COLUMN ONE : Jeers From the Home Crowd : Producer Tom Werner worked magic in TV with 'The Cosby Show' and 'Roseanne.' Now, he says, he's trying to do the same for the San Diego Padres. But angry fans just don't like his game plan.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Werner, who helped make Bill Cosby and Roseanne Arnold household names, sat in an elegant seaside coffee shop and reflected on the differences between baseball, the national pastime, and television, the national obsession.

"In television," he said, "if you encounter a problem in the second act, you fix it. But if you're sitting at a game and it's the seventh inning and it's going badly, there's nothing you can do but watch."

A bookish Harvard graduate, Werner, 43, had amassed millions as co-owner of a production company by the time he and 14 partners bought the hard-luck San Diego Padres from philanthropist Joan Kroc in 1990 and set out to remake the team.

In the process, the executive producer of "The Cosby Show" and "Roseanne" may have become the most hated man in town.

Padre fans accuse Werner of nothing less than destroying their beloved home team. In a city left reeling by Southern California's demoralizing recession, thousands of fans who turned to baseball for distraction have come to regard him as lovingly as bank closures.

Since August, Werner's group has parted with six starters--plus three relief pitchers--from a team many believed was just "one player away" from a championship. Among those traded were crowd-pleasers Craig Lefferts, a left-handed pitcher who won 13 games last season, and All-Star third baseman Gary Sheffield.

Currently being shopped are first baseman Fred McGriff, last year's National League home run leader, and left-handed starter Bruce Hurst, both veteran players with multimillion-dollar salaries.

Disturbed by the team's direction, Joe McIlvaine, the general manager who acquired Sheffield in one of the shrewdest trades in years, resigned in mid-June. His replacement, Randy Smith, 30, is the youngest general manager in major league history.

Werner, whose Hollywood pedigree is more resented than appreciated here, blamed soaring players' salaries, a $7-million deficit and sagging attendance for the trades--saying that all he wants to do is save the team.

His explanation has not played well. By June, the departure of the flamboyant Sheffield galvanized San Diego like few issues have.

"He may be doing the right thing, but I don't understand what the hell he is doing," said Chet Forte, co-host of a morning talk show on XTRA-AM, where Werner-bashing is as common as rush-hour traffic reports.

Further agitating San Diegans is the fact that Werner, a soft-spoken man who describes himself as shy, has declined to appear on radio or make himself accessible to local papers to defend his decisions.

"God bless him, he made millions of dollars, but he won't talk to the people who have to sit in the stands and watch his pitiful little team," Forte said.

Those who support him, including Padres' Vice Chairman Art Rivkin, one of 11 local executives who joined with four from Los Angeles to buy the team for $75 million, say Werner has been "unfairly, unkindly scorned."

"There aren't many people as unpopular as I am right now," Werner said ruefully in a rare interview. "But I'm doing what any person with common sense would do if they were in my position."

Nevertheless, few seem to get it in San Diego, where recently:

* A call-in poll by KNSD-TV, the city's NBC affiliate, posed the question, "Should Padre ownership sell the team?" Out of 3,300 respondents, 81% said yes.

* Two fans filed a class-action lawsuit alleging, among other things, fraud and breach of contract because the Padres indicated in a letter to season-ticket holders last November that Sheffield and outfielder Darrin Jackson--who have been traded--would not be.

Worried about the consequences, the team offered refunds to season-ticket holders; more than 200 took the Padres up on it.

* The American Civil Liberties Union is threatening to sue over the Padres' security team's ban on anti-Werner banners at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.

* The general manager of KFMB radio, which paid about $6 million over five years to carry Padre games, has publicly complained about having to broadcast the games for one more season.

Critics suggest that a strong commissioner would have voided the Sheffield trade, for one. But baseball has not had anyone in that job since Werner and a majority of other owners voted to oust Faye Vincent last year.

Many in the baseball Establishment like the fact that a reformer who conquered one corner of American culture is turning his attention to another--particularly as architect of the game's new TV package and as an advocate of more equal sharing of TV revenue among teams.

Supporters say Werner is about to leave his fingerprints all over baseball, which, at the time of its annual All-Star Game, is fraught with problems, not the least of which is eroding popularity.

*

Werner's San Diego experiment began badly and quickly got worse. His first act as managing general partner was to approve a request by the Padres' marketing department to have comic Arnold sing the national anthem on Working Women's Night in July, 1990--a gesture so wrongheaded it drew a stinging rebuke from then-President George Bush. Her rendition also offended many of the city's outspoken fans.

"Hey," La Jolla restaurateur Norm Lebovitz said of Arnold's screeching, crotch-grabbing performance, " that was the high point. Since then, Werner reaches a new low every week."

San Diegans' worst fear is that Werner and his partners are trying to move the team to St. Petersburg, Fla., where the San Francisco Giants were bound before an 11th-hour civic campaign kept them in Northern California.

Nonsense, says Werner, citing, among other things, a stadium lease through 1999.

