San Diego's loss could be Virginia's gain

January 23, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO -- The deal that brought the Super Bowl back to San Diego ultimately might be remembered as the deal that drove major-league baseball out of town.

"That's oversimplifying it," Padres president Larry Lucchino said yesterday, and perhaps he is right. But such is the anger over the new NFL agreement, San Diegans might be reluctant to finance a new ballpark for the Padres.

The Montreal Expos remain the leading candidate to move to Northern Virginia, but the Padres could make it a race to the D.C. suburbs if their proposed ballpark gets voted down.

"There is resentment over the nature of that deal," Lucchino said. "Hopefully, a successful Super Bowl will demonstrate to people some of its real value, not just the negative aspects of the deal, but the positive as well."

San Diego expanded the former Jack Murphy Stadium by 10,000 seats to land its first Super Bowl in 10 years. The Chargers' lease didn't expire until 2003, but the city reaffirmed its commitment to the team as part of the package.

The new deal provided the Chargers with a new practice facility, a lease extension through 2020 and a guarantee of 60,000 general admission tickets sold per game.

But the guarantee quickly became a problem.

The Chargers' lackluster attendance cost the city about $1.3 million in rebates last season, damaging the mayor's popularity in a conservative town that is appalled by the idea of subsidizing professional sports owners.

For the Padres, the timing could not have been worse. They won the NL West title in 1996, before they were ready to campaign for a new park. Now they're ready to proceed, and it might be too late.

"My biggest concern in this, frankly, is that even though we're bystanders, we're going to be tarred with the same brush," owner John Moores said in October.

Perhaps the Padres' only hope is to make like the '95 Seattle Mariners, and sway the public by reaching the postseason. This might be their last chance for some time, with Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley and Wally Joyner eligible for free agency.

Moores sent a message to the fans by approving the addition of Florida's Kevin Brown, but Lucchino said the Padres are not going to be this year's Marlins. They might even trade a salary to keep the payroll in the $42 million range.

"It's different than the Marlins' situation in one major respect -- degree," Lucchino said. "We're not going to spend that kind of money. But there is extra pressure on us brought about by the political dimension."

The vote is expected in November. If it fails, Lucchino could emerge as the frontman for a group that purchases the club from Moores -- the same way he did for Eli Jacobs when Edward Bennett Williams sold the Orioles in 1988.

And then?

Hello, Northern Virginia -- if the Expos don't get there first.

Lucchino retains ties to the Baltimore and Washington areas -- he's even a Ravens season-ticket holder. He made it clear that his preference is to remain in San Diego, but he has no choice but to keep his options open.

"I love San Diego, I really do," Lucchino said. "I miss Baltimore enormously. But I don't want to leave. It's a great professional challenge to make baseball work here. I really want to do it.

"I've got one of the great partners on the face of the earth [Moores]. He loves it here. He wants to stay here. This is where we want to make it work. But we're not willing to subsidize baseball indefinitely for San Diego."

Northern Virginia?

"I think there is very little chance they will get an expansion team," Lucchino said. "There is no appetite in baseball for expansion, none. That's sensible -- you don't expand a business unless the business is solid.

"So, the question becomes will there be a relocation to Northern Virginia? That's impossible to predict. There are some teams with leases expiring. Ours is one of them.

"I suspect it is likely there will be some movement of teams -- as there should be. At one point, people thought teams should belong to cities for eternities. That shouldn't be the case.

"It's a harsh thing to say. But cities change, owners change, the connection between the two changes. Who would ever have thought that a city like Phoenix would be a great baseball city 20 years ago?"

And who would have ever thought that the man who helped create the Orioles' Baltimore-Washington monopoly might one day return to break it?

The last team to relocate was the Washington Senators, who left for Texas in 1971. The Expos or Padres could not move without approval from three-fourths of the National League owners, and a majority of American League owners.

How would Lucchino have felt if a team had relocated to Northern Virginia during his tenure with the Orioles?

"I would have had some concerns, naturally," he said. "You'd like to have as big and broad a market as possible."

Whatever, Lucchino is not convinced that the Padres are finished in San Diego. In fact, he thinks the furor over the Chargers' new deal actually might enhance his team's case.

"One could argue that it could accelerate the ballpark process," Lucchino said. "The situation in a multi-purpose facility was fairly untenable, anyway. And it was made that much worse by the Chargers' expansion."

Then there's the Tony Gwynn factor.

The Padres' legend is closing in on 3,000 hits, and there's considerable "Build it for Tony" sentiment in the city.

"I don't want to wear a Northern Virginia Whatevers hat in the last year of my contract," Gwynn said in October. "I've thought about it. It's been on my mind for two years. But those guys [Moores and Lucchino] deserve a chance to make some money. They've done everything right."

And now, they want their new park.

"We are not building Camden Yards West," Lucchino said. "As great as Camden Yards is, as proud of that as I am, that was then, this is now. That was Baltimore, this is San Diego. We're going to build a ballpark that looks and tastes like San Diego."

Lucchino paused.

"If we're lucky enough to get the chance."

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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