PART 1: Why the Orioles flew the coop

The untold story of the Dodgertown

Spring Training negotiationsBy Ian M. Love, Managing Editor

The Baltimore Orioles are headed to Sarasota, and Vero Beach will never again be the Spring Training home of a major league baseball team. But could last year’s negotiations have brought the Orioles to Dodgertown to replace the Los Angeles Dodgers?  Were the Orioles ever serious about Vero, or were they always leading Vero on while trying to leverage a better deal elsewhere?

At last, the detailed story of the negotiations can be told. obtained the first look at hundreds of pages of confidential documents and e-mail exchanges surrounding the dealings between the negotiators representing Indian River County and the Orioles.  Here is the inside three-part story of what really happened.

Part 1: The Two Sides Meet

Even now, more than eight months after the collapse of the sometimes serene, often contentious talks that marked the year-long negotiation between the Baltimore Orioles and county officials over Dodgertown, none of the participants or those close to the discussions questions that a deal could have been struck to keep baseball in Vero Beach.

In fact, at one point the negotiators put together what they thought was a deal the principals could sign.  But within weeks, amidst charges that Indian River County was setting artificial deadlines and accusations that Baltimore was basically seeking to renegotiate the entire agreement, the deal was dead — and the two sides have not spoken substantively since.

From documents, copies of e-mails, and talks with many of the key participants, a picture emerges of negotiations that began in good faith and ended with the two negotiators (both lawyers) engaging in a testy exchange over whether the controversial confidentially agreement Baltimore had insisted on was still in effect after the county had ended talks and pulled its final offer off the table.

 The talks actually stretch back to 2007 when the Dodgers first made clear their plans to abandon their spring training home and former Maryland state Senator Frank Kelly, who owns a home at the Orchid Island Golf and Beach Club, reached out to his friend, Orioles owner Peter Angelos, and suggested Vero Beach as an alternative to his team’s present home in Fort Lauderdale.

“When I heard the Dodgers might be leaving, I called Peter (Angelos) and said, ‘You ought to consider Vero Beach.  It is made to order for the Orioles,'” said Kelly. “Peter Angelos listened and said he had never been there before but that he would take a look. Then I got a call from Peter in February or March that he had talked to (Dodgers owner) Frank McCourt and he was really interested in coming to Vero. “

Kelly, who served throughout the process as an interested party but was never part of either side in the negotiations, next heard from Angelos’ lawyer, Alan Rifkin, with whom he had worked in Baltimore when Camden Yards first came into existence. Rifkin was to be the lead in the talks for the Orioles along with Angelos’ son, John.  Rifkin has been described by all as a tough negotiator.

“Shortly after that, Alan called me and said he’d love for the Orioles to come to Vero, but the devil was in details and he had to get the lay of the land. Rifkin came and really liked what he saw, and told John to come up (from Fort Lauderdale) and see the place and John came up later that same day.”

Senator Kelly was heartened by the Orioles’ response and thought everything was on track at this early stage. County Administrator Joe Baird agreed.

“It started out as a simple deal,” Baird said. “They were going to assume the Dodgers’ lease. They had met with Frank McCourt, and I was invited over because they were going to assume the agreement, but there was some money that was going to change hands between the Dodgers and the Orioles. It was the third or fourth meeting, and Alan Rifkin walks in and all of a sudden Alan Rifkin says: ‘I don’t know why I am talking to you guys (the Dodgers), because you don’t have any rights, the county does. I don’t need you.’ So that was the end of that.”

Part 2 Tomorrow: The Devil IS in the Details.

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