Jack Kent Cooke, who has thrown his weight, his words and his wealth around for two years trying to buy a baseball team for Washington, reacted icily yesterday to the news that Bowie Kuhn eventually might join a syndicate of rival investors who might try to beat him to the punch to get a team.
"Whether or not Bowie Kuhn wants to be part of a (group to buy a) baseball team for Washington does not change my thinking on the subject a jot -- not a whit, not a tittle. And I won't resort to iota," said Cooke, owner of the Washington Redskins. "I still want (to buy) a team very strongly and will continue in every way I can to get one."
On Tuesday, former commissioner Kuhn all but threw his hat in the ring as a front man and possible future chairman of the board for a Washington expansion team. Kuhn told The Washington Post that "under certain circumstances" he'd like to be part of such a group of investors "in a senior statesman role." According to both Cooke and Kuhn, neither sees any realistic chance of a partnership between them.
"I have no feeling of a territorial imperative," said Cooke when asked if he resented that others might jump to the head of the parade that he had led. "However, I do find one thing puzzling. Kuhn said that other local Washington investors had not identified themselves for fear of being 'embarrassed' by 'getting too far out in front.'
"It would seem to me that anyone who wanted to buy a team for Washington would view it with pride and therefore announce it, as I have done."
Cooke described himself as the only person who had yet come forward who had the "wherewithal and the willingness" to bear the financial burden of operating an expensive team.
He also has offered to pay $15 million for improvements for RFK Stadium to make it ready for baseball if the D.C. government will, in return, give him a "master lease" that would make him the park's sole tenant for 20 years. It is assumed that any group that Kuhn might join would need to have stadium improvements paid for by the D.C. government.
"Is it better for the public to have me pay for those improvements than to have it be taken out of the taxpayers' pockets?" Cooke asked. "Why, that's a rhetorical question. It answers itself. Emphatically, yes. Incomparably, yes."
Frank Smith, chairman of the D.C. Baseball Commission, pointed out this week that the commission plans to proceed with "a scenario where RFK Stadium will be ready for (baseball) in 1987 regardless of who owns the team."
"I think that is no departure from past plans," said Cooke of the commission's decision to do $5.5 million worth of essential renovation for baseball as soon as a bill (now before Congress) transfers ownership of the stadium from the Department of the Interior to the District.
Both Kuhn and Cooke remain interested in the possibility of moving a team to Washington. Kuhn says that a big-league franchise shift, probably out of the San Francisco Bay area, clearly seems possible. Cooke continues, as he has for a year, to try to find some mixture of cash and leverage that would make him owner of the San Francisco Giants.
The ticket-selling drive being organized by the D.C. Baseball Commission also is considered critical to getting a Washington franchise.
On Monday the commission met with representatives of two dozen major Washington interest groups, mostly big businesses, to try to get the city's corporate sluggers to support the push for baseball.
"This is the nucleus of our corporate community," commission member Bob Pincus said. "What else would get Coke and Pepsi in the same room?
"Now it's time to sell," said Pincus, president of the D.C. National Bank. "If we want baseball, we have to prove it . . .
"When the Commission went to Houston for the winter meetings, we were shocked to find that baseball's perception of Washington was not at all like our view of ourselves," he continued. "They still see us as the town that lost two teams, as a federal town with few good corporate citizens, as a town with a crime-ridden stadium in a bad location. They aren't fazed when we tell them that those ideas are just not true. All the stats and demographics, which show us blowing away every other city, don't seem to sway them much, either.
"Everybody from (Commissioner) Peter Ueberroth on down has told us that Washington will not get a team without proving its support through season ticket sales. Well, that's what we're doing. All people have to do is put money in an interest-bearing escrow account earmarked for baseball tickets -- anything from $70 packages up to $1,000 season tickets. You can take your money back at any time, just like any savings account . . .
"What we've really done is take a chance and roll the dice," he concluded. "If we do well -- sell 20,000 season tickets, which Ueberroth said would be 'impressive' -- then it's going to help us get a team. If we sell 2,000 or 3,000, that could be terminal for baseball in Washington."
The commission plans to start announcing results of its ticket drive on May 31 and has set Aug. 1 as an in-house deadline to reach a fat total because, as Smith said, "Ueberroth issued a challenge to all the cities that wanted teams. He said, 'Prove fan support.' This would go a long way toward proving it. If we go to the summer meetings armed, it will be difficult for them to deny us."
Kuhn also views the ticket drive as vital. "Peter (Ueberroth) was wise in issuing a challenge to the cities to prove support, and those cities would be wise to answer the challenge," Kuhn said. However, he added, "It's a little premature to make local judgments. It's not easy to sell tickets until baseball sends a clear signal about when and how it will expand. When that signal comes, it will generate activity. However, if Washington came out early (with significant pledges), it could be very impressive."
Smith, a D.C. councilman, claimed that "this project to get a ball club back could have almost as much economic impact for the city as the Convention Center. The center cost more than $100 million to build and it generates about $50 million a year in spinoff. The most that the District government could pay to bring a ball club back would be $17 million in stadium renovations. If a baseball team drew even 1.5 million fans, its spinoff would be $40 million a year. And that's a very conservative guess. Indianapolis is figuring on a $75 million in spinoff . . .
"The most cost-effective dollars that this government spends are the ones it spends to try to get a team back here."