Fantastic Voyage: The 1990s Aberdeen Pheasants, Part II

Fantastic Voyage: The 1990s Aberdeen Pheasants, Part II

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In early 1990s Aberdeen, obstetrician/gynecologist Scott Berry and attorney Jeff Sveen met with several other locals regularly for their baseball fantasy league. Long before computer apps, Berry said, “We had to buy fantasy baseball magazines” to do research for drafting players for their virtual teams. When they started, they probably didn’t realize it was preparation—or inspiration—for bringing professional baseball back to Aberdeen. It would be a short, but memorable, visit.

Some two decades after the 1972 demise of the original Aberdeen Pheasants minor league team, rumors surfaced in 1994 of pro baseball coming back to Aberdeen. In fact, the North Central League announced a forthcoming Aberdeen franchise—then backed off, apparently never having gotten a commitment.

Later in the year, however, Berry made a call. “My wife says she is taking credit,” he laughed, for showing him a newspaper article about an expanding league. Although details are fuzzy 30 years later, “My guess is the original contact I made was with the North Central League. But it became clear that league was not on strong footing.” Then Dave Ferguson, a Canadian who’d worked with the North Central League, pulled away to start the Prairie League. “He wanted us to join his league. They liked the ‘street cred’ the Pheasants would bring to the league.” Berry was never very fond of Ferguson, the reasons for which will become clear, but he contacted his friend Sveen.

“I didn’t want to get involved,” Sveen said, “but Scott convinced me to meet with the Canadians.” The pair did, and they got interested. Before getting involved, they also talked to Dennis Maloney, the last president of the original Pheasants. “He told us we’d never make money at it,” Sveen said, but they bit anyway.

First, they needed money, and “We decided to get 20 friends to give $5,000 each,” Sveen said. Many investors were their fantasy league friends, Berry said, most had attended the original Pheasants games. Also, “They knew they wouldn’t get their money back.”


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The 1995 Aberdeen Pheasants team from their inaugural season.



The Aberdeen Pheasants organized with Berry as president and Sveen as secretary. Keith Kusler, who had been a clubhouse boy for the original Pheasants, also became part of the inner circle. They chose a logo from fan submissions, and the winning designer got season tickets—“That was all we could offer,” Berry said. New Era made the team caps, which Berry remembers seeing in their catalog.

Other things had to be organized too, such as an acceptable place to play. Unprepared for professional baseball, Fossum Field needed better fences, more seating, a concession stand, and locker rooms. The City committed $130,000 to upgrade the field. Fossum could only seat 700 people, inadequate for a professional stadium. The City agreed to purchase stands to increase capacity to 2,500.

The fences were another shortcoming—literally. Fossum was surrounded by a chain link fence, which the City replaced with wood. The team wanted to sell advertising on the outfield fence. “We had to follow rules about who could advertise—no alcohol,” Sveen said, so they made freestanding signs for beer and set them out during games. The outfield fence also needed to be moved back for professional hitters. The City agreed reluctantly, however, because the field was also for youth teams. That highlighted the scheduling complication of adding another team to the Teeners, Smittys, and amateur teams already using Fossum.

Simultaneously, the Pheasants’ owners built a new clubhouse. Local hotel developer Frank Gould designed and oversaw construction of the $70,000 building for the concession stand and locker room—Sveen snickered to clarify it had only a home team locker room. The clubhouse was donated to the City.

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Bob Flori

The owners recruited many volunteers to build the clubhouse, starting with themselves. “I helped put in urinals,” Sveen said. “I had no idea about how to do that.” He also assembled rafters, but “I didn’t know I was supposed to overhang them,” he laughed. Berry added, “I was on the roof shingling.” Both men agreed it was a “lot of work”—especially while they were maintaining their full-time medical and legal practices—but it was a “lot of fun” too.

Preparing the product on the field was the other priority. In mid-March, Sveen hired Bob Flori to manage the team. Flori had more than 20 years of baseball experience, mostly in the minor leagues plus scouting for the New York Yankees. At the time, Major League Baseball was in what became the last days of a nearly eight-month-long player strike. MLB teams were assembling squads of replacement players, but the strike ended just before the season was to start, freeing up some players for Flori to recruit. “We ended up with some fabulous talent,” Berry observed. “Flori told us who he wanted, and Jeff made deals.”

It was all a new experience for the owners. Berry acknowledged, “This was a very different departure for a guy who did science and medicine all his life.” Lifelong baseball fans who played growing up, other sports claimed both men’s attention. Growing up in Mitchell, Berry played baseball through sixth grade but went out for high school football, basketball, and track. Aberdeen native Sveen stopped baseball before Teeners, preferring Central High School football and golf. On the first hockey team, he played in the first state championship. “I wasn’t a great skater,” he laughed, “so I played goalie.” Baseball remained a fantasy for both, however.



