- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 29, 2001

Frank Morsani has gotten a chuckle from all the talk of folding and relocating clubs that has dominated the baseball headlines lately. He was amused by the recent Congressional hearings on the sport's antitrust hearings, and the debate over its business practices particularly when it comes to the future of franchises.
Morsani, a Tampa area businessman, would have been a perfect witness before the House Judiciary Committee. He knows the situation in Minnesota all too well. After all, he once had bought the Twins. Or so he thought.
In calling for the repeal of baseball's antitrust exemption, Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, asked for documents related to relocations and proposed movements of baseball franchises over the past 50 years. Morsani could be a one-man hearing, with his experiences in the business of baseball.
Not only did he once buy the Twins, but he purchased the Oakland Athletics as well, and the Texas Rangers. Yet he didn't wind up with any of the three franchises, nor did he get the expansion franchise he expected from major league baseball in 1991 for going along with requests by MLB officials to back off his purchases.
But Morsani will be holding his own type of hearing sometime next year, when his 10-year-old, $110 million lawsuit against Major League Baseball charging tortious interference in his efforts to acquire a franchise will finally be heard in state court in Hillsborough County, Fla. a court case that could be a blueprint for the pitfalls possibly facing the two groups in Washington and Northern Virginia seeking to bring a team here.
"I had a deal to buy all three teams," said Morsani, who once owned 22 automobile dealerships in the Tampa area. "I was asked to back off three times, and we were led to believe that we would receive an expansion franchise down the line."
But Morsani's expansion group suffered the loss of a key investor and other financial problems near the deadline to select a representative group for the Tampa Bay area, and baseball passed him over, instead selecting a group that led by Washington lawyer Stephen Porter now involved in the Fred Malek group trying to bring a franchise to the District.
Morsani maintained that baseball broke promises made to him during his three franchise purchases, and the financial problems he suffered were a direct result of baseball's failure to deliver on those promises. MLB lawyers could not be reached for comment.
Tampa Bay wound up getting passed over in the 1991 expansion as Miami and Denver came away with new franchises. The area received an expansion franchise for a group led by Vince Naimoli in 1995 a deal made to satisfy lawsuit threats for baseball blocking Naimoli's bid to buy the San Francisco Giants in 1992.
Now that franchise the Tampa Bay Devil Rays is in ruins, with poor attendance in an outdated domed stadium and up for sale or possible relocation or contraction, and Morsani may have the last laugh, in a lawsuit that baseball has done everything it could to keep from being heard in court.
In 1993, a Hillsborough County judge ruled in favor of a motion by baseball to dismiss Morsani's suit, determining the league was protected by the antitrust exemption. Morsani appealed the decision, and three years later he won as the 2nd District Court of Appeals ruled baseball's antitrust exemption didn't protect it from Morsani's suit. Baseball appealed the ruling, claiming that Morsani had waited too long to file his suit, exceeding the state's four-year statute of limitations. His last bid to buy a team, the Rangers, had taken place in 1988.
Another trial judge found in favor of baseball's appeal, but again the 2nd District Court of Appeals reversed the decision in favor of Morsani. Baseball appealed the decision, and the case went all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, which last summer ruled in favor of Morsani. The case is now awaiting assignment to a judge to be heard next year.
"Dealing with baseball was the worst business situation I had ever been involved in," said the 70-year-old Morsani, who spends much of his time these days operating his 800-acre farm, with 260 head of cattle, outside of Tampa. "I've been in business for 40 years, and I had never seen anything like it. I don't know the words to describe how they operate."
It was a Washington connection that got Morsani involved in the business of baseball nearly 18 years ago. He had made it clear to baseball owners that he was looking to buy a team for Tampa, and somebody gave him a call H. Gabriel Murphy, the former Washington insurance executive who was a minority owner of the Twins. He had owned part of the franchise since it was in Washington as the original Senators in 1950 and was a staunch opponent of majority owner Calvin Griffith's plan to move the team to Minneapolis-St, Paul in 1960. He filed suit against Griffith when the team was moved but still retained his 42 percent ownership in the franchise in Minnesota.
