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Austin's minor league baseball team, the Southern Minny Stars, goes into its home opener tonight at four and two, in sole possession of first place in the Prairie League. Minor league teams are getting more attention as fans shy away from expensive ticket prices at major league ballparks. But the Stars are getting more attention than most because their owner is only 20 years old and they have the youngest manager in professional baseball.
IT HAPPENED THREE YEARS AGO on a winter day in Burlington, North Dakota, when Chad Yale was 17 years old.
Yale: There was a train derailment right outside our trailer. Me and my dad decided to go outside to see if anybody had been hurt or what happened. I was the first one out the door, and really, the last thing I remember is unplugging my car, and then there was an explosion.
Chad was burned over 80% of his body. He spent 9 months in the hospital, and doctors amputated his right arm. Chad and his family eventually reached a settlement with the railroad for an undisclosed amount of money. He's always been an avid baseball fan, especially of the Atlanta Braves. While he was recovering, friends arranged a visit with former Braves catcher Greg Olson, who was managing the Minneapolis Loons. When the Loons moved to Austin last year and became the Stars, Olson offered Chad the chance to buy part of the team. This year, he got the chance to buy even more, and at 20, he's now the youngest majority owner of a professional sports team.
Preparations are well under way at Austin's Markison Park for the home opener. One of the busiest men at the ballpark is the Stars' manager, Kevin Graber. At 26, he's the youngest manager of a professional baseball team. And like Chad, he's faced his share of adversity.
Graber: I'm a cancer survivor. I had lymphoma. I had a year-and-a-half of cancer treatment, six months of chemo, 3 months of radiation... boy, it was tough. I wasn't in good shape. I thought I was done with baseball.
Graber recovered and went to Australia to play baseball because he couldn't get on a minor league team in this country. He returned and talked his way into a job as public relations director and second baseman for the Stars. He was tapped to be manager right before spring training when the former manager resigned. The Stars' players know what their manager and owner have been through, and business manager Paul Pruitt says it inspires them.
Pruitt: They say people who go through an ordeal are made stronger by it. I would say Chad and Kevin are really clear examples of that. It's just been a stunning ordeal for both of them having faced death in a much more graphic way than most of us. And to come away such strong spirits.... Kevin just cracks me up. I love him.
Kevin and Chad aren't the youngest guys in the Stars' management team. Part-owner Bo Jensen is 13. His dad bought him shares in the team because he loves baseball and he thought Bo might learn some things about baseball. Bo says it's pretty cool to own part of a baseball team.
Jensen: I have kids come up to me who don't even know who I am, and they've seen me in the paper or on tv, and they say, "I hear you own this."
He's been to several of the team's management meetings, but he's not sure how much he's learning about business.
Jensen: Sometimes I completely understand, and sometimes I just want to get up and walk out. They've got me lost sometimes. They talk about words I wouldn't even think about. It's all the little details. I just care about the baseball team.
While a lot of the business decisions may be left to more experienced investors, like former and current Braves players Greg Olson, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Steve Avery, Kevin says the team's youth may be its biggest asset.
Graber: It's fun, it's exuberance, it's enthusiasm... you could see it on my face if this wasn't radio. It's just great to be here.
And the Stars try to translate that enthusiasm to the crowd.
Business manager Paul Pruitt, who's background is in theater, leads the crowd in dances and dreams up other ideas.
Pruitt: We have live bands, we do contests between innings. We have a tire race, a dash for cash, where we throw money in the air, trivia contests, sing for supper, where we bring in chinese food. It's interactive and that makes it unique. We have a small enough venue.
But that venue is getting a lot of outside attention from national television and sports magazines. Brady Slater, sports editor for the Austin Daily Herald, says the attention - and Chad Yale's deep pockets - are good for Austin.
Slater: It gets people excited to know we have something important, and baseball... what's more important than baseball?