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Denver Renews Expansion Bid : Baseball: City addresses an apparent image problem in its quest for a National League franchise.

WASHINGTON POST

With a spectacular mountain panorama filling the windows of a 43rd-floor conference room, Steve Ehrhart, sports entrepreneur, sat next to John Antonucci, a blunt-talking businessman. Two of the people leading Denver’s effort to obtain a National League baseball expansion franchise, they were talking about the slight image problem their group seems to be having.

Ehrhart leaned back in his chair and said breezily, “Our theme is maybe ‘The Best-Kept Secret.’ ”

Antonucci leaned on the table and hunched his shoulders. “If there’s any unknown,” he said, “then it’s basically because of ignorance and lack of education (of the rest of the country). ... If you look at the ownership group and analyze the ownership group, we’re as strong as any ownership group in the expansion process, if not the strongest.”

A year ago -- before anyone in the baseball world had heard of Wayne Huizenga and before the bottom fell out of John Dikeou’s real estate business -- the words “National League expansion” generally were understood to mean Tampa-St. Petersburg and Denver, with Washington and other cities trailing.

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But then Huizenga, chairman of Blockbuster Entertainment, emerged as Miami’s champion and Dikeou, owner of the Class AAA Denver Zephyrs, disappeared as Denver’s. Suddenly, Denver was an also-ran.

No ballpark, no ownership group, no local ownership group.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

To be sure, Denver’s bid has been on the precipice twice in the last six months. But plans for a ballpark are in place, a diverse and wealthy set of investors is in place, and considerable local ownership is in place. Fans throughout the Rocky Mountain region are making $55 deposits on season tickets at a dizzying pace.

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Gov. Roy Romer, who last August was so distressed by Denver’s dismal ownership picture that he essentially went out and solicited new investors, is now bubbling with confidence.

“I think one team is probably going to end up in Florida and the other in Denver,” he said flatly.

Denver’s ownership group is led by three out-of-towners, but all three have significant ties to Colorado and two have told the NL Expansion Committee they will move to Denver if it is awarded a team. The supporting cast is almost entirely local, and includes a significant commitment from Coors Brewing Co.

The only question seems to be whether Denver, with its relatively small metropolitan population and modest television market size, can be presented as the site of what will become a regional franchise -- one that can capitalize on the absence of Major League Baseball in the Mountain time zone.

At the top of the prospective ownership lineup are Antonucci, Ehrhart and Michael Monus. Antonucci and Monus are Youngstown, Ohio, businessmen. Monus is president of the Phar-Mor discount drug store chain. The chain has 240 stores nationwide (six in the Denver area), had more than $2 billion in sales in 1990 and is planning to add at least 70 stores this year. Antonucci runs one of the largest beer and wine distributorships in Ohio, and is a major stockholder in Phar-Mor. Ehrhart, a former executive with the U.S. Football League, is commissioner of the Memphis-based World Basketball League, whose Youngstown franchise is owned by Antonucci and Monus.

Ehrhart is a third-generation Coloradoan and still a member of a Boulder law firm in an of-counsel capacity. He and Antonucci, who has shared a second home in Colorado with Monus for many years, say they will become local residents if they get a team.

The minority partners include Mike Nicklous, a New York businessman who owns the Class AA Memphis Chicks and had been part of the group’s leadership. He has taken a diminished role in that regard, but continues to have a substantial financial commitment to the group. Last week, Antonucci indicated Coors is preparing to also make a substantial financial commitment. Coors, which is headquartered in nearby Golden, Colo., already had made a $15 million bid to obtain the naming rights for the proposed new stadium.

Among the other limited partners are the Rocky Mountain News, the region’s largest circulation newspaper; KOA Radio, a 50,000-watt AM station; N.W. Transport, the region’s largest trucking company; Charles Monfort, whose Greeley, Colo.-based meatpacking company is the second-largest in the world; and Oren Benton, a prominent area business with interests in uranium, real estate and banking.

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“In a sense, the loss of Mr. Dikeou opened up the opportunity to put together this very diverse and very deep group of owners, which I think puts us in a much better position than we were five years ago,” said Mayor Federico Pena, who helped Dikeou put together a presentation for baseball’s long-range planning committee in 1986. “The bottom line is I feel very good about the ownership group. They have a lot of ties to Colorado. In my opinion, it’s a strong ownership group. ... They’re not blinking at all” at the staggering cost of obtaining and establishing a team.

Pena, who will be leaving office in May after eight years, is credited with helping Denver establish itself as a potential major league city. He also played an important role in an August referendum vote in which residents of the Denver metropolitan area approved a 0.1 percent sales tax increase by 54 to 46 percent to help finance a $139 million baseball stadium that would supplant Mile High Stadium as a Denver franchise’s home. (The tax increase would take effect only if the city is awarded a team.) Without the tax, there would have been no stadium, and without the stadium, the city’s effort would have been hurt.

That’s where Romer stepped in. The tax increase in hand, he and a self-appointed, three-person search committee went to work finding a prospective ownership group that could replace Dikeou and submit a response to the Expansion Committee’s lengthy questionnaire by the Sept. 4 deadline.

Asked if he felt this was an unusual activity for a governor to be undertaking, Romer said: “Most unusual. But it was one where you either had to do it or you weren’t going to be competitive.”

The process basically came down to two meetings. At the first, Romer recalled, “Everybody sat at the table and I just went around the room and said, ‘Tell me who you are, how much you can put in, and what role you want to play.’ It was pretty rough and tumble.”

But it was nothing compared to the second meeting. That was when Romer and his committee designated the Antonucci-Ehrhart-Monus-Nicklous group as Denver’s ownership representative over several other interested groups.

“I just made a decision,” Romer said. “Some people were saying, ‘What authority do you have to make decisions like that?’ And I said, ‘I don’t have. I just did it.’ It was a question of, ‘Do you want to get it done? You have to go get it.’ ”

Although two groups from Denver submitted responses to the questionnaire, Romer’s decision held. And Antonucci’s group has flourished. Its most encouraging sign recently, other than Coors’ apparent ownership commitment, is a season-ticket drive that has attracted more than 18,000 deposits since it began Feb. 1. Deposits have been received not only from Colorado residents, but also from residents of Kansas, Wyoming, Utah, Nebraska, New Mexico and Montana.

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Although it seems clear people from neighboring states will not make up a great portion of day-to-day attendance, Antonucci said he projects attendance of at least 2 million a year, knowing that on-field success eventually will play a role in that. And with the potential revenues from cable television, radio and merchandising throughout the Rocky Mountain region, Antonucci said, “We feel very comfortable that we’re going to be able to satisfy our needs to make it a healthy franchise.”

“We don’t look at Denver as just Denver,” Antonucci said. “We’re looking at a region. We feel comfortable that there’s a large enough population base within this region that we could make this one of the most healthy and stable franchises in baseball.”


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