Get your chips ready for Rams poker game

December 01, 1993|By Steve Bisheff | Steve Bisheff,Orange County (Calif.) Register

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- While the NFL's owners met behind closed doors in Rosemont, Ill., to anoint Jacksonville as their lucky, new $140 million member, James D. Ruth sat behind his city manager's desk in Anaheim, stared at his telephone and waited.

He knows the call will be coming any time now.

John Shaw, the Los Angeles Rams' noted power broker, will be on the other end of the line, and the Great Sports Poker Game officially will begin in Orange County.

The Rams, being wooed openly by Baltimore and perhaps other cities that lost out in this latest expansion derby, are threatening to leave Anaheim unless the city sweetens their current contractual agreement.

Ruth, who will act as the city's chief negotiator in this process, is willing to sit down and talk. But he openly admits he comes to the table with something Shaw and his frugal football team should understand only too well -- a limited budget.

"We know John [Shaw] is going to play this for everything it is worth," Ruth said. "Absolutely. That's just part of his nature."

Is Shaw bluffing? Will Ruth and the city get nervous and cave in? And just what exactly is our famous silent owner Georgia Frontiere's stance on the whole matter?

There are lots of questions, but very few answers as this off-field soap opera begins to heat up. The Rams' 1993 season should be this suspenseful.

First, let's get one thing straight here: All team officials' comments to the contrary, Frontiere is not going to Baltimore. Her team might be heading there, but she isn't. No way.

Caviar is her style, not crab cakes. She craves the posh social scene in Beverly Hills or London, not the more folksy atmosphere along Baltimore's lively waterfront.

Shaw swears his boss will not sell this team, but if the Rams move to Maryland, she won't be moving with them. Bet on it.

For fans in Southern California, the best option would be a sale to local buyers. At least three prominent groups are known to be interested, and although none has been publicly identified, the Walt Disney Co. figures to be one of them.

The Not-So-Mighty Rams to go with the Mighty Ducks? Local football lovers could think of worse scenarios.

In the meantime, Ruth and city officials in Anaheim quietly are plotting their own strategy.

"We're always willing to sit down and talk," Ruth said, "but our options are marginal, I think. This city is not going to get wealthy with the Rams.

"If they moved, it would not be easy on the city. It would cause certain emotional trauma. But financially, it wouldn't have much impact at all. I know that will surprise a lot of people, but it is true.

"We hope they stay. We want them to stay. We'll do whatever we can to keep them. But we cannot subsidize them."

Shaw and team officials are known to be dissatisfied with the club's regular practice facility at Rams Park. Their lease of the building and surrounding fields is up, and although Ruth claims they've been offered a 15-year deal at the same price, Shaw apparently has turned it down.

He has stated he wants a two-year lease, which only fuels speculation he and the team are preparing to leave town.

The practice field isn't the real issue, though.

Dwindling team revenue is. The crowds are down appreciably in Anaheim, and Shaw has complained, claiming ". . . this might no longer be a good football market."

Ruth's reaction is predictable.

"People in Orange County will come out and support a team if they're given a good product," he said. "The Ducks have proven that.

"Look what has happened in Dallas. That team was 2-14 a couple of years ago. Now look where it is. You have to have somebody who is willing to invest money and make the product better."

As much as the city manager tries to downplay Anaheim's desire to keep the team here, it must be noted that few towns in the United States would allow an NFL franchise to leave without a spirited fight.

Jacksonville didn't shell out $140 million yesterday for nothing.

There is a major prestige value in having an NFL team. Anaheim loves the fact it is home for major league baseball's Angels and the NHL Mighty Ducks, as well as the Rams. Already a thriving tourist attraction with Disneyland, the city enjoys advertising pro football as yet another option for late summer and fall visitors and convention delegates.

Even if the Rams continually refuse to drop the Los Angeles connection and fully adopt Anaheim's name and logo.

Maybe that is something Ruth could use as a bargainning chip. We give you a better contract, you include us in the new franchise nameplate.

Don't count on it. But don't count the Rams out of here yet, either.

At this point, the guess is that it is 50-50 whether they stay or leave.

"We've got 30 days to get a new lease on the daily practice site," Ruth said. "So you could say it is decision time for the Rams."

Not really. Not yet, anyway. The practice-field decision will be made sometime soon.

But the other decision, the key decision, won't be made until later.

This is only the first hand dealt in what could be a long, tense game. The participants haven't even taken off their coats or rolled up their sleeves yet. But they will.

The big pot still awaits.

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