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1983-1986 Bay State Bombardiers

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Bay State BombardiersContinental Basketball Association (1983-1986)

Born: March 1983 – The Maine Lumberjacks relocate to Brockton, MA.
Died: July 16, 1986 – The Bombardiers relocate to Pensacola, FL.

Arenas:

Team Colors:

Owners: John Ligums

 

The Bay State Bombardiers were a short-lived minor league basketball club in the Continental Basketball Association (1978-2009).  The CBA was the official developmental league of the NBA during the 1980’s and 1990’s, only one step removed but also million light years away from the bright lights of Madison Square Garden and the Forum.

The team originated in Bangor, Maine as the Maine Lumberjacks (1978-1983).  The club moved south in March 1983 when Lumberjacks investor John Ligums relocated the team to Brockton, Massachusetts, twenty minutes south of his home in the tony Boston suburb of Milton.  After a tumultuous first season in Brockton under the direction of former ABA star Johnny Neumann, Ligums moved the Bombardiers an hour west to Worcester, Massachusetts and hired recently retired Boston Celtics star and future Hall-of-Famer Dave Cowens to coach the team.

We’ll pick up the story there, in the spring of 1984, with former Bombardiers General Manager Steve Warshaw.

Warshaw, who took over the Bombardiers business operations at the young age of 24, has since carved out a long career in professional sports, including stops at IMG, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Moscow’s CSKA (Red Army) hockey team, and as a consultant for the NHL, AHL and KHL.  The following are excerpts from our 2013 conversation with Steven Warshaw.  You can download the full transcript here.

 

FWiL:

Tell me how you got involved with the Continental Basketball Association in the first place.

Warshaw:

I saw a tiny little want ad in The Wall Street Journal and it said “challenging career in pro sports”.  Remember want ads, before the electronic boom?  Anyway, I was working for Spalding at the time, so I was getting some good practical experience in selling as well as public relations and merchandising.

I was invited out to interview for the Deputy Commissioner position underneath Jim Drucker in the CBA league office.  There were two guys that I was competing against.  One was Rick Horrow, who has got a very successful sports business today.  He was Joe Robbie’s guy and was involved in the building of Joe Robbie Stadium down in Miami and had crazy credentials.  The other guy was Tom Meschery, a former NBA All-Star who ended up getting the gig.

So I didn’t get the job, but I met all twelve of the CBA owners.  I had done very well in my interview.  They told me later that I was the only guy that had told the owners to stop talking when I was trying to respond to questions.  It was a big U-shaped, “Face The Nation”-type set up.  Several of the owners were talking amongst themselves.  I was just a 23-year old kid and I don’t know what got into me, but I said “Excuse me, am I boring you guys?”  It was really arrogant and they loved it, apparently, because part of Deputy Commissioner’s job was trying to keep control of these guys.

One of the guys that liked my attitude was John Ligums, who owned the Bay State Bombardiers.  We went out to dinner and had a bunch of laughs and he offered me a job to come sell for him as the team’s business manager.

FWiL:

And what kind of condition were the Bombardiers in at the time?
Warshaw:

Well, the team was in Brockton, Massachusetts at the time.  A former ABA star named Johnny Neumann was the Head Coach and he had just been fired after he failed his drug test.  That actually made Sports Illustrated.  The Sports Illustrated writer asked him what happened and Johnny Neumann said “Well, I had been clean, but on the way to take the test, I got so stressed out that I smoked a joint.”

John Ligums told me he was going to hire the former Boston Celtics All-Star Dave Cowens as the new coach.  And then we moved to Worcester in a heart beat.  I might have been in Brockton for a couple of weeks before we pulled up stakes for Worcester.

FWiL:

I was the General Manager of the Brockton Rox baseball team for a couple of years and our stadium was right next to Brockton High School where the Bombardiers played.  I’ve been in that gym.  I know the CBA wasn’t glamorous by any stretch, but it’s still hard to imagine a pro basketball team playing there.

