With His-and-Hers Baseball Clubs as Rivals, Ed and Michele Sprague Really Slug It Out at Home
08/16/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT
Plenty of married couples fight about bills, in-laws and who has to clean the Cuisinart, but Ed and Michele Sprague battle it out over diamonds—baseball diamonds. Happily, the conflict is strictly minor league. Ed has an obsessive loyalty to the Mudville Ports, who are the Milwaukee Brewers' Class-A team in Stockton, Calif. Michele is just as fiercely devoted to the Lodi Dodgers, who are the L.A. Dodgers' farm club in the same California League. When the two minipowers meet, the fur in the Sprague house flies farther than the cowhide. And well it should: Ed, 36, is the proud owner of the Mudville Ports; Michele, 34, owns the Lodi Dodgers. "She wants to beat me more than anybody," Ed admits, beaming. "And I feel just the same about her."
The Spragues are almost certainly the only wedded owners of rival teams in baseball, and their domestic standings rise and fall with their teams', which is to say often. Last year Michele's Dodgers won the championship; this year they were in the cellar at the end of the first half-season. In games against each other, Ed's Ports this year hold a 10-6 edge; as of July 30, in the league's second half-season, the Ports, at 20-15, were in third place while the Dodgers, at 17-18, had climbed up to fourth. But both Spragues have much more impressive stats than those. Since Ed bought his team in 1979, the Ports' yearly attendance has shot from 24,000 to 106,000, thanks to his razzle-dazzle promotions; since Michele got the Dodgers in 1981, her own flair has raised their attendance, in a much smaller park, from 47,000 to 65,000. With those records, at least, they're both pleased. "You name it," Ed says proudly of their showmanship, "and we do it."
When they were married in 1980, Ed and Michele didn't plan on becoming the diamond duo. She was running the real estate business left to her by her first husband and he was just embarking on his freshman season as owner of the Ports. Ed himself spent eight years pitching in the majors and still sports the National League Championship ring he won with the Cincinnati Reds in 1972. After a knee injury knocked him off the mound for good, he had tried sports promotions, bought a driving range, and even planned an amusement park before buying his team for $32,500. "It was about the best thing that ever happened to him," says Michele, who adds, "I was tired of my job, but Ed began having a lot of fun." So she decided to follow his lead and spent around $30,000 for the Lodi Dodgers, in the San Joaquin Valley just 12 miles north of Ed's park. The baseball bureaucracy grumbled about an intramarital rivalry, but Michele slugged it out and won. "I bought this team with my own money," she says. "I told the association I would not relinquish it gracefully."
Ed added Mudville to his team's monicker because, he claims, the famed Mudville squad of Ernest Thayer's 1888 poem Casey at the Bat was also a Stockton outfit. Now he sells Casey souvenirs and a Mudville team newspaper and puts on a Mighty Casey Slug-off. His other come-ons have included fireworks, 25¢ beer, softball games with the Oakland Raiders and the San Francisco Forty-Niners and a personal appearance by the Chicken of San Diego Padres' fame, who has since turned free agent.
Michele has devised a few tricks of her own. Every Friday her Great Cash Giveaway brings prizes to spectators when any Dodger gets a hit. A "$5,000 Scramble" lets a ticket holder scoop up loose bills which Michele has scattered around the infield between the games of a doubleheader, and after last year's championship game she gave the fans champagne. Still, Michele generally scales down her promotions to fit her 1,800-capacity ballpark (Ed's holds 6,000). "We offset each other," she says, grimacing at some of his extravagances. "Unlike Ed, I subscribe to the old cover-your-ass theory."
But Michele admits Ed is in a whole other ballpark when it comes to baseball know-how. Her first year as an owner, she recalls, she plied him with questions all the time. "I didn't know why in the majors they'd bring in Rollie Fingers to throw just a few pitches or why they'd intentionally walk somebody. But now I understand."
Ed, nicknamed "The Stick" because he was skinny by baseball standards, picked up the game seriously during Army duty in Germany. "I did real good, and this guy who played pro ball said I ought to get a tryout." Ten days after his 1966 homecoming the St. Louis Cardinals snatched him for their farm system, and in 1968 the Oakland A's tapped him. He subsequently hurled for the Cardinals, the Reds and finally the Brewers, where his best year came in 1974 when by July he had a 7-1 won-lost record and was headed toward the All-Star squad. But that season he twisted his right knee; five operations and two years later the injury ended his career. Ed still agonizes over his decision to quit. "I honestly feel I could pitch today," he says. "My arm is sound, even if my knee is not."
Though they both grew up in Hayward, Calif., Ed and Michele never met as kids. Ed, whose parents are both retired industrial supervisors, played junior varsity baseball at Sunset High. Michele, the daughter of a retired Oakland police officer and a onetime high school cook, mostly ignored sports and describes herself as "one of the kids in 4-H." She married at 20 and helped her husband, Ted Myers, build a highly successful real estate firm. Ed met her in 1976 when he rented office space for his first business, but they lost touch after doctors found that her husband had cancer. "When he got sick, I had to take over," she says. After a two-and-a-half-year battle with the disease, he died in 1978.
Later that year Ed, recently divorced from his wife of 10 years, wandered into Michele's office once again. "I rented one of her condos and then she made me marry her," he insists. Michele cries foul at that story. "That's the last thing I wanted to do, go out with Ed Sprague. In fact," she laughs, "I still don't know how we got married." For some of her friends, the romance was a little too soon after her husband's death. "A lot of people resented it, to say the least," Michele confides. "In fact, they hated my guts. But I had two and a half years to get used to Ted dying."
When not at home in their luxurious San Joaquin house, complete with pool and a Jacuzzi for Michele's bad back, the Spragues are usually at their ballparks, exercising their contrasting field-side manners. Michele likes chumming with her fans and hollering at umps ("Where's your eyeballs tonight?"), whereas Ed prefers to suit up with the team for an occasional sermon on the mound. His son, Ed Jr., 15, a Babe Ruth League baseball player himself, feels mixed allegiances. "You have to be fair to both teams or one of them gets mad," he sighs.
Michele jokes that their time away on countless road trips and required dinner dates with league officials only enhances their relationship. "Let's face it," she says, "when you've been married for more than six months, you start to get on each other's nerves." Rivalry seems to make the heart grow fonder, too. "The Stick—yeah, the Bald Stick," she taunts. "I want to whop those Ports." "I hate the Dodgers," Ed retorts. "You got a lousy team. You do...honey."