|Thursday, August 7
Updated: August 11, 9:29 AM ET
'Hungry' journeyman Buice enjoys his millions
By Darren Rovell
RENO, Nev. -- Anyone in the stands at Moana Stadium who doesn't know the story of DeWayne Buice is sure to mistake him as the journeyman pitcher who never made it to the Big Show. That hanger-on so addicted to baseball that the most important life activity is to play on a summer amateur league team, comprised of college kids and displaced minor leaguers, at the ripe old age of 45.
Nowadays, Buice might be focused on striking out players on the Maxim Yankees drawing a hoot and a smattering of applause from a capacity crowd of 500. Sixteen years ago, he was in front of a packed Yankee Stadium when he struck out five straight batters in the heart of the Yankees' lineup.
"I always enjoy being around minor leaguers," Buice said. "They are always in search of a quest or a goal. Whereas, most of the time, a lot of major leaguers are already there."
The lanky, 6-foot relief pitcher bounced around to three colleges and spent 10 years in the minor leagues with three different organizations before he was finally called up by the California Angels in April 1987. Armed with a nasty forkball, Buice had 17 saves for the club that year. And although his major league career was derailed after a bumpy 2½-year ride, the timing could not have been more perfect.
Buice not only plays for the Reno Astros. He is an owner. For most home games, he makes the 45-minute trek to the ballpark from his luxury home in Incline Village, the toney resort town north of Lake Tahoe peopled mostly by retirees and dot-commers who had the good fortune to get out before the economy went bust. When the team is on the road, Buice might take a couple games off, spending time in his other houses in California -- in Costa Mesa and San Clemente -- or on his 53-foot charter boat off the Mexico's Baja coastline near Cabo San Lucas.
A fortuitous search for Chinese food led him to a card shop down the street from Anaheim Stadium. And soon, the man whose first contract was worth $500, with the pen he used to sign it as a bonus, became a founding partner with a baseball card company that would make him millions.
Hemrick and his partner Paul Sumner were starting a card company called Upper Deck, but they were nobodies. They didn't have the connections to help land them the necessary license from the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), which would allow them to use the names and likenesses of the players on the card. The only response they could elicit was that the players union wasn't accepting another card company for three more years.
Buice didn't have the cachet of his Angels teammates, like Brian Downing and Wally Joyner and Don Sutton, but he was their best shot. If he could help them secure a license, he was promised a 12 percent stake in the card company, also called Upper Deck.
"The only thing I ever wanted to do with baseball cards is to have my picture on one," Buice said. "It was my main goal."
Buice was a key figure in getting MLBPA officials to agree to a meeting.
"He did a lot of the ground work, actually opening these doors and getting us in to see the right people in a relatively quick period of time," Sumner said.
Four months after Buice walked into the card shop, Upper Deck incorporated. By the end of the 1988 season, they received the license and were making baseball cards in 1989.
The glossy cards -- with holograms to protect against counterfeiting -- were selling for top dollar. Cases retailed for $300, and sold on the secondary market for $2,000 or more.
Tom Geideman, one of Upper Deck's first employees who was responsible for picking the players who would be featured in the set, called the phenomenon "Cardboard Gold."
"It was almost like printing money," Geideman said. "You print a card and, if you wanted to, you could take that card, bring it down the street and sell it. ... If you went into a restaurant, you could drop down a couple of Ken Griffey Jr. cards or Jose Canseco (cards) and then walk away and pay for your meal. It was just silly."
Buice couldn't believe the demand for the cards.
"I remember my father asking me, what do you expect out of this thing?" Buice said. "And I said, 'Who knows, I may make $100,000 of this thing.' I made quite a bit more than that."
By the time Buice retired from professional ball at the end of the 1989 season, he had collected $2.8 million. But he believed he was owed much more, so he sued Upper Deck executives. While people from both sides were being deposed, Buice didn't wait around. He went to the Venezuelan Winter League to play for the Caracas Leones.
After a battle over his stake in the company was settled in court, he is now a millionaire who reportedly made $17 million on the deal -- far more than what he ever made as a baseball player. In his 2½-seasons with the Angels, he made $212,500.
"When you practice law long enough, every once in a while you'll see events transpire that nobody planned, that nobody thought about," said Buice's attorney, Paul Mahoney. "The people that were involved in Upper Deck when it was formed all struck at the right time and did very well."
One of the best parts about making so much money off baseball cards? Not only can he play golf and go fishing at will, but he can keep playing baseball until the day he dies.
Buice hurt his shoulder and is out for the season, but with the help of a healthy dose of cortisone, he said he will be back next year. If it gets bad enough, he's willing to have surgery to prolong his career.
Buice said he regrets how easily he gave up pitching in the majors and that is one of the reasons why he keeps going.
"All that money could have stayed in trust until six months after my career was over," Buice said. "So part of me regrets not trying to stretch it out."
Last season, his team was playing against Team USA, in the World Baseball Challenge in Canada. After one of the team's closers hurt his arm, Buice came in with a full count and two outs with the tying and winning runs on in the final inning.
"That's him. He still wants the ball."
With his team, not only is he essentially buying new baseball memories, but he is paying a captive audience to hear him crack jokes.
Even though Buice's stay in the major leagues was short, it would be hard for his teammates to forget his antics. During batting practice, he'd walk around as a character he created called Old Man of Baseball. With baseballs stuffed in his sleeves, a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth and utilizing a fungo bat with a glove around the handle as a makeshift cane, Buice made many of his colleagues laugh.
If that didn't do it, it had to be his impressions, which firmly established him as the clubhouse comedian. His best impersonations? Maxwell Smart, Rodney Dangerfield, and Bullwinkle.
"He's definitely a character," Astros first baseman Kraig Constantino said. "(His impression of) the Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz keeps me in stitches."
Buice can buy anything he wants, but he says the money hasn't changed him. The baseball team costs him about $35,000 a year and he contends it is money well spent.
"I still eat Corn Flakes and Top Ramen, so it's not the money," Buice said. "Don't get me wrong, I don't want anybody taking it away from me. But one thing about playing in the minors until I was 30 was that I got to know who I was and I don't feel I have to change."
And that's exactly it. DeWayne Buice doesn't want to change. And thanks to hunger for a certain type of food, he doesn't have to.
Darren Rovell covers sports business for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.