Abe Pollin

Capital Centre

Landover, Md.

Dear Abe,

Ever see Orville Redenbacher on television?

He's the popcorn fellow who created corn so good every kernel pops fluffy. Orville wears his bow tie and tells TV customers his popcorn is wonderful. His name is on the label. He's proud of his popcorn.

Product/owner identification is common, not only with winners like Redenbacher's.

When Chrysler begged Uncle Sam for a loan guarantee, Lee Iacocca was out front. In Chrysler's TV commercials, Iacocca explained how he, the big boss, believed in his product.

I bring this up, Abe, because I'm trying to figure out what you're doing with the Bullets and the Capitals.

You built Capital Centre 10 years ago and brought in basketball and hockey teams. You once said, "I am the Bullets." You were proud. You won an NBA championship, went to the White House, rode through Washington in a triumphant parade.

Now you're hiding. You've made maybe three public appearances in the last year: for Wes Unseld's retirement, for Bobby Carpenter's signing and, this Tuesday, for a ceremony retiring Unseld's jersey.

I was stunned Tuesday when the crowd booed you. It had to hurt to be booed by your paying customers in your own building while you did a classy thing for Wes. You must wonder what happened.

I think they booed because they don't understand what you're doing with the Bullets.

They don't understand because you have given them no explanation. You have adopted the worst possible public relations strategy. You're not talking to customers anymore.

Sports owners talk to customers through the media. You have refused all interview requests for six months.

Near the end of last basketball season, I asked you about rumors you wanted to sell the whole shebang -- the Bullets, the Caps and the Capital Centre. You wouldn't say yes or no. You said you'd talk about it later. You have refused every subsequent request for an interview.

What's going on, Abe?

Your customers deserve an answer.

It would be bad business to say you want to sell. If you say the franchises are for sale, customers might stay home, figuring why give you money when you want to go out of business?

My best guess is that you do want to sell the franchises. And because you don't want to lie to anybody, you're avoiding press inquiries on the subject.

The wiser course would be to defuse the speculation with a simple declaration that anything can be bought for the right price. Then, Abe, move on to reassuring customers that you're working like hell to give them a product you're proud of.

The customers know good popcorn when they taste it, and they know bad basketball and hockey when they see it.

They see you cut the Bullet payroll by maybe $1 million. They see you spend five No. 1 draft choices for four guards -- yes, four little-bitty guards in a game dominated by giant centers. They see you pick up castoffs to fill your roster.

The basketball customers deserve an explanation from you, not from the general manager or the coach. George Steinbrenner is vulgar and coarse, certainly, but Yankee customers know what the big boss wants done.

Until you make an effort at communicating with customers, they can surmise you have lost the passionate interest you once had. They can think you tighten the budget to make the Bullets attractive to buyers. They can think you're not giving them a product worth their money.

They can, Abe, boo your socks off.

Hockey customers have legitimate questions, too. When you clean house -- firing the general manager, coach and assistant coach -- you need to tell the customers why. Where did Max McNab and Gary Green go wrong? What are your hopes for the Caps, and how will you use the customers' money to reach your goals?

Tell the customers if it's true you're more interested in the Bullets than the Caps. If you don't tell customers what you're doing, Abe, they'll assume you don't have the foggiest idea.

Because it hurts an owner to fire a loyal coach who doesn't win, it is understandable you wouldn't want to discuss it. Jack Kent Cooke didn't want to talk about firing Jack Pardee, but he did. He felt an obligation to Redskin fans. When he hired Joe Gibbs, Cooke precisely outlined what he wanted: enthusiasm, excitement and a team capable of contending forever.

You fired Tommy McVie, Danny Belisle and now Gary Green -- all without a word of explanation. What do you want in a coach? Where have these fellows failed?

Instead of answers, you give your customers a Howard Hughes act. You hide from the press. Your publicity office puts out a three-sentence release of bare details, not even on a Caps' letterhead.

Imagine this, Abe. Say you bought Orville Redenbacher's popcorn and the stuff didn't pop. Then you notice that Orville, once on TV a lot, takes himself out of the commercials. What would you think of that?

A lot of people would think Orville didn't want to brag about his popcorn anymore. They would think, maybe, he's ashamed of his product.

In which case, Orville wouldn't do interviews, either.