susan. "When he worked for IBM, nobody asked him for his autograph at the movies. We've created something here. And in the long run the fun far outweighs the stress."

Susan, who's in charge of finding host families for the modestly paid (around a $1,000 a month) Crushers' players, has also become well known in the community. "The host families have been great, but I still worry about placing the right player with the right household," she says. "And how do you tell a child the Crusher living in the guest bedroom has been traded? I've had mothers burst into tears when they got the news."

At the moment, the Fletchers have no intention of selling the team or retiring. They both feel they're living the life most people can only dream about. But sometimes the relentless baseball chatter becomes too much. "All we do is talk about baseball," Susan says. "It's not uncommon for us to work 21 straight days. Sometimes I just have to tell Bob no baseball talk tonight. That's when I like to be alone with my roses."

When asked where the Crushers will be in another five years, Bob is quick to reply. "Hopefully, we'll still own the team. I'd like to have a new stadium somewhere down the line. When you go around the country you can see all the possibilities. There's a lot of great minor-league ballpark designs out there."

Bob smiles at his wife as they both stare off down the third baseline.

"You know what would look nice?" he muses. "Maybe we could get the Flamingo Hotel to sponsor pink foul poles with flamingos perched on top."

Susan smiles broadly. "Bob does the marketing," she says.

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From the September 16-23, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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