PART 2: 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.  VeroNews.com  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 story of what really happened.

In Part 1 we explored how the Orioles and the County first got together to talk about Dodgertown.

In Part 2, “The Devil IS in the Details,” VeroNews.com reveals some never before released exchanges between the parties and breaks down how the deal evolved.

Part 2: The Devil IS in the Details

After five more months of fitful discussions, the Orioles and the county on Dec. 10, 2007 entered into an option agreement whereby they would negotiate exclusively upon the Dodgers announcing they were vacating their lease. But ‘exclusively’ meant one thing for the Orioles, and another for Indian River County.  The pact allowed Baltimore to continue to explore options at their current Spring Training home of Fort Lauderdale, while the county was not permitted to talk with any other teams.

County Administrator Joe Baird has been roundly criticized for signing a confidentiality agreement, and not keeping the county’s options open to talk to other teams.

“It was a judgment call,” he said. “We met with several people, we met with Maryland state Senator Frank Kelly with (Baltimore top negotiator) Alan Rifkin, the commissioners came in, and each one of them signed an agreement. I will say just about every company you are dealing with wants to have that done.”

Baird also disclosed for the first time that the county did put out back channel feelers to the Boston Red Sox when it briefly looked like they might be searching for a new Spring Training home, but the Boston brass quickly rebuffed those inquiries saying they preferred to stay on Florida’s West Coast.

Baird also is clearly pained by suggestions made in the wake of the collapse of the talks that he was outmaneuvered by a superior Orioles negotiating team.  The county, he emphasizes, had its own high-priced negotiator – Robert Reid of Bryant Miller Olive, a Tallahassee-based law firm – who was paid $52,515 for representing the county in the talks.  Reid earlier had negotiated the pact with the Dodgers.

During the first half of 2008, discussions between Reid and the Orioles’ Rifkin generated three drafts of a Memorandum of Understanding stating the terms and conditions under which the Orioles would come to Vero Beach. Among the things the Orioles wanted were significant improvements to Holman Stadium at the county’s expense and to obtain the adjacent golf course from the city to build a retail complex and perhaps a Cal Ripken baseball academy.

The Orioles were willing to accept the same lease terms for Holman Stadium as the Dodgers – rent the facility for one dollar a year and pay all expenses for Dodgertown’s operation – but they wanted to develop other revenue streams on the adjacent golf course.

At this point, the talks became two sets of negotiations.  Rifkin was dealing with Reid and Baird on upgrading Holman Stadium and the Dodgertown grounds, and with Vero Beach City Manager Jim Gabbard and city attorney Charlie Vitunac in seeking development rights to the city-owned golf course.

For the facility, the Orioles wanted to extend the bleachers at Holman Stadium, enlarge the walkways and add luxury boxes. They went so far as creating drawings for the enhanced Holman Stadium (see the art on the front page) and put a price tag of $24 million on the improvements. Baird’s position was that the county could add 1 cent to the tourist tax, which is extracted from hotel room charges, but its budget for improvements was only in the $12 million range.

“Basically, the ongoing dialogue with them was how much money — they loved the facility, plus they wanted to bring the Cal Ripken park as a part of the project,” Baird said.  “So that meant that they had to get the city’s golf course as well as the facility. It really got down to basically how much could we afford.  We looked at refinancing (the $17 million in bonds the county already held as part of the Dodger negotiations), going some additional years and adding a penny to the tourism tax. But that only got us to $12 million, and they were sitting around $20 to $24 million in improvements.”

At this point the county and the Orioles were still moving forward, working on bridging the difference between the improvements the Orioles wanted and the money the county was willing to put out.

At the same time, Rifkin’s talks with the city were becoming increasingly crucial to the Orioles’ plans to make their spring training home a profit center on their books.

Among the possibilities discussed by the Orioles were construction of a Cal Ripken baseball academy, aimed at bringing little leaguers to a multiple diamond baseball facility, as well as building a baseball-themed retail center with shops, restaurants and even a hotel that would serve as the new entrance to the stadium grounds.

Those negotiations with the city were held separate from the county talks, and there remains considerable doubt over whether Cal Ripken was ever serious about building a baseball academy in Vero Beach. In reporting on that subject last summer, officials within the Cal Ripken organization told our sister publication, Vero Beach 32963, there had been a single discussion with the Orioles early on in the negotiations, but nothing substantive beyond that initial contact.

“We were never able to get the wording beyond a Cal Ripken-like project in any of the documents,” Baird said.  “We kept putting it in, and they kept crossing it out.”

However, the Orioles were definitely interested in developing the golf course property for a retail operation and the city seems to have been willing to make that happen. Those talks were a challenge in that they would have required zoning changes to the property which had been designated a green zone, when purchased by the city. Despite the challenges, the city was on board with working with the Orioles and the county to re-zone the property in order to keep Indian River County a spring training destination.

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While Baird was working on whittling down the Orioles price tag for renovations and the city was considering commercial development of their golf course property, there were other issues of concern to the Orioles.  Chief among these was Orioles owner Peter Angelos’ problem that Indian River County is not served by a major airport.

“One negative in Peter’s mind came down to you couldn’t get planes to land at the Vero Beach airport,” Senator Kelly said. 

Angelos would come here in his own jet to size up Vero, staying a number of nights at Quail Valley, and wondered why it would not be possible for Orioles fans to fly directly to Vero Beach from Baltimore’s BWI Airport.

“I know Alan talked to Air Trans and Southwest Airlines and asked if they would be willing to work to bring flights to Vero, but ultimately they decided that just wouldn’t work,” Kelly said.

The two sides also worked at adding to the Vero Beach package the $7 million the state had been willing to give Fort Lauderdale as part of a program to keep major league spring training teams in Florida. The state ultimately rejected that request, but Baltimore and Indian River County representatives both made pitches to be able to add that cash to the pot.

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On July 10, 2008, then Dodgers Vice President Craig Callan hand-delivered to Baird and Gabbard official notification that the Dodgers intended to “terminate the Facility Lease Agreement” and move their spring training operations to Arizona. 

Up to that point the Dodgers had signaled their intention to leave, but were keeping their options open to staying another year until they were sure their new spring training home would be ready for 2009. The Dodgers had until July 15 to notify the County and waited until the final days to make it official.

With that, negotiations began to intensify. The Orioles wanted the county to assume liability for the property, something the county flatly rejected.

“To withstand the next 15 or 20 years as a viable ballpark facility (structurally and operationally), the facility needs $16 to $18 million in capital improvements,” Rifkin wrote to Reid in an e-mail dated July 10, 2008.  “Yet the County is only able to cobble together approximately $8 or $9 million over a 15 year term – leaving the facility exposed over that period of time.

“Under these circumstances, the Orioles are unwilling to assume liability for structural and other major repairs. The ballpark is the County’s asset – and we simply cannot assume the major obligations associated with that facility without the upfront or future resources to do so.”

For his part Baird, recognized the limitations the county faced competing against some of the larger markets for one of the only spring training teams searching for a new home. He knew the county was unlikely to approve any plan that involved a tax increase on residents, and was limited by the comparatively small amount of money the tourist tax could generate.

“We thought we had a great facility, with historical value,” he said. “They liked the facility and the layout of the facility, they just wanted some minor improvements to the stadium. But they tried to put a lot of the liability on us, they wanted us to guarantee the integrity of the stadium, even after their engineer designed it. We couldn’t do that, we told them you hired the engineer and you hired the architect.”

Part Three tomorrow:  The deal Dies

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