LOWELL, Massachusetts — When the news broke that the Lowell Spinners were for sale one year ago, many feared the worst.
Would the Merrimack Valley be losing its beloved minor league baseball team and direct connection to the Boston Red Sox organization?
Would the “Road to Fenway,” as it is written on the walls of LeLacheur Park, soon no longer begin in Lowell, as it had for stars from Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr., to Hanley Ramirez and Jonathan Papelbon?
New owner Dave Heller, however, is quick to calm those nerves.
“Oh my gosh, yes, we plan to stay in Lowell long term,” said Heller. “Our plan has always been to sign a long-term lease with the City of Lowell and remain here with the Red Sox. Lowell is an amazing place for a team, and if you asked me to pick anywhere to put my minor league team, I would say Lowell.”
Heller, 52, is currently in his first season as owner of the Lowell Spinners, having purchased the Red Sox New York Penn-League affiliate from long-time owner Drew Weber early in late June.
The Spinners are the latest addition to Heller’s Main Street Baseball group. He owns four other single-A clubs, the Quad Cities River Bandits (Houston Astros), Wilmington Blue Rocks (Kansas City Royals), High Desert Mavericks (Texas Rangers) and Billings Mustangs (Cincinnati Reds).
“Lowell has just been a sheer delight,” said Heller, a Democratic party media consultant and strategist and Brown University graduate. “I have been so pleased with the Spinners so far. Of all the teams I have bought into in my lifetime, I have never gotten this kind of warm reception. Lowell is an amazing place for baseball.”
Born and raised in Connecticut before moving to Baltimore in middle school, baseball was a passion for Heller from a young age.
“I never played it well but I have always loved the game,” he said. “My dad took me to my first game when I was 8 years old and I loved it from the first minute.
“I remember walking into (Shea Stadium) and I had never seen something so beautiful. Being there spending time with my dad was a special day. And (Hall of Famer) Tom Seaver took a no-hitter into the ninth that day.”
Growing up in Connecticut, which is divided between Red Sox fans and Yankees fans, and Baltimore, Heller said he never formed a loyalty to a team.
“I always rooted for certain players,” he said. “Carlton Fisk was one of my favorites. I’ll never forget the 1975 World Series. Jim Palmer was phenomenal and I got to see Roberto Clemente in person before he died.
“I also loved Tom Seaver. When he went to the Red Sox I hopped into my old, beat-up Honda Accord and drove from Washington, D.C. to Fenway to see him pitch for the Sox.”
After graduating with his master’s degree in politics from Oxford University, Heller emerged as one of the Democratic Party’s top media consultants and campaign strategists. Among his clients were now-retired Massachusetts congressman John Olver, whom he made campaign commercials for during his entire run in office (1991-2013).
But Heller also longed to become involved in baseball once again.
That opportunity came when he purchased the Columbus Catfish, the now-defunct single-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers and later the Tampa Bay Rays in 2001. But the new endeavor turned out to be a trial by fire.
“It was a very rough time and I lost a lot of money,” he said. “A lot of people who promised to help me didn’t keep their promises and it was rough. It was the school of hard knocks.”
“But when you lose a lot of money you become VERY focused because you want to stop the losses. I made it my mission to learn everything about minor league baseball.”
Heller found far more success with his second purchase, the Quad Cities River Bandits (Iowa). The ballpark, Modern Woodman Park, was voted “best minor league ballpark in America” by USA Today and the team has won minor league baseball’s “Golden Bobblehead Award” and ESPN’s “Veeckie Award” for best promotions.
“My goal is to provide family fun that is also affordable,” he said. “I have sons that are 8 and 5 years old. They come with me to the ballpark all the time and I want them to enjoy the games. My son can’t be begging me to go home in the fifth inning. We market to families, and Lowell is no different.”
When news broke that Weber had placed the Spinners up for sale last September, Heller was immediately interested.
“Lowell has a fantastic history and a passionate fan base,” he said. “And the first thing you look for in a team is if it is in a good market, and Lowell is a terrific market. People love baseball in the area. And LeLachuer Park is a beautiful ballpark sitting on the water.”
Since the sale became official, Heller said he has major plans for the Spinners.
“I believe we can replicate a lot of the success we have had in Quad City here in Lowell,” he said. “The ballpark is so striking. We have already added a swinging pirate ship and done a few promotions. Now we are planning even more for 2017. Lowell is already great, and we believe we can just make it bigger and better.”