When St. Louis lost the football Cardinals to Arizona early in 1988, the city gained the dubious distinction of being the only community voted out of the NFL in the modern era.
Pleading non-support, Bill Bidwill received the unanimous blessing of his fellow owners to take the team to Phoenix. At the time, professional football appeared dead in St. Louis.
Almost four years later, Phoenix, once an enchanting oasis on the NFL horizon, is barely lukewarm to Bidwill's Cardinals. And St. Louis, show ing remarkable recuperative powers, appears to be a strong contender for NFL expansion in 1994.
Indeed, St. Louis bolstered its case for expansion in the past week. On Aug. 8, a $260 million bond issue for a 70,000-seat domed stadium downtown was completely subscribed by investors in less than 72 hours. Two days later, a sellout crowd of 52,935 at Busch Stadium witnessed a preseason game between the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets.
Now comes news that Francis W. Murray, a prominent member of the prospective St. Louis ownership group and minority partner with the New England Patriots, wants to divest himself of his 49 percent interest in the Patriots. Murray has asked majority owner Victor K. Kiam II to buy out his interest, worth an estimated $40 million, before Oct. 15. According to a contract agreement reached in 1988, Kiam must honor Murray's request or lose control of the team to him.
Citing the NFL's application deadline of Sept. 16 for expansion cities, Murray said he wants to avoid a potential conflict of interest and disassociate himself from the Patriots.
"The league's timing to accept applications is catalytic here," Murray said yesterday. "I want to get in position to join my partners in the application."
Murray said the plan is for him to remain with the Patriots through the 1991 season. He declined to address the issue of taking over the Patriots, saying only, "We will find a way to solve the situation."
The Patriots under Kiam are deep in debt and are seeking a new stadium with increased revenues. Only recently, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue moved to squelch reports the Patriots might relocate, announcing his intention to help resolve the stadium crisis. Murray said Tagliabue is very committed to seeing the team, with the 10th largest TV market in the country, remain in New England.
Murray joined Kiam and William H. Sullivan Jr. in the Patriots' ownership structure in October 1988. Within 90 days he revealed plans to help businessman Jerry Clinton lure the NFL back to St. Louis.
Most observers feel St. Louis, Charlotte and Baltimore are the three front-runners for two expansion teams to be awarded next fall. Because Tagliabue has indicated his expansion preference for one new city and one city that previously had an NFL team, Baltimore's chief competition appears to be with St. Louis.
Since Murray entered the St. Louis scene, he has helped the city vindicate itself of Bidwill's charges upon leaving.
"From day one, we believed we were starting in last place," said Murray, whose ownership group also includes the NFL's all-time leading rusher in Walter Payton and St. Louis businessman James Busch Orthwein.
"Baltimore was well along and so were the other cities. We took a lot of initiative. We drew 104,000 to two preseason games. We did a lot of things to correct a perspective that St. Louis did not support the Cardinals.
"We think the facts bear in our favor. We feel there is no objective test where we come in second."
One of Murray's most significant accomplishments in St. Louis was unifying an effort that had become fragmented during Bidwill's departure. The result: the state of Missouri, the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County will share in the stadium funding.
Although Baltimore has funding in place for a new football stadium at Camden Yards and a storied history of support for the Colts, the city has yet to associate itself with an ownership group, a critical element in the expansion proposal.
Herb Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said he has a list of six potential ownership groups, including three unnamed groups who've expressed interest in recent weeks. Known groups are headed by Bethesda real estate developer Nathan Landow, Baltimore Blast owner Edwin Hale and former Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr.
"I don't consider St. Louis having an edge in ownership over us," Belgrad said. "I would say confidently and unequivocally that if the groups who expressed an interest recently put up the $100,000 filing fee on Oct. 1, our fans will be delighted."
Landow said yesterday that the appearance of several prospective owners on Baltimore's application -- "provided they are viable and have the wherewithal to do it" -- should strengthen the city's chances.
Landow said his group planned "to stay the course."