Governor's extra innings career in the minor leagues

July 8, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan combined his passion for baseball and community affairs to take over his hometown's struggling South Bend Silverhawks.

"It's a game I've been around all my life," Joe claims while leading me from the box office to the dugout on his rounds as a rookie general manager. "It's a game I've learned a lot of lessons from 64 years later."

His lifelong passion for baseball took him from South Bend's sandlots to Notre Dame , where he played college baseball and where I first met Joe in 1968.

"I was a no-hit second baseman and never thought I'd have a career in baseball," he admits.

He also never thought he would be a POW in Vietnam, until the Navy jet he was flying was shot down. He told me how he often dreamt of baseball while held captive in the Hanoi Hilton to keep his sanity.

"When you're alone and scared and have a lot of time, you think about a lot of things," he painfully remembers.

After the Navy and a political career that took him from South Bend's City Hall as mayor to the governor's mansion as Indiana's chief executive, he lost the gubernatorial race for re-election and drove home clueless as to what was next for him:

"It was different I had to start paying the light bill again," he chuckled self effacingly.

His "aha" moment came when South Bend's minor league baseball team announced it was up for sale, moving to another city and abandoning the new downtown stadium he pushed through when he was mayor. As the centerpiece to the city's urban renewal plan, Joe was determined to save the team.

"I was able to work with local investors and put together the money to buy the team and keep it here," he said.

By stepping up to save a century old tradition of baseball in South Bend, Joe found his next career by doing what most career counselors advise for those undergoing major transitions: Follow your passions and stick to what you like doing. In Joe's case: Baseball and community affairs.

"If you're going to do something you ought to have fun at it," Joe shouts while leading the fans in a rousing sing along of "YMCA" between innings.

Since the Silverhawks are a farm club for the Arizona Diamondbacks, which is responsible for the baseball operations and player contracts, Joe has had to learn a whole new ballgame of running what is essentially an entertainment business. More important than the box scores are the concession sales and advertising sponsorships.

"He wants me to give my signs slower and slow the pitcher down," Silverhawks Manager Mark Haley jokingly complains about Joe's occasional meddling with the game play. "How to you expect me to sell more beer," is Joe's equally sarcastic defense.

But it's not all fun and games when the Silverhawks are losing; bad weather cuts ticket sales and his investors start getting as restless as impatient voters. But Joe has been in tougher spots before in his career full of unexpected challenges, which is why I found his Nextracks story so inspiring.

"At my age, your age, what do you have to lose," Joe claims while giving high fives to the Silverhawks and their mascot on his "Fields of Dreams."

To see and learn more about this story and follow Mike Cerre's Nextracks, go to:

Nextracks is a series of reports from former ABC News Correspondent Mike Cerre on what's next for boomers. The series will continue on ABC7 News over the next few weeks.


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