Warshaw:

I never saw one game there.  Actually, no, I take that back.  I went to see one game there towards the end of the season.  And yeah, it was a joke.  It was a high school.  But I remember learning a few tricks of the minor league trade at that game. I remember watching the Bombardiers’ game operations guy pouring so much salt into the popcorn that everyone had to buy extra cups of his crappy Coke that he poured out of two-liter bottles.

So then we moved to Worcester and spent a couple of years there.  Dave Cowens lasted the first year only and it’s fair to say that John and Dave are certainly not on each other’s Christmas lists.

Bay State Bombardiers Dave Cowens

Photo courtesy of Steven Warshaw

FWiL:

What was John Ligums like?  I’ve seen a few articles about the CBA and it seemed like he was always good for a sharp one-liner.

Warshaw:

John is a really bright guy, an interesting guy.  He went to Johns Hopkins.  He was a wrestler. I think he always felt that he wanted to be a pro athlete.  A lot of athletes who don’t make it never really get over it and I think he was one of those guys.  He was extremely competitive in business and rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.  But with me he was very fair and I always enjoyed John and I still do.  He’s a very interesting character and I wish he had a little more money so we could buy another team!

I learned a lot from John.  He was my first boss in the minors.  One thing he was great to me about was that he really let me run the operation.  My first year I brought in a lot of money from national advertising accounts such as Spalding, Nissan, Converse and the Army.  Big, big accounts.  He gave me the reigns to his team and he really let me do anything I wanted promotionally and in terms of media relations and PR.  I’ve always respected owners that would let me do my job and not interfere and those guys are few and far between.  From that standpoint, John was great.

He was also a great interview.  Always said controversial things, got himself in trouble.  He got a lot of media.

FWiL:

Was John Ligums the kind of owner that was more concerned about wins and losses and making the playoffs, or was he bottom line oriented?

Bay State Bombardiers

Photo Courtesy of Steven Warshaw

Warshaw:

John was bottom line. I had convinced him early on that winning is not everything in the minor leagues.  It’s more about the experience than actual wins and losses.  But let’s put it this way – he didn’t like to lose.

I think the reason there was so much strain between John and Dave Cowens was because John’s expectations were ridiculously high.  To win in the CBA, you have to have a player personnel network that’s crazy good.  You really have to know where to get players.  And with Dave, well, there’s no way he should have known how to do that.  He didn’t have any experience at the time.  The CBA was a very specialized player market.  Dave was just really focused on the coaching and he didn’t have the horses to win and to dominate in the playoffs.  So that’s why the friction occurred between John and Dave.  Unrealistic expectations by the owner and a rookie coach, whowas a great coach, but didn’t have the player personnel chops to unearth the talent.

FWiL:

Tell me about Captain PJ.

Warshaw:

<Laughing> Captain P.J. was our mascot and probably one of the greatest parts of our team.  He was this crazy local disc jockey.  I think he still might have a show in Worcester.  He ran around the auditorium in a flight suit.  He slid across the court on his belly and choked himself with his aviator scarf.  Captain P.J. was sort of like Chuck Yeager meets Rain Man.

Bay State Bombardiers

Photo Courtesy of Steven Warshaw

FWiL:

Did you ever play any games at the Worcester Centrum, or was everything at the Worcester Auditorium?

Warshaw:

No.  Everything was at the Aud.  We tried to go into the Centrum, but the GM at the time wanted no part of it.  He didn’t even want to let us play a game of the month there, or even one game.  I remember I even brought Cowens to the meeting and that didn’t help.  I thought, Jesus, I’ve got Dave Cowens here and you won’t even try one game with us.  That’s just hubris.  We do one night with Cowens and he could bring in all of his Celtics buddies, but this guy wouldn’t hear of it.  It was just a really foolish attitude by the management of the Centrum at that point, so, no, we never played a game there.

FWiL:

What players stand out in your memory from the Bombardiers days?

Warshaw:

We had probably one of the greatest players in the history of the CBA.  A guy named “Awesome” Joe Dawson.  He was clearly our John Henry, our mythical 6’ 5” CBA god.  But Joe could never make it in the bigs because he was a tweener.  Joe played football and basketball at Southern Mississippi.  He used to train with Walter Payton.  He was a really interesting character.