The Twins were a franchise in trouble in 1984, and Murphy came to Morsani to see if he was interested in buying Murphy's 42 percent share. "We had a deal with Mr. Murphy, with a signing and the exchange of money," Morsani said. "Calvin Griffith's attorney said he could deliver the Griffith family interest to us. We made a deal to purchase their interests as well. But Mr. [Carl] Pohlad had also been talking to the Griffiths, and he was willing to purchase the team and keep it in Minnesota only if he could buy 80 percent of the team, which he needed to take advantage of the tax benefits of ownership. We were persuaded to give our interests up so that he could do that, with the assurances that we would be awarded with expansion."
Pohlad bought the team from the Griffiths and Murphy for $36 million. Now he is willing to allow the franchise to be contracted for a fee that is expected to be possibly six times his purchase price.
Morsani tried again a year later, when the Athletics were up for sale. Again, Morsani was courted by the owners of the team, the Haas family, he said.
"The A's deal never got much attention, but we were invited by them to purchase the team," Morsani said. "We had meetings with the Haas family in Dallas and San Francisco. We signed an agreement, and 24 hours later they got a $10 million grant from the city of Oakland to keep the team there, and they backed out of the deal."
Two strikes. Morsani got another swing at a franchise three years later the Rangers, then owned by Eddie Chiles, who contacted Morsani about buying the team. This one got a lot more attention than the behind-the-scenes deal for the A's that fell through.
"We had an official signing in Tampa," Morsani said. "They flew in, and we had photo ops and everything that goes with that. We had a formal dinner with Mr. Chiles, signed everything, and money exchanged hands."
This time Morsani said they were very careful about making sure there were no roadblocks to the purchase, or any last-minute opposition from MLB officials that would scuttle the sale.
"We visited with the commissioner [Peter Ueberroth] and asked for his support, even before we met with Mr. Chiles," Morsani said. "We did not want to be used as a stalking horse again. He assured us that we had his support. But shortly after that, something happened. The commissioner created an atmosphere that made Mr. Chiles nullify the contract."
Three strikes. Morsani believed he had a free pass the next time, when baseball was ready to expand in 1991. He had been competing with St. Petersburg, where the Chicago White Sox were about to move in 1988. After that deal fell through with a last-minute agreement to build the White Sox a new ballpark in Chicago, Morsani and the St. Petersburg's interests agreed to go along with a plan to work together. But when it came time for baseball to select one group to represent the Tampa Bay area in the 1991 expansion, Morsani was passed over.
"I have no idea what happened there," Morsani said. "We felt we were promised an expansion team."
Rick Dodge, the former city manager in St. Petersburg, said Morsani was instrumental in laying the groundwork for baseball to come to Tampa Bay.
Dodge, who is now the assistant manager for economic development for Piniellas County, had nothing for praise and admiration for Morsani.
"He is as fine a gentleman as you will find," Dodge said. "He is a man of immense integrity, and I believe him when he says he was promised something when he sold the Twins back to Carl Pohlad without any profit. He was too good of a businessman to have done that without a quid pro quo."
Morsani finally will get a chance to make his case in court, and he is determined to make baseball pay.
"They were wrong, and we are going to take them to task," he said. "This is not the way you run a business in the United States."
Florida is proving to be baseball's worst legal nightmare. It was the threat of a lawsuit stemming from baseball's interference with Naimoli's attempt to purchase the Giants in 1992 that led to owners being forced to grant the Tampa Bay area its expansion team in 1995. The city was given a team although the club would be playing in obsolete Tropicana Field, a domed stadium built by St. Petersburg in 1990. That was two years before the opening of Baltimore's Camden Yards changed the face of ballpark construction, and despite the fact that the economic data showed Tampa Bay to be a poor market, with per capita income and corporate support far below that of the area that came in third in the 1995 expansion bid for two franchises Northern Virginia.

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