The Giants are coming! The news was received in the Tampa Bay area with jubilation. On Aug. 7 a five-man consortium announced that it had reached an agreement to buy the San Francisco Giants for $111 million and that it hoped to move the team to the Florida Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg in time for next season. Phone lines at an office set up to handle pledges for season tickets were knocked out by the deluge of calls. On Aug. 8 The Tampa Tribune published overnight a special 20-page section devoted to the Giants and had more demand from advertisers than the section could accommodate. Radio station WFLA aired two Giant games, on Aug. 8 and 9, and a driver on his way to a department store with bootleg T-shirts emblazoned with TAMPA BAY LOVES THE GIANTS had his entire cargo heisted off the back of his truck by frenzied fans.
The Giants are leaving! In the San Francisco Bay Area, the news was met with resignation. When the club returned on Aug. 10 for its first home game since the announcement, 14,691 fans turned out at Candlestick Park, the second-smallest crowd in the majors that night. On the dank, wind-whipped field, the color guard was nearly lifted aloft as it gamely clutched its flagpoles before the game. Occasionally a halfhearted cheer—Say hey, Fay, make them stay—wafted through the stands. The headline in the San Francisco Chronicle on Aug. 11 read: DEPARTING TEAM BEATS ASTROS 4-1.
While it is not yet certain that the sale of the Giants will receive baseball's requisite approval—commissioner Fay Vincent, the eight-man ownership committee and 10 teams in the National League and a majority of the American League owners all must give their O.K.—the first franchise relocation since the Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers in 1972 seems more than likely. At an owners' meeting in June, after noting the financial losses of Giant owner Bob Lurie and the shortcomings of Candlestick Park, Vincent said that the team met his criteria for moving. And a straw poll in the Aug. 16 edition of the San Francisco Examiner indicated that 11 of 12 National League owners and 12 of 14 American League owners would approve the sale.
"One thing going for the deal is that everyone likes Bob Lurie a lot," says Philadelphia Phillie owner Bill Giles. "If he makes an appeal to everyone, he'll probably get enough votes."
The deal is a good bet to go through if Lurie receives no other offers for the Giants. One erstwhile white knight, H. Irving Grousbeck, cofounder of Continental Cablevision in Boston, examined the club's books last week and then rode off into the sunset after declaring that the Giants were looking at annual losses in San Francisco of $10 million beginning in 1994. Berkeley-based sports agent Leigh Steinberg has cobbled together a group of investors that includes George Shinn. owner of the NBA's Charlotte Hornets, but at week's end the syndicate had not presented a counteroffer. ""Under the white-wine, Brie-cheese, hot-tub image of the Bay Area, there's a passionate group of sports fans," says Steinberg, "and you'll see them come to the fore."
Whatever the outcome, the saga of the Giants is not a tale of two cities but of four.
On six previous occasions, dating back to 1984, investors in the Tampa Bay area took their cuts at landing a major league team and whiffed every time. Even before a single owner expressed a desire to move his team to Tampa-St. Petersburg, the 43,000-seat Suncoast Dome was under construction. Pinellas County lawmakers had approved the expenditure of $85 million in public funds for the stadium, which meant that no referendum was required. (The cost has since swelled to $138 million.) During the last four years, both the Chicago White Sox and the Seattle Mariners have flirted with occupying the stadium, and only a last-minute collapse of financing knocked Tampa-St. Pete out of the running for one of the two 1993 expansion teams, which were awarded to Denver and Miami. The five million folks within a 100-mile radius of the Dome want baseball: Some 20,000 of them have standing $50 pledges for season tickets.
Past failures may help Tampa-St. Pete land the Giants. First, because the area has been rebuffed so many times, it will have the sentimental support of some major league owners. And experience with the financial difficulties encountered by previous investment groups has made Tampa-area boosters savvy. Major League Baseball requires the prospective buyer of a team to have at least 60% of the purchase price available in cash. Jack Critchfield, the head of a civic committee dedicated to securing a team, has made sure that that requirement is being met this time. "The money is there," says Critchfield of the consortium, which is headed by Vincent Naimoli, CEO of Tampa-based Anchor Industries, Inc. In addition, the potential owners have a written promise from Lurie that he will not sell the Giants to anyone else until baseball renders its verdict on the deal.
Having the Giants in the Tampa Bay area might also smooth Vincent's efforts to realign the National League, a move the Chicago Cubs are fighting—successfully so far—in court. Last month Vincent announced that the Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals would leave the Eastern Division for the West and that the Cincinnati Reds and the Atlanta Braves would join the East. The Cubs sued to remain in the East partly because the change would result in more West Coast games for them. That, in turn, would mean fewer TV viewers in Chicago and points east for the games being aired late at night on WGN, the superstation owned by the Cubs' parent, the Tribune Company. But should the Giants go to St. Petersburg (they would probably join the East, while the Reds would stay in the West), only the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres would remain in the Pacific time zone, and the Cubs could play a maximum of 20 games on the West Coast—only two more than they do now.
When Wayne Huizenga, the owner of the expansion Florida Marlins, learned of the
Tampa Bay area's impending coup, he interrupted his cruise off the Alaska coast to place a congratulatory call to Critchfield. Huizenga, the CEO of Blockbuster Enterprises, has said he "supports" the arrival of another team in Florida and welcomes "a friendly cross-state rivalry." More likely he would prefer that baseball fans in the Tampa Bay area tune into Marlin games.