Pheasants006 CopyAll the work at the field and on the field came together in time for the Pheasants’ first home game in June, including both. Undefeated six games into the season, maybe the owners should have realized it was going to be a special year when one of the best pitchers ever to play in Aberdeen showed up. Former Aberdeen Pheasant and New York Yankee Bob Turley, whose 1949 Pheasants won the Northern League championship and who won the 1958 Cy Young Award and World Series MVP, called to see if the Pheasants wanted something for their opening night. Sveen asked him to come to the game. A financial services executive, Turley flew to Aberdeen in his own jet, explaining that he wanted to repay Aberdeen. At the end of the 1949 season, he didn’t have money to get back home, the Aberdeen fans passed the hat and collected enough money for a train ticket. The Avera St. Luke’s helicopter landed Turley on the field to throw out the first pitch, and he stuck around for autographs.

That June 16 home opener was a 7-3 Pheasant win over the Regina Cyclones. A near-capacity crowd of 2,400 watched the game, maybe sensing correctly that the home team was good enough to pull away from the pack.

Despite—or probably because of—the Pheasants’ success, relations with the League office were often strained. This reached the level of a mid-season owners’ meeting about how to slow down Aberdeen. In the end, they decided instead to try to improve their teams. No wonder, however, that Berry was frequently driven to writing scathing letters to league boss Ferguson. Afterwards, during a game, he and Sveen would meet for a beer in the first base bleachers, and his friend calmed him down—and confiscated the letter.

Season 1 was more than remarkable; it was record-setting. Ending the regular season with a 56-13 mark, the Pheasants set the short season (70 games) minor league baseball record for the highest winning percentage at .812. They also swept the top Prairie League awards; Most Valuable Player, Most Valuable Pitcher, and Manager of the Year, plus seven players on the All-Star Team. They finished in fourth place in attendance, drawing 40,036 for the season, averaging 1,112 per game—not bad for the smallest city in the league that year.

The season ended on a sour note, however. The best-of-five-game championship series started in Regina, whose Cyclones had finished 16.5 games back. The first two games were rained out, and with extra idle days, there wasn’t enough to do. “Some players partied too much,” Sveen recalled—and lost both games. In Aberdeen for the next two game, the Pheasants won game 3. Tied late in game 4, the Pheasants relief pitcher gave up a game-winning, series-ending home run. Sveen and Berry still believe the League office got revenge for the Pheasants’ success by having the Canadian umpires use a bigger strike zone for Pheasant batters than for the Canadians.



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A star pitcher from the original Aberdeen Pheasants, “Bullet” Bob Turley (left) was on hand to throw out the first pitch for the inaugural game of the 1995 Pheasants. He was the 1958 Cy Young Award winner and World Series MVP when he played for the New York Yankees.

Although the team tried to include local players, almost all of the 20 or so Pheasant players each season came from somewhere else. “They weren’t paid well,” Berry admitted, “but they also got

room and board.” Using a “Snare a Pheasant” program, the team found host families for players.

Some players came from far away. When the team had foreign players, the owners had to be sure they had a green card, or they would have trouble getting into or out of Canada. Sveen said, “The Florida players always wanted to see real pheasants, but they came here in late spring, and it was harder to find the birds.” Another theme was “the year of the salamanders.” Berry recalled, “one player thought they were baby alligators.” Sveen’s son Pete, now 38, remembered Eddie Gerald got “jumpy” around them. “So we’d pick them up and tease him with them. He was a really good player and a big guy to us as kids, so it was funny to see him run away when we held them up to him.”



In 1996, eight players from the 1995 team returned the Pheasants. That was cause for optimism, which would largely be rewarded.

There were challenges, however. About halfway through the season, attendance averaged 722 per game, about 400 below 1995. That was partly due to the City repaving the Fossum parking lot, which inconvenienced fans. 3M allowed parking in its lot, and the team shuttled fans to Fossum, but damage was done.

When the season was over, the Pheasants lost in the first round of the playoffs, but five players made the All-Star Teams. Remarkably, they ended the regular season 54-24, making them 110-37 in 1995-1996, a .748 winning percentage, which was determined to be a two-year record for a minor league team.


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The team added various amusements and attractions to draw more fans to games. This ranged from using Berry’s orange dune buggy to deliver relief pitchers to the mound to giveaways of items donated by businesses.

Looking at a couple weeks in 1997 shows various ways of attracting fans: rides on Yankee Doodle Pony, a white horse dressed in stars and stripes, who also helped present the colors at the game; the Chamber of Commerce’s Business After Hours mixer at Fossum prior to a game; a Pheasants “Phlea Market”; and discounts for bringing a baseball card of former Minnesota Twin Juan Berenguer, the opponents’ scheduled pitcher.

