Rams' Frontiere keeps her eye on old hometown

February 11, 1994|By Mark Whicker | Mark Whicker,Orange County (Calif.) Register

ST. LOUIS -- This is where Georgia Irwin grew up, and where Georgia Frontiere returned on Oct. 14, 1980, with her pro football team.

3 She and her husband, Dominic, drove through the leafy neighborhoods, by the old schools. She almost forgot to leave.

"Georgia says she wants to come back here and live," Dominic told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "It'll be OK with me. I can write songs anywhere."

"Everyone is so proud of this city," Georgia said. "This is a lovely town."

St. Louis is not as lovely now. None of us are. But the Italian restaurants and the majestic riverboats may still have a hold on Georgia.

So does a 70,000-seat domed stadium with luxury boxes, club seats and a lease constituted of plum pudding and whipped cream.

It's hard to see Georgia returning to Baltimore or posing with Elvis in Memphis. It's easier to see Georgia dragging the Rams back home.

St. Louis is the largest city that doesn't have an NFL team. It is categorized as a baseball town, and it is sensitive about that. It fills the old Arena for the Blues and has shown up impressively for recent Saint Louis U. basketball. It bought all the '92 PGA Championship tickets and is already in a civic lather over the '94 U.S. Olympic Festival.

However, St. Louis was slow to buy the 6,252 club seats in the new stadium, to be finished in 1995. And it never did buy the last 17 luxury boxes (out of 100).

"There were several reasons for that," said George "Buzz" Westfall, the St. Louis County executive.

"We had that terrible flood during the spring, and many corporations were more concerned with that. And we were competing with the new Kiel Center, our downtown arena, which sold out its club seats."

With all that, how come St. Louis lost the NFL expansion race to Charlotte and Jacksonville? What was the criterion? Tattoos per capita?

It's a long, convoluted story, best summarized by ex-UCLA coach Pepper Rodgers, now with the Memphis expansion group:

"This guy [St. Louis] can play, like a 240-pound linebacker. There's only one problem. The son of a gun won't hit."

Big foam, no beer, in other words.

The central figure was Jerry Clinton, a former Golden Gloves champion who grew up poor in St. Louis, went to work in the Anheuser-Busch mailroom, delivered cigars to Gussie Busch himself, and eventually worked his way up to the chairmanship of Grey Eagle, the exclusive distributorship for the county.

Grey Eagle made $90 million in 1992, so Clinton lives splendidly.

But the NFL wanted $140 million for an expansion team.

This is the difference between a guy who drives a Rolls-Royce and a guy who never has to drive at all. Clinton's money wasn't serious enough for the NFL.

Oh, he tried. He lined up with James Busch Orthwein, who is worth $700 million and who owned the New England Patriots.

Later, he courted Pittsburgh riverboat owner John Connelly and Houston businessman Robert McNair.

But he replaced Orthwein as chairman of the St. Louis Football Partnership on Sept. 9, three weeks before the NFL rewarded Charlotte and put St. Louis on hold.

At the second NFL meeting, three St. Louis "representatives" made presentations -- Clinton, Philadelphia wheeler-dealer Fran Murray ("he got a sitting ovation," quipped Cleveland owner Art Modell) and the Gateway group, led by Stan Kroenke and including Connelly and five heavy St. Louis hitters. Precisely the big-money types that couldn't, or wouldn't, align with Clinton.

The Gateway group had everything but a stadium lease, 30 percent of which belonged to Clinton. He wouldn't let it go, and the NFL took note.

"I can't come out of this with nothing," Clinton said at one point. "You think this community wants me to be stripped in the middle of the road and left there."

When Wayne Weaver, Jacksonville's sole owner, walked away with the second new team, St. Louis felt betrayed.

Investor Walter Payton observed the overall selfishness and said, "Pigs get fat; hogs get slaughtered."

"All the other cities continued to gain momentum," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said, "because St. Louis had to spend a lot of time on other things."

"Clinton muddied the waters," charged Chuck Knight of the Gateway group.

Clinton said he wanted $8 million for his part of the lease. Later, he amended it to $3 million plus a 10 percent share of the lease.

Eventually, he was bluffing. The lease would expire automatically in 1997 if St. Louis got no team.

Missouri state Sen. John Schneider, the head of the Judiciary Committee, rumbled about breaking the lease.

More important, Westfall and St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley formed Football At the New Stadium (FANS Inc.), a nonprofit corporation that would acquire the lease and hold it for a new team.

On Tuesday, Westfall said that Clinton had become "more realistic" and that FANS Inc. would buy the lease "shortly."

The Rams? Before expansion, John Shaw met separately, and briefly, with Clinton and Kroenke. There is no hurry.

Baltimore blusters about a Feb. 15 deadline, but that will come and go. The Rams don't have to do anything. Moving is unnatural and painful.

But they see apathy and the Raiders outside their window, and they see pieces finally coming together in St. Louis. A gleaming stadium, a market unto themselves. Many teams have faced that choice. Long ago, the Cleveland Rams did.

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