Earlier this season, as the Mariners pondered a move to the Tampa Bay area, which is 200 miles from Miami, Marlin president Carl Barger questioned the fairness of "the big losers in the expansion race becoming the big winners." That statement prompted Huizenga, with Barger at his side, to hop on his jet to St. Petersburg to assure the populace that he was all in favor of intrastate competition. But one National League owner says that Huizenga and Barger remain opposed to having another team in Florida during the Marlins' rookie year. Having shelled out $95 million for the Miami franchise, and needing another $35 million in start-up costs, Huizenga could end up spending $19 million more for a less competitive team than the investors in Tampa Bay will have paid for the 110-year-old Giants. As a result, Huizenga, despite his cordial gesture toward Critchfield, has demanded that any new owners in Florida pay a $35 million "fairness fee" to the Marlins, though few expect that to happen.
However, the Miami and Tampa Bay markets do not overlap any more than do those of the Reds and the Cleveland Indians in Ohio or the Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates in Pennsylvania. The red-hot sales of the teal-colored Marlin caps—200,000 were snapped up in five weeks, or half the number the Chicago White Sox sold in their record cap-selling season of 1991—won't be damaged by the Giants' arrival; fans in Tampa-St. Pete, angered that Huizenga scooped up the expansion franchise they had long sought, haven't bought many Marlin caps anyway. Indeed, Tampa-St. Pete saloons have been known to eject patrons wearing Marlin paraphernalia, and some Tampa Bay residents have even boycotted Blockbuster stores. It now looks as if the Marlins will replace the Dodgers as the team that stirs the bile in Giant fans.
By allowing the Giants to move to Florida, baseball will be ceding the state to the National League, but Northern California will then belong to the American League. While Florida is the fourth-fastest-growing state in the country, the San Francisco Bay Area is the fourth largest market in the U.S. The proposed move, it seems, benefits both leagues.
The A's, in the rapidly growing East Bay, stand to gain immensely. Although their fan base won't immediately swell—true San Franciscans refuse to acknowledge the existence of Oakland, three miles away—over time it probably will. The real windfall for the A's will be the team's broadcast contracts, which expire at the end of this season. As many as six radio and six TV stations are expected to bid for the rights to Oakland games, and the A's could reap as much as twice the $8 million in fees they now receive. Andy Dolich, the team's vice-president of business operations, is in charge of the negotiations. "Everybody wants to talk to Andy," says Kevin O'Brien, general manager of KTVU-TV, which has owned the Giants' TV rights since the team moved from New York in 1958.
One thing should be clear: Having owned the Giants for 17 years, Lurie is fed up not with his native Bay Area but with Candlestick Park. The cold, damp and windy Stick has been the primary reason for the team's lackluster attendance, which topped out at 2.06 million in 1989, the last time the Giants won the pennant. Last season the Giants drew 1.7 million fans. Only the Montreal Expos and Houston Astros in the National League, and the Indians, Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers in the American fared worse.
Lurie's related headache is that whatever Giant fans there are in the Bay Area are not willing to help pay for the construction of a more pleasant place in which to watch their team. Twice in San Francisco, once in nearby Santa Clara County and most recently in San Jose, Lurie has succeeded in having a referendum placed on the ballot asking citizens to vote for bond issues to finance a new stadium. Each time the measure was voted down. "In baseball, it's three strikes and you're out," says Giant first baseman Will Clark. "He's given them four strikes."
San Francisco isn't out—yet. With the city facing a loss of $30 million in Giant-related revenues, not to mention its big league status, Mayor Frank Jordan has enlisted Steinberg's aid in assembling potential buyers. The chamber of commerce has organized a drive for season-ticket pledges. And last week San Francisco supervisor Angela Alioto—whose father, Joseph, a former mayor of the city, represented Al Davis in his suit against the NFL, the result of which allowed Davis to defy the league and move the Raiders from Oakland to L.A.—released plans for a privately financed ballpark at the railroad yards downtown. She declared that the stadium would be built for a major league team, even if that team were not the Giants. The money for the new park could come from 27 unions in the area whose leaders have agreed to free up as much as $200 million in pension funds for a new facility. Alioto's stadium plan, however, was developed before Lurie agreed to sell the Giants to the Tampa Bay group, and the unions said last week that they will not contribute toward the stadium if there is no team.
Because the owners will, among other business, be reviewing the proposed sale of two other teams, the Astros and the Tigers, at their quarterly meeting in St. Louis beginning on Sept. 9, it is doubtful if they will have time to complete discussions about the Giants' move. The longer approval takes, the more time San Francisco has to drum up a counteroffer. If financing for a new stadium has been secured and sound local investors have been lined up to buy the team, baseball's ownership would probably block Lurie from peddling the Giants elsewhere. Says Alioto, "We have not fought hard enough to keep this team."
But while San Francisco politicians may see this as a fight worth waging, are they in sync with their constituents? A poll in June found that 35% of the populace deemed keeping the Giants "very important," while 40% said it was "not important." In another poll last week, 48% of the respondents said they believe Jordan has spent too much time on the Giants. A call-in campaign to Vincent petered out in a few days. Grass-roots protests are not on the rise.
Steinberg has said that he doesn't want his six-year-old son to grow up without a team. But as Giant outfielder Cory Snyder points out, "They've got kids in St. Petersburg, too." And, apparently, a greater interest in major league baseball.
FRED KAPLAN/BACK STAR
The warmth of Lurie's early days as owner faded in the chill winds of Candlestick...
...and as a result of his troubles, there is good news for baseball-hungry Floridians.
San Francisco's ballpark (top) can't hold a candle to the unlovely, but toasty, Dome.
[See caption above.]