To negotiators, it's day of fulfillment Park was but dream when '88 talks began

April 06, 1992|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,Staff Writer

Herbert J. Belgrad has been a central figure in at least two Orioles ballpark celebrations in the past four years, not bad for a Baltimore lawyer who would not know an infield fly if it fell in his briefcase.

Today's Opening Day ceremonies are the climax of Belgrad's six years of unpaid service as chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

But, in its own way, an earlier occasion was just as significant. On May 2, 1988, Belgrad found himself on the playing field at Memorial Stadium as Gov. William Donald Schaefer told a whooping crowd of 50,000 that the stadium authority and the Orioles had agreed on a long-term lease permitting development of a downtown stadium.

Standing at the governor's side that night, Belgrad heard every cheer. But he said recently that the moment didn't seem real then or now.

"It was like being in a trance," Belgrad said. "It was the most unlikely place I would ever place myself -- on the field looking into a sea of faces and listening to people cheer and scream. Where was I?"

"Herb had just hit a home run with his newest bat," said the stadium authority's lawyer, Eugene Feinblatt, who also was on the field that night.

Opening Day will be a day for national exposure, souvenir tickets and traffic jams. But for truly important dates, nothing on the stadium time line tops the signing of the lease.

In 1987, the Maryland General Assembly had passed bills to fund a downtown stadium. Then the legislators turned to the stadium authority to extract a long-term lease from the Orioles -- without it, the money would go unspent.

Today, spirits soar and Orioles fans argue about who will be the first slugger to conk a home run off the B&O warehouse. But when negotiations began, no one dared look that far ahead. The Orioles talked about the many amenities they would require in a new ballpark while the state focused, in part, on getting a fair rent from the team.

"We understood the Orioles very much would like to pay the least amount they could pay. And they realized we were a public agency and, being very visible, were not in a position to negotiate a sweetheart lease," Belgrad said.

Serious negotiations between the parties began in January 1988 and were completed five months later, with Schaefer standing outside the Orioles dugout to spread the news.

But the talks were difficult and almost never ending. In the five months of talks, the two sides held more than 30 sessions, according to Feinblatt. Few were brief. "I don't mean 10 minutes, hit or miss. I mean hours on end," he said.

Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams rarely appeared at the sessions, leaving the nitty-gritty of the negotiations to a team led by Larry Lucchino, now the Orioles president.

Still, Williams cast a deep shadow over the talks for reasons all the negotiators knew, but rarely spoke about. The owner was in the final stages of an 11-year battle with cancer, a battle that would end with his death three months after the lease agreement was signed.

Williams intervened directly in the talks three times, Feinblatt said, each time to resolve an issue that threatened to set back the talks. The last issue apparently was among the most difficult for the team. The stadium authority insisted the lease include what it considered an absolute guarantee the Orioles would not be moved out of town by Williams or an owner who followed him.

The 15-year term of the lease offered some protection, but the authority's negotiators wanted more.

"A 15-year lease meant that if they removed the team, we had a claim for damages, which is what the state of Maryland didn't want," said Feinblatt, who knew the legal territory well, having been Jerold Hoffberger's lawyer when the former Orioles owner sold the team to Williams in 1979. "We wanted the Orioles. We wanted a covenant that would be enforceable by an injunction."

Williams did not agree immediately. "But eventually he said yes," Feinblatt recalled.

The talks moved ahead, but not as quickly as the parties hoped. Belgrad said there was hope of making the big announcement on Opening Day 1988, but that fell through, even after the negotiators holed up in a hotel on Baltimore-Washington Parkway for the weekend preceding the '88 home opener.

Belgrad said that at that point, "It was a letdown across the board. In our own minds, we all wanted it to be concluded. The natural date was Opening Day."

But the talks picked up again, and, on May 2, Belgrad and Feinblatt were in Williams' Washington law offices trying to nail down the final details.

Feinblatt's memories of that ultimately triumphant day are mixed. "I remember it being the last time we met with Williams and how terrible he looked," Feinblatt said.

Belgrad said: "Williams came to the table. He straightened up and buttoned his jacket. It was clear he'd lost a lot of weight. And his jacket just slipped off his shoulders. Everyone was in shock he had deteriorated to that point."

Late that afternoon, the agreement was nearly in final form. The Orioles and authority negotiators rushed to catch the last Metroliner that would get them to Baltimore in time to make the announcement before the game, and actually completed the deal in the Metroliner club car. The final dispute of contract language was resolved on the back of a menu, Belgrad said.

The feeling of being on the field that night in 1988 has not yet left Belgrad. Opening Day should be the same, only better.

"To me, it will be a very emotional experience," he said. "It will be a happy emotion, but it goes far and deep."

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