Sunday, October 24, 2004

BOSTON.

As he flew in from St. Louis for Game1 of the World Series last night at Fenway Park, Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt thought about fate and how, in 11 years, it has brought him and Red Sox owner Larry Lucchino together, although this time on opposite sides.

“I haven’t seen Larry for a while, but I was thinking about the irony of us meeting in the World Series, all the twists and turns to get here,” DeWitt said.

The twist and turn DeWitt particularly had in mind was the one in which he and Lucchino were partners in a 1993 deal to buy the Baltimore Orioles from Eli Jacobs for $140million.

“Bill and I both went to spring training that year thinking we had a team,” Lucchino said.



However, they were unaware of Jacobs’ financial difficulties and when the Orioles owner filed for bankruptcy, a judge killed the deal. The judge then put the team up for sale to the highest bidder, which, as you know, opened the door for a certain Baltimore lawyer to step forward and purchase the club for $173million at a bankruptcy auction.

It is a tangled tale, this triad of baseball owners — Lucchino, DeWitt and Peter Angelos —a story with two happy endings and one horror story. See if you can guess which are which.

Angelos bid for the Orioles because he said he did not want to see the team sold to an out-of-town buyer — DeWitt. DeWitt was a minority owner in the Texas Rangers and the son of Bill DeWitt Sr., former owner of the St. Louis Browns from 1949 to 1951 (who moved to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Orioles) and later president of the Cincinnati Reds.

The Baltimore lawyer, a relatively unknown outside legal circles, where his claim to fame was the $300million he made in asbestos litigation, tried to buy into the DeWitt-Lucchino group but was not welcome and the process was too far along for him to make a bid on his own. But everything changed when Jacobs filed for bankruptcy.

As the bankruptcy hearing approached there were four bidders — DeWitt, Angelos, former Redskins tight end Jean Fugett (chief operating officer of the Beatrice Corp.) and New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria. (Loria later purchased the Montreal Expos and then the Florida Marlins in a deal that allowed then-Marlins owner John Henry to join a group with Lucchino to buy the Red Sox).

The morning of the Orioles auction in New York — in a deal brokered by Lucchino — DeWitt agreed to join forces with Angelos, and they bid more than $1million over Loria. If DeWitt did not agree to become Angelos’ partner, there was a good chance Loria — whose Marlins won a World Series last year — would have owned the Orioles.

The next day, in one of the luxury sky boxes at Camden Yards,DeWitt met the media to talk about the future of the team and his role. He said he would be the franchise’s “baseball man” when it would come time to sign free agents and make trades. He said he looked forward to a “more active role” in baseball than his minority ownership in Texas.

DeWitt and Lucchino discovered being Angelos’ partner meant having a seat in the owner’s box at Camden Yards and little else. It was clear early on that the only one calling the shots would be Angelos. Lucchino bowed out quickly, and within a year DeWitt sold his stake in the club.

“The hope was that the combined forces would operate the franchise, but that proved not to be workable arrangement,” Lucchino said.

The two got together again in 1994 in a bid to buy the Pittsburgh Pirates. Lucchino dropped out of that venture to join John Moores in his deal to purchase the San Diego Padres from television executive Tom Werner (now a partner with Lucchino in the Red Sox ownership).

Meanwhile, Dewitt got the chance to own his hometown team when he purchased the Cardinals in 1996. Lucchino left San Diego and helped put together the Red Sox ownership group that bought the team three years ago. Now each man owns a piece of championship clubs, two of the most storied franchises in baseball. They have made each club even more successful. The Cardinals are building a new ballpark in St. Louis and the Red Sox have sold out every game at Fenway Park for next season.

The Orioles? They suffered through their seventh straight losing season and watched their home attendance steadily drop from a high of 3.7million in 1997 to a low of 2.4million.

Obviously, neither man has regrets about the way things turned out.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to win an American League pennant,” Lucchino said. “It’s not like winning a conference championship in the NFL or the NBA. It means more, but we won’t be satisfied until we win the World Series.”

DeWitt had good reason to be particularly bitter about his Orioles ownership tenure: He expected so much more.

“Sure, I was disappointed,” he said. “But in hindsight, I’m glad that Baltimore didn’t work out.”

Lucchino, though, reflected on what might have been. “We would have made a pretty good team,” he said.

Based on what they have accomplished since, they would have likely made the Orioles pretty good as well — certainly better than Baltimore’s local hero.

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