PART 3: Why the Orioles flew the coop

The untold story of the DodgertownSpring 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 three-part story of what really happened.

In Part 1 “The Two Sides Get Meet,” VeroNews.com explores how the Orioles and County first got together to discuss a possible Spring Training deal.

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.

In today’s Part 3, VeroNews.com details what when wrong and why the two sides parted ways.

 Part 3: The Deal Dies

By the middle of July, 2008 talks between the county and the Orioles were at a standstill. The county was looking at a Jan. 1 deadline when it would become responsible for the upkeep of Dodgertown, and was becoming increasingly anxious to get something settled.

In an effort to get things moving, the County’s lead negotiatior Bob Reid sent a fifth Memorandum of Understanding to the Orioles dated October 1, stating that the city no longer wanted to be part of the memorandum, but would work with the Orioles to locate a youth baseball academy on the golf course property. The e-mail also gave the Orioles a deadline of 5 p.m. October 10 to agree to the terms of the pact.

“If the Orioles have not accepted the County’s proposed MOU by this time, the County will deem the negotiations with the Orioles to have been concluded, and the County will have no further discussions with the Orioles about their lease of the Dodgertown spring training facility,” the e-mail stated.

The Orioles were said to be very unhappy with the deadline.  While they got an extension until the end of October, they also began talking to other municipalities, most notably Sarasota, which had lost out to Fort Myers in a bidding war for the Boston Red Sox.

But the two sides continued to talk, and in a sign that perhaps a breakthrough had finally been reached, at the end of October County Administrator Joe Baird and Vero Beach City Manager Jim Gabbard were told to bring their tooth brushes and meet the with Baltimore lead negotiator Alan Rifkin in Orlando in order to come to a final agreement to bring the Orioles to Vero Beach.

By all accounts, that is exactly what happened. Over two days, the negotiators put together a package involving improvements to Holman Stadium and some sort of commercial development on the golf course that everyone thought would work.

One of the first people to get the news was Maryland state Senator Frank Kelly, who received calls from both Baird and Rifkin a half hour apart telling him they thought they had a workable deal.

“Joe Baird called me after the meeting and told me he thought he had a deal,” Senator Kelly said. “And within a half an hour Alan called and told me ‘I have something I can show (Orioles owner) Peter Angelos.'”

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But while Indian River County and Vero Beach thought the game was about over, the Orioles appear to have felt the game was just beginning. 

“Alan Rifkin had told Joe and Jim to pack their bags, because I have instructions to not return without a contract,” County Commissioner Peter O’Bryan said. “Joe and Jim were in Orlando for two days and hammered out an agreement, Mr. Rifkin took it back to show to Mr. Angelos. My position was OK, that’s it, we agreed to all this, we negotiated it out and I thought we had a contract, I thought we had a deal.

“And that’s when they started shopping it around. And so we said, ‘Wait a minute, I thought we had an agreement. And now you are using this to shop around and go from there.’ So by Thanksgiving I was already thinking about putting on the agenda to give them a deadline. I talked to Senator Kelly and he said no, give Peter Angelos a little more time.”

In fairness, as both Kelly and Baird have confirmed, Rifkin made it clear at the time the Orlando agreement was initialed that he still intended to talk to Sarasota about their spring training plans.

But for O’Bryan, enough was enough.  “By early December, it was clear that they were not moving forward with us and they were still shopping around. And that’s when we voted 5-0 to give them a deadline of the middle of December.”

The Orioles once again voiced their displeasure about being forced to make a decision (at the time Joe Baird, asked what the Orioles thought about the December 15 deadline, said, “I was told it was unfortunate because the owner does not like deadlines.”)

It was at this point the deal completely fell apart. Facing the middle of December deadline, the Orioles sent what was to become the final Memorandum of Understanding on December 10, marking up the October 28 pact the two sides had worked out in Orlando.

The memorandum came back with 828 changes, including 441 insertions and 227 deletions.

Alan Rifkin told Senator Kelly the changes were minor (to be clear, the Senator never saw any of the drafts of the memorandums). The County took a decidedly different view.

“The draft was sent to us as a response to our deadline,” O’Bryan said. “There were all these wording changes, strikeouts, page after page after page of additional wording, that they called minor technical corrections.

“Some of the new stuff in there was that the city would have to make available all utilities at no charge to the Orioles, that we would guarantee road capacity for all their commercial projects at our cost, they wanted the city to re-zone everything and eliminate all FAA restrictions on the property. That is something For Lauderdale (the Orioles then Spring Training home) couldn’t do and they just put in here that the city of Vero Beach just eliminate all FAA restrictions.

“They wanted a 60-year lease from the city for the commercial land, with two automatic renewals at their discretion and they would have the right to designate a successor without county or city input. They wanted us at our expense to build five or six different driveways into the property, it just went on and on and on with these additional things after the October Come to Jesus meeting that we thought was the deal. That was their response so we voted 5 to zip to rescind our offer, reject theirs and have a 30-day cooling off period.”

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And that essentially ends the story. The two sides never had another meaningful discussion. The Orioles moved on to Sarasota where they recently signed a 30-year, $31 million dollar deal — far below the $65 million they originally sought. The deal is said to include a Cal Ripken-type baseball academy as part of the project.

As for the Orioles ultimate intent, it is difficult to know if they ever were really interested in relocating to Dodgertown.

The two principals in the negotiations, Alan Rifkin and John Angelos, would not comment to VeroNews.com. The only statement the Orioles made was through spokesman Greg Bader:  “The Orioles believe the negotiations were always handled professionally by the County Administrator and ultimately the club simply found a good fit in another community that met more of our needs.”

Senator Kelly, whose sole interest in this was bringing the Baltimore Orioles to Vero Beach under conditions that worked for both sides, is left with disappointment that he will miss out on the chance to watch his team during spring training.

Kelly is also left with some ‘What ifs?’ He is of the opinion that if the County Commissioners had waited out the Orioles negotiations with Sarasota, there might have been a different outcome once Angelos could look at the two deals side by side.

“I just think it is a darn shame,” he said of the outcome.

The county went on to sign a deal with Minor League Baseball, which will bring the possibility of year-round use of the facility rather than just the six weeks of spring training. And the County Commissioners are quite happy to have former Dodgers Vice President Craig Callan back running the operation and Minor League President Pat O’Conner as a partner in the venture.

“Every time I hear Pat O’Conner of Minor League Baseball speak, I say thank goodness the deal ended up the way it did,” O’Bryan said. “He talks about the history of the facility and he talks about Jackie Robinson and he talks about the O’Malleys and you just know that facility is going to be in the best hands for that. I told the Orioles to come in as a partner and not to come in heavy-handed. They didn’t do that and Minor League Baseball did.”

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