Lincoln Saltdogs Owner Jim Abel Makes Dreams Reality
One would have to admire a man who takes the dream of his grandfather and makes it reality. One has to be in awe of that same man when he takes that dream and makes it reality when he didn’t even know it was the dream of his grandfather at all. That is the successful vision that Lincoln Saltdogs owner Jim Abel created.
NEBCO, the fourth largest company in Lincoln, Nebraska began in 1908 when his grandfather, George Abel, opened the family run business. It was a company dedicated to its employees and to providing outstanding service to the greater Lincoln area. The ethic of George Abel became the standard that Jim and his family followed ever since, and it is that kind of ethic that helped the company reach its 100th anniversary in business seven years ago. It was that historic mark that showed Jim that, as he puts it, “the acorn does not fall far from the tree.”
The CEO has been a long-time baseball fan. His enjoyment of the game started back in the 1950s when his parents, aunt and uncle would take him to Sherman Field to see the Lincoln Chiefs play. There is no doubt that George Abel would have loved to have taken his grandson to see the Chiefs, but he had tragically passed away in 1937 and, unfortunately, Jim never had the opportunity to meet his grandfather at all.
In his sophomore year, Jim transferred from the University of Nebraska to Arizona State to finish out his undergraduate degree. While there, he had the great fortune of becoming a beer vendor for the Chicago Cubs spring training facility in Scottsdale, AZ. For two springs he served beer to thirsty fans while soaking in the excitement of spring training baseball.
The opportunity to get to watch baseball daily during the spring inspired a passion in Jim to want to bring professional baseball to his hometown. The Chiefs played their last game in Lincoln in 1961, leaving the capital of Nebraska as one of only two state capitals in the United States not to have a professional baseball team.
According to Abel, he “marinated” on that thought and eventually approached Stan Meredith about the idea of bringing a team to Lincoln. Meredith had been a long time designer of sports stadiums, and Jim decided he would approach him about the possibility to designing and building a stadium in Lincoln. Meredith loved the idea and in no time the dream was gaining momentum and, more importantly to Abel, he had made himself a lifelong friend in Meredith.
The Saltdogs CEO approached Miles Wolf, who had unsuccessfully tried to bring a team to Lincoln before, about the idea of collaborating on bringing a team to Lincoln. Wolf was fully on board.
What made the union between the two so ideal was that both had the same idea of what kind of organization they wanted the team to be like. If it was not centered around a family first atmosphere that was affordable and a great place to visit during the summer, neither wanted to be involved. Knowing that Wolf’s ideas matched those of his own, Jim instantly knew that the ball was rolling and it simply would not be stopped.
“Everything I heard just made me even more interested. I could tell that this was going to become a reality.”
Abel was sure that he did not want an affiliate league team as the one he owned. While having a great deal of respect for Major League clubs, Jim wanted the opportunity to manage his own team and control his club’s destiny.
“I like the fact that we can play to win. We get to build our own team and hire our own manager. There were great benefits to the way the season in the independent league works, but a primary reason for the decision was that this was our team.”
With the thought that an independent league team was the option he wanted, Abel took a drive to Sioux City to watch the Explorers play. “It was a miserable cold day there, but it was so amazing to me how many people were at the game and having fun. I thought to myself that this looked great, and this is what I wanted for Lincoln.”
Abel recognized that for his venture to be successful, a collaboration with the University of Nebraska would make the success of this project even more likely. He approached Dave Van Horn at the school to discuss the joint venture.
An independent league team has the perfect season for two primary reasons. First, the 100 game schedule allowed the team to begin as the Nebraska baseball team’s schedule was winding down, removing any conflict. Secondly, and maybe even more importantly, the baseball season ended as the college football season was getting underway. Those Cornhuskers love their football team, and a conflict in scheduling was not going to put the Saltdogs at the top of sports fans’ lists.
With the University of Nebraska on board and the stadium designer in mind, the last step was to get the approval of the city. This is one area where the Saltdogs owner has proven himself to be a real asset to the game and the kind of owner virtually any club would want; having the ability to see how everyone can benefit and being willing to cooperate to make that occur.