Various entertainments kept games interesting. The Macarena was popular, and when it came on the PA system, the Pheasants bullpen players would put on wigs and do the dance. Fans could participate in contests, such as the bat spin: they held one end of a bat, stood it on the ground, and ran around it in circles until told to stop. Then, dizzy, they had to perform a task to earn a prize, but usually falling down instead.Flash

Then there was the mascot. Originally, they imagined a hunting dog as the mascot. “It seemed right for Pheasants,” Berry shrugged. But they could only find a used dog costume, which smelled. Instead, season ticket holder Chad Gordon came to games wearing a mask and costume. He started leading the wave and cheers and was adopted. By year 2, “Flash” Gordon became the official mascot.



When 1997 started, fans would have been forgiven for fearing the end was near. Early newspaper stories suggested the Pheasants were looking for a buyer. After the second year, “We lost money, and some investors put in more,” Sveen said. “We were managing, but some other teams began to fold.”

While Flori re-signed for 1997, Berry acknowledged they “didn’t have as a good a team as the first two. We were still competitive but not as good a draw.”

In addition, the problems with the League continued. In late July, the League office revoked the Pheasants’ franchise right, claiming nonpayment of fees. The team disputed this, and Sveen threatened legal action. A day later, a united front of owners forced the Pheasants’ return.

The Pheasants played what turned out to be their last game on August 22. With some teams having folded already, the league playoffs were cancelled. The Pheasants were still in decent shape, better than others, but not great, Sveen recalled. Attendance at the last game was great, but the season hadn’t met goal. Within a month, Berry, Sveen, and the other owners announced the end of the Pheasants.


Bottom of the Ninth

In the ensuing months, after putting in additional money, Berry and Sveen paid their vendors—except the investors, who knew they wouldn’t get their money back.

The 1990s Pheasants reboot might have had a short life, but the logo still appears. Years later, when Sveen was selecting a jury, someone on the panel was wearing a Pheasants jersey.

Scott Berry and Jeff Sveen might have made more money with virtual teams in fantasy baseball than they did with the real team, but if the bet is on real fun, pick Pheasants.


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Jeff Sveen and Scott Berry. Photo by Troy McQuillen.


“Playing catch behind the first base stands for hours with my little brother and friends. We’d pretend it was the bottom of the ninth with two outs, and one of us was a pitcher and the other was a catcher. We’d pretend we were players for the Pheasants and would try to throw strikes and get the player from the other team out.” 

-Pete Sveen, 38, Recalling a favorite memory of the Pheasants as a ten-year-old.


Family Affair

In many ways, making the 1990s Pheasants a success was a family enterprise. From the Aberdeen families who took players into their homes to players’ wives who ran the “beer trough” (a stock tank filled with ice and beer) at games—that didn’t apply to anyone as much as it did to Scott Berry’s and Jeff Sveen’s families, starting at the very beginning when Berry’s family put numbers for ticket sales on Fossum Field’s new seats.

Sveen’s son Andy, who was in junior high, sold pop in the stands and then moved up to merchandise in the concession stand. He later ran concessions at both Central High School and Northern State University based on his Pheasants’ experience. Peter, 11 years old, did scorecards then moved up to selling pop. Berry’s daughter Tina worked concessions, and his son T.J. worked the grill. The latter, Berry recalled, “said he’d never work a grill again, but he ended up doing some fast food during college.”

Today, 38-year-old Pete has good memories. He appreciated “getting to be a bat boy. The players were always so nice to me and would pat me on the head and say ‘good job, Turbo.’” He also liked playing catch with former Minnesota Twin Juan Berenguer. In addition, “selling pop helped build my confidence in selling.” He adds, “To this day I love selling, writing sales copy, and figuring out how to provide value for customers.”


Extra Innings

After the Pheasants’ owners decided not to go forward after the 1997 season, a local group promoted the option of a nonprofit, community-owned team and offered “shares” for $100 each.

In late 1997, six teams announced they would leave the Prairie League and form a new league that would be owned and operated by the teams as opposed to one person. The Aberdeen nonprofit group intended to join the new league. In January 1998, however, the group announced that they would skip the 1998 season and aim for 1999.

In June 1999, the nonprofit option having disappeared from the headlines, attention turned to the  Thunder Bay Whiskey Jacks of the Northern League who showed interest in finishing their season in Aberdeen due to a strike of city workers. Within ten days, however, the Thunder Bay team had crossed picket lines and decided to stay home. This briefly prompted buzz about Aberdeen as a Northern League town, but nothing developed.

Into the early 2000s, the potential for Aberdeen to join various leagues occasionally appeared. These possibilities tended to be at a lower level than the Prairie League, such as a feeder for the new Northern League or a college circuit. But these did not materialize. To date, the Aberdeen Pheasants have not made their third appearance. //