He was just an absolute gentleman and yet on the court he was absolutely vicious.  Vicious body, big sharp elbows, and tough.  I mean, no one messed with Joe Dawson.  There were a lot of brawls and nobody would go near this guy.  I mean he looked like John Henry.  Joe was my all-time favorite Bombardier.

We also had some wild guys like Kevin Williams, the former St. John’s point guard who played in the NBA for a bunch of teams.  He was actually a really nice guy, Kevin, but he was also a city kid from a very tough part of New York City.  He was a brawler.  Kevin started a couple of big brawls in the CBA.  He also led our team in scoring.  Kevin Williams was probably the best player I ever saw in the CBA.

FWiL:

And you also had Michael Adams for a little while also, correct?

Warshaw:

Michael, in my opinion, was the most marketable, fantastic CBA All-Star and the league really didn’t do anything with him.  It was ridiculous.

His agents Frank Catapano and Larry Fleisher came to me.  They worked on Michael together and represented him.  I remember Frank said to me “Listen, I’ll let you beat me up in the salary negotiation so you look good in your boss’ eyes. I‘ll just need one favor”  We signed Michael for $450 a week.  That’s what this future NBA All-Star was making in the minors.

Anyway, Frank says, “The only thing I’d ask you to do is call the NBA GM’s for me every Friday when there’s a point guard that goes down to injury and let them know about Michael.”  He gave me a list of all their phone numbers.  I thought that was the greatest offer I’d ever gotten.  I was a 24-year old in the minors and I got to talk to NBA GM’s every week and send them stats.

Michael was just a great kid.  We’re the same age almost.  We would actually go out dancing together at the Best Western in Worcester.  I was the same age of a lot of these players, so it was a lot of fun for me.

Michael Adams was the most telegenic, the most interesting, thoughtful, caring guy that I knew in the CBA.  The media loved him.  He also got it done on the court.  This guy was a phenomenal talent.  His speed was even more obvious in the CBA.  His first step was just so good.  He absolutely dominated.  It was a pleasure to see and he didn’t last in the CBA too long.  He played for us for one season and then he stuck in the NBA for good after that, becoming an NBA All-Star in the process.

FWiL:

After Dave Cowens departed in 1985, your new coach was a CBA institution.  Mauro Panaggio.

Warshaw:

A legend.  A legend of the CBA.  One of the league’s winningest coaches.  Remember I was talking before about the need to have a player personnel grapevine?  He had that, unlike Dave Cowens.  That was Mauro.

He was a bit of a monster in terms of practices.  He really kept his distance from the players.  He knew how to be successful in that league.  He was old school and he was a winner.

He was a very nice guy away from the court.  We went to the beach a couple of times, we hung out a couple of nights.  Just a warm guy.  But certainly the public persona of Maura Panaggio was more cut from the Bobby Knight cloth.

FWiL:

How did the Bombardiers come to an end?

Warshaw:

We did as well as we could in Worcester for two years.  It just couldn’t work in Worcester.  It didn’t have its own television station.  It didn’t have it’s own identity.  It was always sort of in the penumbra of Boston and the Celtics were the kings there.  They were always winning, winning, winning and the people in Worcester thought of themselves as a Boston suburb.  Worcester is not a great sports city.  Or rather it’s not a great minor league city, I should say.

I remember Jim Drucker, the CBA Commissioner, came to me at the end of the second year and said “Can you squeeze any more blood out of this stone?”

And I said “Nope.  Time to sell it and get the hell out of here.”

But having said that, we are hoping to pull of a 30-year reunion for the Bombardiers someday soon!

##

John Ligums sold the Bombardiers to Pensacola, Florida interests in July 1986.  The nomadic franchise became the Pensacola Tornados (1986-1991) and later played in Birmingham (AL), Rochester (MN) and Harrisburg (PA) before finally folding in 1995.

