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Mudslinging To Mudville

Consultant Plays Hardball on Two Different Fields

Just over a month before the 2002 elections, Democratic media consultant David Heller got an early piece of good news.

A candidate soaring in the polls? An influx of campaign cash? An opponent providing great ad fodder?

No.

His purchase of the South Georgia Waves, a Class A minor league affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was finally approved by Major League Baseball.

Heller, a founding partner of Main Street Communications, bought the financially troubled team from Play Ball NC in March 2002 and immediately moved it from Wilmington, N.C., to Albany, Ga.

Last month Heller brought on two high-profile minority partners

— former New York Yankees great Don Mattingly and former Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken — and announced plans to move the team to Evansville, Ind. — Mattingly’s hometown — in 2004.

“I know everything that they do is done the Ripken way, the Mattingly way,

and that’s first class,” Heller told The Associated Press about his new partners.

Prior to his recent venture into the great American pastime, Heller was primarily known for his television ads on behalf of Congressional candidates, with a special emphasis on moderate and conservative Democrats.

Heller abruptly ended a call for comment about this story Thursday.

Heller formed Main Street Communications in 1997 after spending three years as the head of Politics Inc. He has also served as a past managing editor of Campaigns & Elections Magazine.

As for his two new partners, both enjoyed storied baseball careers.

Mattingly, who was born in Evansville in 1961 and attended Evansville Memorial High School, played 14 seasons at first base for the Yankees, ending his career with a .307 batting average and more than 200 home runs and a 1,000 runs batted in.

Ripken played 21 seasons for the Orioles, in the process breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak.

Ripken already has a blueprint of sorts for his new venture with Heller. He bought the Utica (N.Y.) Blue Sox minor league team in February 2002 and brought it to Aberdeen, Md. — his hometown — and renamed them the Ironbirds soon after. Ripken also helped secure the funding for an $18 million stadium that drew rave reviews.

Ripken and Mattingly are not the only former players affiliated with Heller’s team. Journeyman catcher Dann Bilardello (.204 batting average in eight major league seasons) is in his second year as the team’s manager, and former relief ace Roger McDowell (159 saves in 12 years) is the pitching coach.

In 2002, Heller’s firm had a mixed record; its candidates won competitive primaries in North Carolina’s 1st district and Arizona’s 1st district while falling short in the Connecticut governor’s race and Rep. David Phelps’ (D-Ill.) redistricting-forced race against Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.).

Following the election, Erick Mullen, Heller’s partner for the past two cycles, announced that he was leaving Main Street to start his own firm: Mullen & Co.

“Where we differ from Main Street is our focus: We plan to compete for executive campaigns like mayors and governors as well as independent expenditure campaigns, D.C. committees and I&R work,” Mullen explained in an e-mail to business associates.

Separate from his work for Main Street, Mullen played a high-profile role last year as one of the media consultants for businessman Tom Golisano (I), who spent better than $70 million of his own money on a failed 2002 New York gubernatorial race. Golisano finished with 15 percent.

The Waves’ 2002 season mimicked that of Main Street Communications, as the team finished at 35-34, good for fourth place in the South Atlantic League’s Southern Division.

The team’s financial situation was considerably more bleak than its on-the-field record.

Heller, whose ownership group is called Main Street Baseball, inherited a substantial debt from the past ownership and was not able to begin paying it off until the sale was officially approved in late September.

“We are moving on paying the creditors right away,” Heller told the Wilmington Star at the time. “That also includes paying back wages to employees.”

Heller co-owns the team with Mandalay Sports Entertainment, which has holdings in the class A Dayton Dragons, the AAA Las Vegas 51’s and the AA Shreveport Swamp Dragons. After initially pledging more than $5 million as seed money for the construction of a new stadium in Wilmington, Heller is likely to move the team to Evansville, where plans for a new 6,000-seat stadium are under way.

The stadium, which carries an estimated price tag of $25 million, would initially be funded by $12 million from the team owners.

The Evansville Redevelopment Commission recently offered nearly $1.8 million in buyouts to the 20 property owners that hold land needed for the stadium.

“The park that we are building in Evansville is going to do for minor league baseball what Camden Yards has done for major league baseball,” Heller told the AP. “It is going to be the park that cities around the country look to and say ‘I want to be just like Evansville’s.’”

If Heller’s team does end up in Evansville, it will join the Evansville Otters, which is not affiliated with any major league teams. The Otters play at Bosse Field, used in the film “A League of Their Own,” about the short-lived Women’s Professional Baseball Association.

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