Chris Cummings, who was the primary owner of the Fresno Grizzlies during the minor league baseball franchise’s most memorable times, died Friday evening of esophageal cancer.
He was 70 years old.
Cummings battled cancer for nearly two years and his condition rapidly worsened during his final week, according to family.
While the Grizzlies experienced their share of highs and lows during Cummings’ 15-year stretch as owner (2005-2019), there was no doubt that the Fresno franchise enjoyed its most success on and off the field during that time.
Perhaps most notable was the Grizzlies winning the 2015 Triple-A championship and Pacific Coast League title.
“What Chris loved about owning the Grizzlies the most was seeing the fans have a good time,” said Cummings’ former wife, Mona Nyandoro Cummings. “He loved interacting with the fans. He’d go around the ballpark and grab a bunch of baseballs and give them away to children.
“He just loved how baseball bonded people together, and he got that opportunity to share his passion for the game with them.”
Cummings is the second former owner of the Grizzlies to die recently, joining the former minority owner Dick Ellsworth, who passed away last month. Another past owner, Brian Glover, died in 2019.
All three, along with Cummings’ brother Bill, were part of the Fresno Baseball Club that bought the Fresno Grizzlies in 2005 and grew the franchise after financial failures endured by the original ownership group, the Fresno Diamond Club.
In a statement, Grizzlies president Derek Franks said Cummings “had a deep love for the game of baseball and sincerely cared about our fans.”
“We are extremely saddened by the news of Chris Cummings’ passing,” said Franks, who was named the general manager by Cummings in 2015. “As the former Managing Partner and President of the Grizzlies, Chris made a permanent impact during his tenure that will always be remembered. He thoroughly enjoyed putting smiles on people’s faces and went out of his way to create special moments for everyone who visited Chukchansi Park. Chris took great pride in the fun and creative aspects of the Minor League Baseball business and pushed us to be innovative. We were able to do so many fun and interesting things during his tenure because of his enthusiasm and energy for new ideas.
“Chris treated me and my family like his own, and I am forever grateful that he took a chance and trusted me to hold an important role with the club. Chris’s legacy is still apparent daily at Chukchansi Park in the memories he helped forge and the community-focused environment he instilled in our entire organization. Chris should be remembered for his kind heart and the passion and effort he put into making the Fresno Grizzlies something special for this community. Our sincerest condolences go out to his family and close friends for their loss.”
Impact as an owner
While minor league ownership does not have direct involvement in player development or on-field decisions, it does play a significant role in establishing an environment that fosters winning and attracting fans to create a lively atmosphere.
The Grizzlies, in turn, ended up serving as the Triple-A affiliate to five World Series winners during Cummings’ time, including three championships with the San Francisco Giants.
The Fresno franchise also was recognized several times within minor league baseball for its marketing and promotion successes, including the creation of the popular Taco Truck Throwdown event at Chukchansi Park in downtown Fresno, and an assortment of specialty jerseys that seemed to catch popularity each time.
“He was very supportive of his staff to come up with ideas that would engage the community to come to the ballpark,” Nyandoro Cummings said. “He loved how his staff would highlight what’s good about Fresno in their marketing and how the staff would come up with great ideas that made coming to the ballpark fun.”
In addition to the Grizzlies, Cummings at one point owned Fresno’s now-defunct minor league hockey team, the Falcons, and the city’s high-level amateur soccer team, the Fuego.
Fresno Grizzlies baseball, however, is what consumed Cummings’ time most.
And despite many fun times at Grizzlies games, Cummings constantly struggled with the franchise’s inability to turn a significant profit.
The list of reason includes: Fresno’s lack of sustaining interest for minor league baseball when there are five Major League clubs within the state; the Central Valley’s summer heat; the stadium being located downtown instead of north Fresno; forced changes to the franchise’s Major League affiliation over the final few years; and, at times, losing baseball teams.
In turn, the Grizzlies often turned to city of Fresno officials for help to ease their leasing terms and agreement to use the downtown stadium.
It took Cummings six years before his ownership group, the Fresno Baseball Club, was able to complete sale of the franchise to new owners.
But Cummings didn’t sell the franchise because he stopped enjoying being part of the Grizzlies, his ex-wife said. Cummings sold the Grizzlies when it became apparent to himself that he’d taken the franchise as far as he could.
“Buying a sports team, it’s like an amenity for people with money,” Nyandoro Cummings said. “Chris managed an asset for people who wanted to invest in a sports team. But their money came from doing something else — like Chris with his real estate.
“When it came to owning the Grizzlies, he kept asking his other owners to put more and more money in the franchise,” Nyandoro Cummings added. “At the same time, it was a challenging market compared to other markets of the same size.
“Chris really had to go to bat at several points in times to renegotiate the stadium lease to make it work for the franchise and keep a Triple-A team in Fresno during his time.”
Time outside of the Grizzlies
Cummings made millions of dollars from real estate investments, but worked in education initially and got a master’s degree in higher education and sociology at the University of Rhode Island.
He eventually went to business school, studying marketing and financing at the University of Illinois-Chicago, then got into banking and financing before venturing into real estate.
Prior to taking over the Grizzlies, Cummings made a bid to buy the Boston Red Sox but missed out.
Cummings grew up in Rhode Island and was a lifelong Red Sox fan.
His real estate ventures led Cummings to Fresno for investment opportunities.
Cummings ended up having a conversation with then-Fresno Mayor Alan Autry about the possibility of owning a share of the Grizzlies.
To which Cummings, according to Nyandoro Cummings, replied, “I don’t want to buy a piece of the Grizzlies. If they are for sale, I’ll buy the whole thing.”
Cummings spearheaded the Fresno Baseball Club in its purchase of the Grizzlies from the Fresno Diamond Group in 2005. Cummings’ group was heralded then as owners with deeper pockets and with more financial stability to help the Fresno franchise flourish.
Following his 15-year run as primary owner and acting partner that ended when the Grizzlies were sold to the latest ownership group Fresno Sports and Events LLC, Cummings retired in Boynton, Fla.
Cummings’ passions outside of baseball included an affinity for the southern African country Zimbabwe, where his ex-wife Nyandoro Cummings lived for a portion of their 10-year marriage.
Cummings had considered moving to Zimbabwe had the Grizzlies been sold in a more timely manner.
Nonetheless, Cummings served on the TTI Foundation, a board that helped provide educational opportunities for girls of Zimbabwe.
Cummings ended up adopting his ex-wife’s two children, who are half Zimbabwean.
In addition to stepchildren Wesley and Tandiwe Nyandoro, Cummings is survived by his daughter Ginny Cummings.
Ginny flew down from Boston to Florida to be with her dad during his final moments.
In the days prior to his passing, Cummings sent out text messages to close friends and family to express optimism about his health despite receiving news from doctors that the cancer was getting worse.
“I never met somebody who loved life as much as Chris,” Nyandoro Cummings said. “His zest for life was amazing. He was such an optimistic spirit.
“He will be missed.”