Happy Hour was about to start. The two bartenders were taking a break, discussing the fate of the Raiders over a couple of beers.
“Oakland,” Alan Haspe said. “Probably Oakland.”
Michael Wilkinson took a long swig. “I think it’s real close between the two,” he said. “I say Oakland or Sacramento.”
“It might be like this. The Rams will go to the Coliseum and the Raiders will go to Anaheim,” Haspe said. “It’s possible.”
And what about Irwindale?
Haspe: “Irwindale rolled the dice and lost.”
And so on and so forth. It was a run-of-the-mill discussion about the Los Angeles football team’s future home, the kind that goes on daily, hourly, among Los Angeles sports fans.
Except that this one took place in Irwindale’s Rapscallion Seafood House and Bar, which once threw a big bash complete with cheerleaders, city bigwigs and television crews to welcome the Raiders to a gravel pit in the tiny San Gabriel Valley city.
Back in 1987, as Irwindale handed team owner Al Davis a $10-million check, Raiders pennants, photos and other paraphernalia plastered the walls of Rapscallion. Black-and-silver T-shirts with “Irwindale Raiders” logos sold by the dozens. New bars and restaurants sprouted up along Irwindale Avenue and Arrow Highway.
And rumors spread that the city’s 1,100 residents would get free season tickets, once the pit north of the Foothill Freeway was converted into a $115-million stadium.
Even Johnny Carson gave some air time to Irwindale when he interviewed Xavier Hermosillo, then-public relations consultant for the city.
Well, that was then, two years ago, before a flurry of lawsuits were filed seeking to halt the project, before political infighting resulted in the firing of two top negotiators, and before Irwindale switched gravel pits.
And this is now. The pennants are down. No one parades around in Irwindale Raiders shirts and jackets anymore. No one talks about Irwindale’s chances of landing the team, Haspe said. Davis rarely mentions the city’s name and the local press has gotten more than a little skeptical.
“Irwindale’s Raider bid is in the pits,” wrote columnist Charles Cherniss for the Pasadena Star-News.
The city has suffered. Ruling on one of the lawsuits filed by Los Angeles City Councilman Ernani Bernardi and a group called Irate Irwindale Residents Advocating the Environment, a Superior Court judge barred Irwindale from further negotiations until it completed an environmental impact study for the stadium project. That wasn’t finished until February, 1989. In the meantime, one of the key negotiators for the deal, redevelopment consultant Fred Lyte, was fired after a falling-out with then-Mayor Patricio Miranda.
The complications gave Davis the green light to consider juicy offers from other cities. He met with real estate people and sports entrepreneurs proposing a new stadium in Sacramento. He flew to Oakland to meet with promoters there. And he is also looking at a proposal to rebuild the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Meanwhile, Irwindale has scrambled to secure the necessary stadium financing and nail down a site. Its latest offer, which guarantees the team $10 million in net profits during the first year, still lacks a location. The city abandoned a gravel pit north of the 210 Freeway after it failed to gain control of land for a parking lot. Officials are eyeing another pit, west of the 605 Freeway, but owners of that site have not agreed to give up their property.
“Basically, Davis got $10 million to talk to Irwindale, no strings attached,” Haspe said.
“Davis used this place as a steppingstone for greener pastures,” said Ray Rafael, 36, who owns an iron-fabrication shop and was having a drink at Jesse Chapala’s Restaurant on Arrow Highway.
Ask any Irwindale official where the city stands, and it’s a whole different ballgame. Sure, Davis may have snubbed the city by entertaining offers from Sacramento, Oakland and Los Angeles and still refusing Irwindale’s request for a face-to-face meeting. But the key Irwindale players remain steadfast in their belief that the millions they’ve invested so far won’t go to pot.
“We’re the only ones who have put up the money,” Mayor Salvador Hernandez said. “And we’re still spending money.”
Irwindale officials are crying foul play, accusing Davis of violating the original deal by keeping the money and looking elsewhere. Besides the $10 million, the city has lost $3 million it could have earned in interest, plus $7 million spent for legal fees, an environmental impact report and other costs.
“The city can’t continue to spend at the rate it’s spending,” R. Zaiden Corrado, an Orange County attorney hired last year to spearhead the deal, said during a recent City Council meeting.
For a tiny industrial town where “everybody is related to somebody,” the costs are staggering. Aggressive redevelopment has transformed Irwindale from the “gravel pit capital of Southern California” to a thriving center of commerce, but pockets of the city remain blighted. Houses are in need of repair. Some residents, sitting idle in the middle of a recent weekday, say the money could have been used for a modern shopping mall. Or a movie theater. Or to train the unemployed.
Still, some die-hard Raiders fans haven’t quite given up.
Danny Martinez, 23, stood outside his house on North Baca Avenue and pointed to a small fenced-in area overgrown with weeds and inhabited by three pet goats and a few geese.
“We’re saving property there to open a taco stand, if the Raiders come,” Martinez said, squinting at the plot of land. “We’ve been waiting.”
How much longer will he wait?
“I don’t know. Maybe Al Davis pocketed our money, bought a new plane and flew back to Oakland,” he joked.
“I wish they’d come,” said Martinez’s cousin, Joe Chico, 20.
“Remember when they had that big sign on the 210 Freeway there?” Chico asked. “It said, ‘Welcome to Irwindale, Future Home of the Raiders.’ Or something like that.”
“No,” interrupted another cousin, Hector Gutierrez, 20. “It said, ‘Irwindale Welcomes the Raiders.’ It was a big billboard across from Miller. It disappeared a long time ago, like seven months ago.”