Pro basketball returned to Worcester in 1989 with the Worcester Counts, who lasted just one season in the World Basketball League.  You can read the story of the Counts here.

 

==Bay State Bombardiers Games on Fun While It Lasted==

Year Date Opponent Score Program Other
1984-85 2/12/1985 vs. Detroit Spirits W 136-128 Program
1985-86 1/24/1986 vs. Albany Patroons W 115-108   Ticket

 

==Key Figures==

 

==Downloads==

2013 FWiL Interview with former Bombardiers GM Steven Warshaw

 

==Links==

Continental Basketball Association Media Guides

Continental Basketball Association Programs

###

August 25, 2007 – Brockton Rox vs. The Grays

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Brockton Rox vs. The Grays
August 25, 2007
Campanelli Stadium
Can-Am League Programs
88 pages

“Always go with your gut” and “always have a plan” both seem like solid pieces of advice.  But what do you do when those two decision-making maxims contradict each other?

In December 2005 I set off for the baseball winter meetings in Dallas.  I was three months into my first General Manager job, managing the business operations of an independent baseball club in Massachusetts called the Brockton Rox.  The Rox were quite popular at that time, drawing close to 4,000 fans per game at Campanelli Stadium, an $18 million ballpark erected in 2002.  But during the club’s fourth season in the summer of 2005, average game attendance declined for the first time.  One factor among many was that the Rox’ entertainment set pieces – the mascot routines, music & video board selections, between-innings entertainment and nightly promotions – had grown stale and repetitive.  Even on nights when the ballpark was full in 2005, the buzz of anticipation and the joyful noise of laughter and cheering felt subdued.

So I went to Dallas with a plan.  I was going to hire a new Director of Promotions for the Rox, someone brimming with fresh ideas.  And I was determined not to settle for anyone with less than two years of pro baseball experience.  Promotions is often an entry-level position in the low-level minors.  It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, but the constant turnover of enthusiastic-but-inexperienced young people is a key reason why minor league teams get stale.

Once a team is several years old, a funny thing happens: the taste and sophistication of the team’s fan base starts to surpass that of the young front office workers who arrive each spring to begin their sports management careers.  Tired old warhorses like 1980’s theme nights, sumo wrestling contests, or mascots leading the crowd in the YMCA may seem fun & fresh to newly minted college grads who haven’t attended many minor league games yet themselves.  But to the season ticket holders and other ballpark regulars, these are re-runs they have seen a hundred times over.   The Rox were known for creative entertainment.  We didn’t have the luxury of another dull season while a first-year staffer rode out their learning curve.

Several industry veterans advised that I was likely to be disappointed in Dallas.  I was recruiting at the Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities (PBEO) job fair.  The PBEO is a terrific way to break into front office work.  Hundreds of entry-level jobs and internships are available all over the country.  But we faced a few challenges.  First, the PBEO is very much geared to students and recent grads.  The pool of candidates with two years or more of experiences was going to be shallow.  Second, independent baseball clubs like the Rox were banned from the Winter Meetings.  We snuck into the PBEO with bogus credentials and posted a fake job description under the name of a New York Yankees farm club to attract candidates.  We revealed the bait and switch at the start of each interview.  The bad news: you aren’t going to be working for the Yankees or in a warm Southern climate.  The good news: we might have a job for you anyway.

I liked two candidates on Day One.  Mike Then was the Assistant General Manager of the Mankato (MN) Moon Dogs of the Northwoods League.  Mike had the two years of experience I was looking for.  He also had experience selling which was an unexpected plus.  And Mike had existing relationships with key vendors who sold promotional items and with some great touring acts like Rockin’ Ray & Skyy Dogs USA and Jon Terry’s SRO Productions.  My only hesitation with Mike was his steamroller enthusiasm.  During a second interview over margaritas at the hotel bar, Mike talked a blue streak, rattling off dozens of promotions he already had planned for the Rox to fill our entire 50-game calendar.  The Rox had a 12-person staff and part of our culture was that everyone collaborated on entertainment and customer service.  I wasn’t sure how Mike’s style was going to go down with the rest of the gang.  The point of the job wasn’t to have all of the ideas yourself.  It was to draw out, cultivate and refine the best ideas from the entire organization.

