BY MATT LaWELL
DAYTONA BEACH, Florida | On Friday night, another opening night, Andy Rayburn arrived at Jackie Robinson Ballpark hours before the first pitch between the Brevard County Manatees and his beloved Daytona Cubs. He walked around the stadium and handed out his annual Cubs mix albums to team staff members and the regulars in the box seats. He walked the concourses and talked with fans. He did everything short of kiss babies, though he probably would have done that if one had been placed in front of him and his powder blue Cubs golf shirt.
Rayburn is the owner of the team, and he has been for almost a dozen years now. And though five states separate him from his monetary and emotional investment, he has never been — and never will be — an absentee owner.
“I have a problem,” he says an hour before the first pitch in a seat right behind the Cubs dugout. “But it’s a good problem. I own a minor league team.”
Rayburn is an Ohio native who has lived in that state much of his life. He worked there for a couple years with his father, James, distributing nuts, bolts and other fasteners for cars and trucks as part of a family business, then took over after his father died suddenly in the 1980s. Between 1981 and 2000, the business, FlexAlloy Inc. grew from $8 million in sales and 30 employees to $230 million in sales and 350 employees. He sold it in 2000, formed a venture called Big Game Sports whose aim was to invest in sports teams and other interests, purchased the Cubs that summer for somewhere north of $2 million and never looked back. He still lives in Ohio, but visits Daytona and the team several times every season.
“I looked at a bunch of other teams around the eastern half of the country, inland teams in cities that aren’t that interesting,” Rayburn says. “Then I flew down here in March and the first thing I see is that” — he points his arm toward water and trees and a marina filled with boats and yachts — “and you have beaches over there.” For a boy raised in months of snow, this was a welcome break.
Those first glorious years, Rayburn flew down with his wife, Heather, and his children, who were all 8 or younger that first season. “They would put on shirts and work the concessions stands,” Heather says. “They would sell raffle tickets and have a blast. It was like kid heaven.” Heather joined him Friday for opening night, but his children are older now, and all will be off to college by the end of this season. Rayburn is 57 now, and the nest will be empty soon.
He has no plans to sell. He has no plans to miss an opener.
Every April, he walks out toward the mound with a ball in his right hand as if about to fire a ceremonial first pitch. Then he turns and walks back toward the seats behind third base. He waves to the crowd, brings fans to their feet, then flings the ball over a black net and into a crowd of Cubs caps and shirts. He is a baseball fan, and he loves all this. He jokes that, when he studied at Dartmouth in the 1970s, he majored in minor league baseball. He met Heather at an Indians game. And now he has watched his team win four of the last 12 Florida State League Championships.
“He’s just a fan of sports,” Heather says. “He’s a fan of baseball.”
Since 1969, no city has won more Florida State League championships than Daytona, which has finished on top of the pile six times (1981, 1995, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2011). During that same stretch, what three Florida cities have won five FSL titles?
In more opening night game news, the Cubs played their first game of the season at Jackie Robinson Ballpark and rallied for a 6-2 win over the Brevard County Manatees. Winds pushed across the stadium from right field toward the seats behind third base for much of the game, which kept almost every ball down and well in play, but Daytona shortstop Arismedy Alcantara managed to blast a ball high over the left field wall in the bottom of the eighth to score three runs. Left-hander Eric Jokisch allowed two runs and struck out five over six quality innings, Ty’Relle Harris pitched a scoreless seventh and Tony Zych pitched two scoreless innings for his first save this season.
Florida State League president Chuck Murphy attended the game Friday night with his wife, Emma, but they were hardly the only members of their family in the crowd. Their daughter, Laura LeCras, the league secretary, watched a bit of the game, and her husband, Tim LeCras, sat in his customary seat behind the mic in the press box, where he has called out names in a voice perfect for classic radio dramas for more than a dozen years. The Murphys left early because of wild winds, but Tim LeCras stayed, of course, as did his son, Logan, who has spent all of his 14 years around the game. If you ever watch an FSL all-star game, you will see Logan, who has all the makings of a future radio star or league president — for each of the last five years, he has been responsible for handing the all-star game MVP trophy to some of the top players in baseball.
In addition to the Cubs, Daytona Beach is also home to Daytona International Speedway and the Daytona 500 — well, half of the speedway and the race, at least. The track is so incredible and impressively large that it stretches across the border of Daytona and Daytona Beach. On Friday afternoon, a couple hundred NASCAR fans packed into trolleys for tours of the grounds, dozens more walked around outside near statues of Bill France and Bill France Jr. and Dale Earnhardt. Inside, the zip of cars on the track roared about every minute or so. The official listed seating capacity is 167,785 — the equivalent of about 40 times the listed capacity of Jackie Robinson Ballpark.
Want the answer? The three cities that have won five FSL championships since 1969 — just one behind the defending champion Daytona Cubs — are Miami, St. Lucie and Tampa.
And in random statistical news, the game started three minutes later than the scheduled time, the first pitch was a ball, the first batter singled and the “Star-Spangled Banner” lasted 1 minute, 19.9 seconds. Also, we ate two hot dogs slathered in brown Stadium Mustard.
Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.