Cooke Shows Why He's a Billionaire

February 27, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Listening to Jack Kent Cooke cast his spell for a couple of hours is a treat. It isn't often you get to hear about Hollywood women and the fourth Mrs. Cooke from one of America's billionaires.

All the juicy stuff, though, was off the record. That's Mr. Cooke's style: He tempts you with wonderful yarns, then pledges you to silence.

When he visited The Sun last week for a chat with some editors and reporters to tell his side of the Laurel stadium story, he frustrated and amused those assembled. He dominates any conversation. Yet he doesn't answer many questions directly. He won't let you pin him down. Nor does he admit that there are two sides to the argument.

Will he go ahead and build his stadium in Laurel? ''I don't know.''

Does he own the land outright or did he just purchase options from Joe De Francis? ''I won't tell you.''

Would he veto a Baltimore team in the National Football League? ''It's not pertinent.''

Does he want the legislature to de-authorize bond money for a Baltimore football stadium? ''I don't care.''

But he does care. Boy, does he ever. In one of the few moments he revealed his true feelings, Mr. Cooke was asked if he would build his Laurel stadium were Baltimore to gain an NFL team. His response, ''I doubt that very much.''

And then the next day, he reversed his field and issued a statement to the effect that he'd build his Laurel stadium ''come hell or high water.'' A few moments later, though, he again cast doubt on such a move if Baltimore gets a team.

This guy is a piece of work.

Mr. Cooke's underlying point comes through loud and clear: He doesn't think two NFL clubs can co-exist 15 miles apart -- especially when the Baltimore club will be subsidized by the state, which would build the team a stadium and give it a sweetheart lease.

The fact that two NFL clubs co-existed in Washington and Baltimore for decades is swept aside by Mr. Cooke. He won't entertain any thought that the two regions are distinct entities, with big -- but quite separate -- sports markets.

Baltimore, to him, is a declining city. Just look at the population figures, for goodness sake! When he's told the Baltimore region continues to thrive, he notes the NFL only wants fast-growing cities.

There's no stopping him. Inconsistencies never get in his way. At one point, he stresses the new stadium won't have much impact on Laurel because it will only be used eight times a year. It can handle a few traffic jams.

Then he turns around and proclaims Greater Laurel the epicenter of the Mid-Atlantic megalopolis, a boom town waiting to happen. Why, his stadium would spur hotels and office complexes and buildings galore. It would even increase The Sun's circulation!

It's difficult to suppress a chuckle when Mr. Cooke gets worked up. It's delightful to watch. All he wants is for Baltimore to toss in the towel and forget about an NFL team -- forever -- and transfer its loyalties to his Redskins. And what does Baltimore get in return? Not a single ticket to the Laurel stadium, not a single economic spin-off, not a single positive benefit.

Mr. Cooke, on the other hand, gets a chance to sell Baltimore-area businesses his skyboxes and club seats. He gets a chance to milk the Baltimore pay-per-view TV market some day. And he gets a stranglehold on two major regions.

Only one thing stands in his way, he thinks: William Donald Schaefer. To Mr. Cooke, the governor is obsessed about bringing NFL football to Baltimore. He is as hard as granite on this point. Mr. Cooke can't understand why the governor does not open his arms and accept his offer to build a Redskins stadium in Laurel.

Mr. Cooke misses the point. It's not just the governor who is leery of his offer. Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening, a candidate for governor, thinks the Redskins offer comes with too many unknowns and should be rejected. And a solid bloc of Baltimore-region senators feels strongly that the governor is right to keep pushing for a Baltimore team: They will filibuster any attempt by the chief Cooke booster, Senate President Mike Miller, to kill a city football stadium.

It's not nearly as simple as Mr. Cooke portrays it. But he has a vision that he wants to turn into reality. He's done it countless times before, often against the odds. That's why he's a billionaire.

This time, though, he may have met his match in Governor Schaefer. No wonder Mr. Cooke is so frustrated. When he sees Donald Schaefer's obsessive determination and resolve, he must feel like he's looking at a mirror-image of himself.

Yet by the time all this is sorted out, both men could be satisfied. Mr. Cooke may not get all he's seeking, but he should come out of this a big winner. And if Peter Angelos proves as good a poker player in buying an NFL club as he did when buying a baseball team, Mr. Schaefer could leave office a contented fellow.

* * *

MEA CULPA: Oops! Thanks to those Chicagoans who noted historical flubs in last week's column.

It was not Jane Byrne who succeeded Richard J. Daley as mayor of Chicago; nor did Mrs. Byrne's mayoral career collapse because she couldn't get the snow off Chicago's streets fast enough.

It was the hapless Michael Bilandic who came after the legendary Dick Daley and collided head-on with the Blizzard of '79. His inept street-cleaning efforts led to his defeat at the hands of Mrs. Byrne, the former commissioner of consumer affairs under Boss Daley.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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