In his latest set of multiple negotiations to sell the Baltimore Orioles, Jerry Hoffberger finally may have outwitted himself.
After rebuffing a solid offer from former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon, the Orioles' principal owner turned his attention to a group of Baltimore businessmen formed out of fear that Simon would get the club and move it to Washington.
But there are growing indications that the group -- earnest, civic-minded, reputable persons -- will not get American League approval of its current financial proposals for buying and operating the team.
If the group does not revise its plans, particularly those for raising operating funds, Hoffberger may run the club again this season, barring a fresh offer from others he says are waiting in the wings.
He also could reopen negotiations with Simon who withdrew his $12 million bid in disgust, likening Hoffberger's bargaining tactics to "dealing with the Scarlet Pimpernel."
But that would take a strong attack of business sense to overcome the enjoyment (read: ego) of being "Mr. Baltimore Orioles." Without the baseball link, Hoffberger becomes just another millionaire, and even his philanthropic activities -- undertaken with modesty -- do not give him the public exposure he apparently craves.
While formally shunning publicity and even ordering news blackouts, Hoffberger has carried on widely publicized negotiations to sell the club to various bidders over the last few years.
He says he wants out, to devote more time to family and charities. But his credibility has worn thin as time after time he slams the door on legitimate bidders, with nary an explanation for his change of heart. He is getting a reputation akin to Charlie Finley's and that is not a reputation someone wanting to sell a ball club should foster.
Those trying to make an honest business deal don't like to be insulted, let alone publicly.And the fans, that poor beleaguered lot, are becoming more alienated with each Hoffberger threat to sell. Quite simply, he wants to have his club and sell it, too. He has offered the Baltimore businessmen a $4 million loan at 6 percent interest to be repaid in five years.
In return, Hoffberger wants to maintain an active role in the club, staying on as board chairman or picking up the new post of president for the duration of the loan. That proposal does not sit well with some in the group who want a fresh start, a "new" product to sell.
The loan would be part of $12 million the group hopes to raise to buy the club from Hoffberger and his loan offer has been interpreted in some circles as a reaffirmation of his loyalty to Baltimore.
Simon has said he never intended to move the club to Washington, although others say he was intrigued with the idea of a split franchise and even the possibility of a stadium between the two cities.
But, first, Simon was committed to making the Oriole franchise a success in Baltimore, to staving off the growing financial losses and decreasing attendance. A Washington connection would come -- inevitably, those in baseball believe -- later.
But the Baltimore group equated a sale to Simon with the loss of the club and at a time when the city, undergoing extensive downtown renovation, could least afford to lose such an asset.
Prodded by Baltimore Mayor William D. Schaefer, the businessmen formed a core group of 32 persons, a number which is growing with each new snag in their efforts to raise the $12 million.
The original plans were many, but most entailed the group's raising $6 million on its own and finding private investors elsewhere for the remainder. When two possible Detroit investors faded from the picture, there was talk of borrowing from the state.
Later, other concepts were proposed, including a bond issue. By last week, the plan called for the group to borrow the $4 million from Hoffberger and then use $2 million in the Oriole treasury to meet the $12 million price tag.
The $2 million in the treasury was to be replenished by an intrastate stock offering, but by Thursday the mayor said there were difficulties with that approach. The money probably would have to come from an expanded group, the mayor said.
Aside from raising the $12 million to buy the club, the group also faced the problem of finding operating funds. Last year, it cost $7.5 million to operate all aspects of the club, and the Orioles ended up with $234,141 in losses.
The proposals for raising revenue vary according to the member speaking, but an aggresive campaign to sell season tickets is the one most frequently discussed. Local business corporations are being tapped for tickets in the drive to raise $2 million for cash-flow purposes.
The group also has proposed that the city and state help cover future operating losses by agreeing to pay $250,000 each over each of the next five years -- by outright loans, grants or the waiver of admission taxes.
If the Orioles were lost because the local group could not raise sufficient funds, the financial loss to the city and state would be almost $20 million, the mayor said.
Gov. Harry Hughes, equally anxious to keep the club in Baltimore, had reservations about the precedent and political wisdom of such aid. Schaefer says the city will provide all $500,000 if the state won't help.
At a statehouse hearing on the funds proposal last week, some of the delegates also questioned the group's ability to raise adequate operating capital.
Del. R. Clayton Mitchell (D-Kent), noting the escalating salaries of freeagent players, remarked, "Without superstars, you're not going to attract the crowds... and this costs a lot of money."
The legislators in Annapolis are not the only ones questioning the group's financial proposals. American League owners and executives, who must approve the sale, also have doubts.
Because no formal proposals have been made to the league, there is a reluctance among some club executives contacted to rule anything out. The group's plans could change, they point out.
Ostensibly, the plans to raise the $12 million meet the league's minimum requirement of a 60-40 ratio of equity to debt. But that alone will not guarantee league approval, sources said.
The plans for raising operating capital are of particular concern for both the immediate and long-range success of the club.
The initial reaction of league people to the group's plans was not favorable.
Asked if the league would reject the group's plans as they stand now, an owner said, "That is probably a valid conclusion." Still others said they expected the group would have "problems" gaining approval.
Surprisingly, members of the group have not contacted the league about the probable acceptance of their plans. Hoffberger, though, has been advising them as they go along, one said.