The other candidate was Bailey Frye.  Bailey and I immediately clicked in our first interview.  She was charming, intelligent and genuinely creative.  Bailey’s life was more or less a promotion in progress.  Example: she and her best friend impulsively flew from New York to New Mexico after becoming convinced they had discovered a clue to the location of a buried treasure (they hadn’t).  I also sensed that Bailey would work collaboratively with our staff, rather than pound them into submission as I feared Mike would.

But Bailey didn’t fit my preconceived plan.  Her only previous experience was as a student intern for the Scranton-Wilkes Barre (PA) Red Barons, where she was the on-field emcee during between innings breaks in 2005.   We met again for breakfast for a second interview and I pressed her further on the internship.  What kind of office duties did she have with the Red Barons when the team was on the road?

“Oh.  Well, the Barons didn’t have any work for me in the office,” Bailey admitted.  “I only worked on game nights.”

My heart sank.  Occasionally you start to actively root for a candidate during an interview.  You know they’ve got longs odds, but you want them to say the right things to make you take the chance.  But game day internships are the lowest form of internship.  Some staff members don’t even bother to learn your name.   You rarely get mentored.  Bailey had no experience working in an office atmosphere of any kind, let alone a baseball front office.  My gut told me that Bailey was the perfect fit for us, but I couldn’t reconcile her lack of experience with our plan for the team.  A few days after the Meetings, I called Mike Then – the safer choice – and offered him the job.

And then serendipity happened.  Mike turned it down.  And I felt…relieved.  I dialed up Bailey.  A week had gone by since the end of the PBEO.  Had I waited too long?  Bailey answered the phone and told me she accepted an entry-level job selling tickets for the Kannapolis Intimidators in North Carolina.

“Congratulations,” I said.  “Do you want to do that?”

“No.”

And that’s how I lucked into hiring the best creative mind I ever worked with.  (In fact, I’ve hired her twice).  She immediately revived the Rox game day experience in 2006.  I resigned after the 2007 season, but one of the last baseball promotions we worked on together was one of her best: KISS The Season Goodbye on August 25th, 2007 -Gene Simmons’ 57th birthday.  This was the in-stadium video board promo:

The idea began when the Rox staff saw a KISS cover band called Kisstory play at the Westgate Lanes bowling alley in Brockton.  They sounded pretty good.  Ersatz Paul Stanley played a mirror ball guitar and had appropriately poofy chest hair.  Mock Ace Frehley looked constipated but nailed all his solos.  During “Strutter” a 70-year old woman emerged from the barroom crowd of 14 or so spectators and ground her hips lasciviously in front of a mortified Gene Simmons impersonator.  Fake Peter Criss was a better drummer than the real Peter Criss.

“One of the ways I brainstorm promo ideas is to look through birthdays and anniversaries of famous people and events,” Bailey explained in 2012.  “I loved using music to theme games anyway, but what really excited me about KISS is how visual and over-the-top they are, which is what a promotion should be all about.”

Bailey booked Kisstory for a post-game concert on August 25th.  I don’t want to know where she found a group of high school majorettes (right) that performed to KISS songs in borderline S&M regalia.  They couldn’t catch their batons worth a damn, but they looked killer flashing the devil horns in their KISS make up and black leather.

We brought Kisstory in early in the afternoon for a sound check and put them on a small trailer parked on top of home plate for a stage.  They were deafeningly loud.  I walked from home plate, down the left field line, out the back gate of the ballpark, through the Registry of Motor Vehicles parking lot and down around the corner past the Brockton Fairgrounds.  I could still make out the chorus of “Christine Sixteen” on Forest Avenue about six blocks away.