He approached Don Wesley, the mayor of Lincoln at the time, about the possibility of building a public-private venture stadium. The relationship that developed between the two is something that Jim is most proud of.
“Don was a Democrat, and here I come as a Republican from the private sector. What was so great about it is that there was an attitude of cooperation from the very start. I learned where Don’s comfort zone was and he learned where mine was. I wished that more people would see that good things happen when people cooperate; when people work together to accomplish something for the common good.”
Common good came to fruition in 2001 when the Lincoln Saltdogs opened their inaugural season, going 52-38 under managers Kash Beauchamp and Les Lancaster. They made the post-season, beating Sioux Falls 3 games to 1, before falling to Winnipeg in four games. It was the glorious culmination of a vision that Jim Abel had made come to pass.
While the success on the field was something he was very proud of, it was the atmosphere created at the ballpark that meant the most to him. “I am a lifelong Lincoln citizen, and I wanted this community to have a great place to bring their family out and watch some baseball. We wanted to create an experience that allows our fans to enjoy coming here as much as my family does.”
Jim’s family members are frequent visitors to games. His 94-year-old and 92-year-old mother-in-law (both of wh0m could easily pass for 47) are frequent visitors to the club’s contests, as are his son, brother and nephews. He has molded the team and its staff to want to welcome and serve the community of Lincoln in a way that makes everyone feel at home. It is very satisfying to the club’s owner to see his community enjoying the Saltdogs experience.
“I like walking around the ballpark and have people come up and tell me what a great night it is and how glad they are to be out here. That is what really makes it good. For me it’s gone from believing we need to win all our games to ‘it’s a nice night in Lincoln, Nebraska and let’s go out and enjoy the evening as family and friends.’”
It is a beautiful night at Haymarket Park on most nights, and it is one of the most family friendly places that any fan will ever come to, but make no mistake here; Jim Abel wants to win. “It’s really about looking around the stadium and seeing that fans are having fun and enjoying themselves at the stadium. But if I am pushed to admit it, I really want to win them all,” he adds with a laugh.
In 2009, the Lincoln Saltdogs won the league championship. A 57-36 record helped the club to be champions of the first half of the American Association season, and the Saltdogs downed Pensacola in the championship series. That experience had a dramatic effect on the way that Abel watches his team now.
“As owners I think we all start out believing that we have to win every game. That will make you crazy. Winning in 2007 removed some of that anxiety so I can enjoy games more. There is no downside to baseball. It is always good, but if you don’t keep it in perspective it will make you crazy.”
While all of that brings great pride to Jim Abel, nothing has affected him more profoundly than the events of 2008. With NEBCO celebrating their 100th anniversary in business, Jim went on a quest to find everything he could about the man he so admired but had never met. The Saltdogs owner had kept a copy of his grandfather’s obituary on the wall of his office, and wanted to emulate the man who had influenced him so deeply. “Running this business allowed me to stay connected to him, and the kind of man he was inspires me in the way I run the business and this team.”
Jim wanted to make the commemoration incredibly special, so he perused every article he could find about George Abel. In reading one article he read something that stopped him in his tracks. “I found out that in 1937 he put up $25,000 for any professional baseball team that would relocate to Lincoln.”
It had been his grandfather’s dream to bring a professional team to the capital city of Nebraska, but he had died before being able to make that dream a reality. Some 63 years later his grandson has finished his dream, having no idea that grandfather George ever sought to make this occur. “When I found out he had a passion for baseball and I was able to make his dream come true, that was very special.”
The Lincoln Saltdogs are celebrating their 15th season in existence this year and, indirectly, have George Abel to thank for it. His love of the game inspired grandson Jim to get a community behind the idea of building a new ballpark and embracing an independent league team. While never meeting his grandfather, Jim Abel is clearly right about one thing; the acorn does not fall far from the tree. Thankfully for the Lincoln Saltdogs, that acorn blossomed into one of the most impressive organizations in professional baseball.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA