O's to be hometown team, even without hometown buyer New park holds long lease

June 07, 1991|By Sandy Banisky Mark Hyman and Vito Stellino of The Sun's sports staff and Peter H. Frank of The Sun's business staff contributed to this article.

Baltimore's business leaders weren't scrambling yesterday to try to buy the Orioles and save the team from yet another out-of-town owner. The 15-year lease the team signed in May 1988 for the new Camden Yards stadium has defused civic anxiety that a sale could mean the ballclub will be spirited off.

"If there is to be a new owner, there is no reason to be concerned, because the new owner is subject to the existing lease," Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said yesterday. "We have absolute legal protection."

"The idea that we have to own them locally or we'll lose them is much less of a threat," said Robert Keller, head of the Greater Baltimore Committee, which represents the area's largest corporations. "It appears to be a non-issue. The terms of the lease bind the owners of the team."

The Orioles are committed to moving into the new Camden Yards ballpark for Opening Day 1992 and to playing in the baseball-only stadium for a minimum of 15 years -- regardless of whether principal owner Eli S. Jacobs decides to sell his 87 percent stock interest in the team, Mr. Belgrad said.

The lease, negotiated by the Orioles and the Stadium Authority in 1988, anticipated the possible sale of the team and so is binding on Mr. Jacobs and any investors who might follow him as owners.

"Equally important, organized baseball has been directly involved in construction of our new ballpark," Mr. Belgrad said. "There's no doubt that if even an attempt was made to relocate, the [American League] president and the [baseball] commissioner would block it."

In fact, Mr. Belgrad said he was uneasy even talking about the Orioles' leaving Baltimore because such a scenario was "unfair and raises unnecessary concerns."

Even if Baltimoreans wanted to buy the franchise, business executives differed yesterday on whether local investors could assemble the money.

Many said they doubted a deal of that size could be accomplished -- particularly in a sagging economy. Some said Baltimore business executives were more interested in putting their money into a National Football League franchise.

One of the believers in Baltimoreans' ability to assemble the funds to bid for the Orioles is Allen Quille, whose company owns parking lots and who joined a group of would-be buyers of the team in 1988.

"Sure," Mr. Quille said when asked whether Baltimoreans have the money. "Whether they want to put it up is another thing."

Can local business leaders find the money?

"Don't know," said Raymond A. Mason, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the investment firm Legg Mason. "The most important thing is that the Orioles remain in Baltimore. That's between very and extremely important."

"History has proven that the kind of money for a franchise like this has been very difficult to arrive at locally," said H. Furlong Baldwin, chairman of Mercantile Bankshares. Business people interested in buying a football team to replace the Colts said yesterday that they weren't interested in switching their focus to baseball.

"I don't have any interest in buying them," said Edwin F. Hale, a Baltimore truck and shipping executive and owner of the Baltimore Blast soccer team. He heads a group of 10 area investors bidding for a National Football League team.

"I'd like to see local ownership of the Orioles," he said. But "my main interest is the NFL. I love football."

Phyllis Brotman, spokeswoman for another group interested in winning an NFL franchise, said, "We're interested in the Orioles, but not in owning them."

In 1979, when Jerold C. Hoffberger sold the Orioles to Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams for $12 million, Baltimoreans' efforts to buy the team fell short.

In 1988, after Mr. Williams' death, Mr. Hoffberger headed a group of Baltimoreans trying to buy the team back. Mr. Jacobs, however, made the winning bid.

Yesterday, Mr. Hoffberger said he hadn't thought about trying again, "because I haven't had reason to give it thought. It was my view that Mr. Jacobs would want to keep the team. . . . I have not talked to him."

He said he believed that Baltimore business people were qualified to make a bid. But, "I don't know if they will step up to do it."

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