$n$ Buchan: Sweets owner puts his family first


WALLA WALLA - Sometime this weekend, John Stanton and his two sons will settle back in their Bellevue home, queue up the DVD player and watch one of their favorite movies for the umpteenth time.

It's Field of Dreams, the 1989 Kevin Costner flick set in present-day Iowa's corn belt. The picture embodies the theme of an unfulfilled father-son relationship that is resolved against the ghostly backdrop of one of baseball's most romantic periods.

It's a cool, heartwarming movie.

"We have a tradition that we will be fulfilling this weekend," Stanton said Wednesday during a momentary respite in a hurried half-a-day visit in which he was the featured speaker at the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce's quarterly luncheon at the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center.

"We've been thrown off a little by this week's Mariners games in Japan," Stanton said. "But my sons and I watch Field of Dreams every year on the weekend before the beginning of the Major League Baseball season. And we will be doing that again this weekend."

Baseball is a big deal in the Stanton family, and not just because John is a minority owner of the Seattle Mariners or that he is the financial might behind the Walla Walla Sweets, who will begin their third season of play in the collegiate wood-bat West Coast League in a couple of months.

Despite his busy schedule as one of the nation's most prominent figures in the wireless communication industry, Stanton found the time to coach both of his sons' baseball teams when they were younger.

"I coached them until they were 12," he said. "And then their skills went way beyond my ability."

But he continues to attend their games on a regular basis.

Stanton's older son is now a senior in college and plays on one of the top-ranked NCAA Division III baseball teams in the country. His younger son is high school sophomore who pitches and plays the outfield for his Seattle-area prep team.

"Between them last year, they played about 120 games," Stanton said. "Those games are my priority. I probably make 20 Mariners games on top of that, and I make most of those games in August and September after my sons stop playing."

And if it comes down to a choice between the M's and the Sweets, Stanton is inclined to watch the college kids play ball.

"For me, I would rather go to a Sweets game than any game in which my sons are not playing," he said. "There is nothing that is the same as the quality of baseball at Safeco Field. But in terms of being close to the action and feeling like it is a community event, as far as I am concerned there is nothing like a Sweets game."

It's a feeling he first experienced, he said, during his years as a student at Whitman College. Stanton graduated from Whitman in 1977 and has since served 20 years as a member of the school's board of trustees after five years as an overseer.

"In the summers of 1974-75-76 I worked for Jones-Normel in Weston and lived in houses around Whitman College," Stanton remembered. "And every summer I have these vivid memories of going to the baseball games at Borleske Stadium."

Those were the years, of course, when the Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres operated minor league professional teams in Walla Walla. It was a time when a number of future big leaguers, Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith and Tony Gwynn among them, began their professional careers at Borleske Stadium.

So, when the West Coast League approached Stanton about buying a franchise and locating it in Longview, he had a quick and easy answer.

"I said I was not very interested," Stanton remembered. "But if it was Walla Walla, we would do it. For me, the opportunity to be involved in baseball here is a real pleasure."

In their first two years of operation, the Sweets have turned Borleske Stadium into a popular destination for local baseball fans. The team drew 40,461 fans in 2010 and led the WCL in attendance. Last summer, 52,019 passed through the turnstiles.

Still, the Sweets have yet to show a profit.

"We actually lost money the first two years," Stanton said, citing substantial improvements to the stadium as part of the reason why. "We are hoping to get to the point of breaking even and the business being sustainable."

Zachary Fraser, the Sweets general manager and the one Stanton has put in charge of achieving those financial goals, sees the potential for improvement.

"The number we would like to see in the house every night is 1,600 to 1,700," Fraser said. "Last year we averaged 1,576 per game, and the year before it was 1,445."

Capacity at Borleske Stadium, he noted, is 2,376.

"We didn't make money the last two years after our expenses were paid," Fraser said. "Our revenues were less than our expenses. But there is a difference between making money and profitability."

In other words, Fraser believes the Sweets are moving steadily in the right direction.

"As far as the first two years are concerned, we are happy with where we are at," Fraser said. "I believe we've done some pretty cool things. And I don't think we are done."

Stanton agrees.

"The team I watched in college in the 1970s, frankly, moved to a larger market," Stanton said. "They moved to Everett. That was a different business experience for them, and they did financially much better because they moved the team.

"We are not going to move the team. This is about having a great experience."

Stanton believes his team is becoming what he intended it to be.

"I think so," he said. "But it is for the fans and the folks in the community here in Walla Walla to say that better than me.

"I know that I feel really good when I go to the stadium and you've got a huge crowd and people are feeling good about it. It seems like it is kind of a place for people to gather in town. Some are fans of baseball and are there watching the game and others are there because their friends and their family are there."

Sort of his own personal field of dreams.

"We've created a lot of entertainment in town," Stanton said. "We have given people some lifetime memories. I like to say we are making memories."


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