The finishing touch were the Rox’ commemorative KISS uniforms for the night, featuring a Gene Simmons birthday patch on the sleeve.  (These were auctioned off for charity to meet payroll during the game).  The players actually liked these jerseys, unlike the pink ones we auctioned off for breast cancer research earlier in the year, when one pitcher actively tried to miss his scheduled start to avoid taking the mound in pink.

Unbeknownst to most of our staff, I had already handed in my resignation, effective shortly after the season.  I knew I wouldn’t be working baseball again for a while, so I decided I wanted to sit in the production room and spin music for this game, a job I had loved during my first years in baseball as a promotions manager.

The challenge was to balance our KISS theme with the affordable family entertainment brand.  We cut out a large swath of the KISS oeuvre from the playlist: “Love Gun” (too suggestive), “Lick It Up” (too sucky), and everything off of “Music From The Elder” (too embarrassing).  We supplemented the soundtrack with a few era appropriate chestnuts by the likes of Van Halen and Cheap Trick.  And, of course, Gene Simmons’ mind-blowing cover of “When You Wish Upon A Star” from his 1978 solo album.  Those played well with many of the fans, who were legitimately a little rougher around the edges than a typical Rox crowd.  More denim, more leather, more implants.

“I didn’t know their music that well,” Bailey recalled. ” The one song that sticks out in my memory is <Peter Criss’> “Beth” because I remember you telling me at the bowling alley that if the drummer came out from behind his kit and sang “Beth” we could hire them on the spot.  I had never been so excited for a power ballad in all my life.”

The production booth at Campanelli Stadium makes for a tight fit.  The P.A. announcer, video board tech and music tech are all jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, surrounded by computer monitors, microphones and sound boards.  Early in the game, a Rox base runner broke from first on an attempted steal.  I accidentally bumped a volume level on the sound board with my right elbow while the runner was en route to second.  I already had my selection cued up for the next inning break.  Paul Stanley yelled out “Cold Gin!” (Alive! 1975) as the catcher sprang from his crouch to fire the ball towards second.  I quickly turned the level back to zero and then peered sheepishly at the field, where the catcher, umpire and pitcher were glaring up at the press box.

Bailey and her “Fun Team” of interns and local high school kids were in fine form that night, moving the theatrics along from one script point to the next with precision and efficiency.  Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the Rox and their opponents that night – a league-operated team of nomads called the “The Grays” that played all of their games on the road.  The first inning took over an hour to complete.  By 9:00 PM were still in the third inning.  We had an extraordinary noise curfew of 11:00 PM, which was typically only an issue with fireworks displays.  But the sound and fury of the afternoon’s Kisstory sound check easily rivaled any pyrotechnics show.

In the end, the Rox and Grays ended up taking more than four hours to complete a nine-inning baseball game.  It was the longest non-extra innings game of the season.  It was sickening and I had to pull the plug on Kisstory’s performance – the centerpiece of Bailey’s vision.  The crowd booed vigorously and the band were clearly disappointed.  But they came down for an impromptu late game autograph signing and generated a huge line.  We brought the clumsy teenage dominatrixes/majorettes back out for an encore performance, accompanied by members of Kissory on air guitar.  The crowd was grudgingly forgiving.

Bailey’s take:  “To say I was devastated was an understatement.  Not only was I bummed that all our planning and hard work wouldn’t have a chance to be realized by the fans, but I knew the band was going to be heart broken.  One of the toughest things I have ever had to do was tell four grown men in full KISS makeup and costume that they wouldn’t get to play their rock n’ roll.”

All-in-all, it was a spectacularly executed promotion.  We were crushed not to put the cherry on top with the post-game concert, but there was a silver lining when ESPN named KISS The Season Goodbye as one of the Top Ten Minor League Publicity Stunts of 2007.

Bailey Frye stayed at the Rox for four years.  When she left the Rox after the 2009 season, I jumped at the chance to hire her for the Boston Breakers of Women’s Professional Soccer, where she once again designed the best in-stadium fan experience in the league.  Today she is the Events Manager for the Baltimore Orioles, the team she grew up cheering for as a kid.

 

 

Written by andycrossley

June 18th, 2012 at 5:25 pm