Hoffberger owns O's sale doubts

Bill Tanton

June 29, 1993|By Bill Tanton

You can't help feeling a little sorry for Jerry Hoffberger when you hear the numbers being tossed around as the likely sale price of the Orioles.

Already $148.1 million -- the highest ever for a major-league baseball team -- is being offered.

With several groups bidding in an auction-like procedure in a New York bankruptcy court, there's no telling how high the price will go.

Which brings us to Jerry Hoffberger, the best owner the Orioles have ever had.

Hoffberger ran a good show here from 1966 to 1979. The ticket and concession prices were right. He must have paid the players enough; they all signed. The club won five pennants and two World Series.

Plus, Hoffberger is a terrific guy. He and his family, which for many years owned and operated the National Brewing Co., have been good to our town.

In the glory years of the club, Hoffberger, often wearing a red blazer, sat every night in his box by the Orioles dugout. The way he mingled with fans you'd have thought he was running for mayor.

In 1979, Hoffberger sold the club for $12 million to Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, who took over after the Orioles lost to the Pirates in seven games in the World Series.

Four years ago, Eli Jacobs, of New York, bought the team from the estate of the late Williams for $70 million. And now, in yet another ownership go-round, the price has shot up to around $150 million.

How does Hoffberger feel when he sees this?

"It's not like people think it is," Jerry said from the Eastern Shore. "When we sold the ballclub, we didn't get the entire $12 million because we had some outside investors.

"But the money we got we invested well. We haven't turned it into $148 million, but we've done very well. It's not as if we just took the money and let it sit there."

Today he's not so sure baseball ownership is such a good thing.

"It's $148 million to buy a club now," Hoffberger says. "Where does it go from here? I'm afraid the game'll crash, the way racing did when people started paying too much money for horses."

As an owner and breeder, he has seen that sport decline. He doesn't want the same thing to happen to baseball.

But there are discouraging signs.

Attendance was down in 18 of 26 parks last year. TV ratings and revenues are dropping. Strikes and lockouts have cooled the ardor of fans, who perceive baseball's labor troubles as a tug o'war between greedy billionaires and whiny millionaires.

And yet at least five groups are lined up to buy the Orioles for some $150 million.

"I hear people connected with this," says Hoffberger, "say they can do a better job of advertising, selling signs. If they put a sign on every seat they can't make that kind of money.

"You can't buy Orioles tickets now, but after the All-Star Game and after the season is over, you may see a drop. I think you'll see companies begin to wonder if it's worth $100,000 to have a luxury box. Some companies are going to buy four season tickets next year instead of the eight they have now.

"If you put $1 in the bank today at 7 or 8 percent [interest], in 10 years you'll have $2. There's no way the Orioles will be worth $280 million in 10 years. It may be better to invest in banks than in baseball."

Neither Bill DeWitt nor Pete Angelos nor any of the other prospective buyers agree, obviously. They're going full speed ahead toward baseball.

Who will wind up owning the club?

"I can tell you," says Hoffberger, "that Bill DeWitt is very much admired in the baseball community.

"As for Pete Angelos and his local group, I wonder about some of the investors. I don't think Henry Knott is putting up any money. My guess is that Pam Shriver and Jim McKay are in it for a very small amount of money. I think they're letting Angelos use their names.

"And Boogie Weinglass and his people may not be in it for long. If the NFL franchise becomes available to them, their money will go into football.

"No matter who gets the club in court, the baseball owners still have to approve them. It would be very hard for them to turn anybody down after all this, but the few friends I have left in baseball tell me they would approve any group that does not include Larry Lucchino."

Lucchino, president, CEO and 9 percent owner of the Orioles, is part of DeWitt's group. It's believed the Angelos people would also include Lucchino.

Lucchino, the lawyer who came into baseball on EBW's coattails, is in an enviable position. Staying on, he'd remain as CEO and get $14 million from the sale.

That alone is $2 million more than Hoffberger got for the franchise 14 years ago.

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