"Of course we're not going to move the team. People are so illogical," he said. "We're doing what we can to ensure that baseball remains in San Diego."

Werner also discounted rumors of a sale, noting: "I don't even understand that, because it would seem that if we wanted to sell--which we have no intention of doing--we'd keep our assets."

But fans are dubious about the team that remains. At the All-Star break, the Padres are 33-56. They are 26 games behind the division-leading Giants, whose best player, outfielder Barry Bonds, once expressed interest in San Diego. Werner said no to Bonds' $43.75 million, six-year salary.

The trend also disturbs players.

"It's a big business, and no matter how many times they tell you it isn't, believe me--it is," said first baseman McGriff. "I feel worst of all for the fans. They spend their hard-earned money to watch us play, and then they get this."

"Pop Werner," as he's been dubbed by one local radio station, owns less than 40% of a franchise whose value was recently estimated by Financial World magazine as $103 million. He said he hopes to trim a payroll that, in 1984--when the team made the playoffs for the only time in its 25 years--was $7 million, as compared to $30 million in 1992. He's seeking a '94 payroll of no more than $18 million.

The Padres suffered operating losses of $7 million last year, Werner said, when the team finished third in the National League West. Bringing back the same team would have meant operating losses of $15 million this year, he said.

"I hear people say, 'So you lose $7 million to $8 million a year--so what? You're all millionaires!' But if we continued to lose such money year in and year out, there would be no baseball in San Diego," he said. "We'd all go bankrupt."

But the criticism of Werner is not limited to the topic of trading players.

Lebovitz, whose Sluggo's restaurants sport a Chicago theme, is especially irked over baseball's new six-year agreement with ABC and NBC, which Werner designed as chairman of the major league owners' Television Committee.

Detractors around the country have attacked the format because it would limit nationally televised postseason coverage to the World Series. All other playoffs would be viewed only within the competing teams' regions.

"He's ignoring the fact that this is a highly mobile society," Lebovitz said. "For example, San Diego is full of Cubs fans, L.A. full of (New York) Mets fans and so forth."

Aware of the target their boss has become, the writers for "Grace Under Fire," one of Werner's new TV shows, last week sent him a card. "Nice guys finish next to last," it read, referring to the Padres' division standing. By the close of play Sunday, the Padres were in last place.

A vocal majority of baseball's executives are quick to defend Werner, with Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig saying his colleague has been "unfairly, tragically" maligned by the media. "Tom Werner is one of the best ownership additions to baseball in my 25 years in the game," he said.

Selig, like Werner, is the owner of a small-market team and passionate about revenue sharing. But even Bill Bartholomay, chairman of the Atlanta Braves, says that "in a very short time, Tom Werner has become one of baseball's most prized assets. He brings a depth to marketing and television that the game desperately needs."

But the criticism has never been more valid, argues Roger Angell, baseball writer for New Yorker magazine, who says Werner's ownership group--collectively, among the richest in the game--has shirked its responsibility.

"His obligation extends to the fans as well as to his corporate partners," Angell said. "Bottom lines are not restricted to making money."

But ESPN on-air analyst Peter Gammons defends Werner, calling the attacks against him "overreaction in the face of reality." Gammons says small-market owners are applauding the Padres for dramatizing the problems of baseball's have-nots.

Imbued by the need for financial parity, Werner's colleagues--largely because of his insistence--voted at their recent meetings in Denver to adopt revenue sharing and a salary cap "in concept," which means how both are sold to the powerful Players Assn. has not been determined.

Werner says baseball has been congratulating itself for too long and is courting disaster unless it dares to sell itself to "a generation we need to recapture."

It troubles Werner that inner-city youths are turning first to football and basketball and that boys under 18, when asked in a recent national survey to name 30 favorite athletes, listed only two from baseball--46-year-old Nolan Ryan and Bo Jackson, whose visibility was heightened as a Los Angeles Raiders running back.

Whatever the future holds for Werner's efforts to reform baseball, there is no doubt about his impact in Hollywood, where he was largely responsible for two of the most successful shows in TV history--one about an upscale African-American family and the other about an overweight, blue-collar white couple.

"The Cosby Show" was television's highest-grossing series ever, Hollywood sources say, bringing the production company of Werner and partner Marcy Carsey about $300 million in pretax revenue from rerun syndication fees alone.

The series, which aired on NBC until 1992, finished in the Nielsen ratings' top 10 for seven of its eight years. "Roseanne" has never finished lower than second.

At the end of the 1990 season, "The Cosby Show," "Roseanne" and Cosby spinoff "A Different World" held the top three slots in the Nielsens, a first for one production company.

Werner's example--proving that unconventional shows can be critically and commercially successful--has been instrumental, executives say, in shaping the industry's move toward pro-family, anti-violence programming.

*

Werner, the son of a New York attorney, was raised on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he played stickball in the streets and cultivated a love of baseball at Yankee Stadium.

He graduated from Harvard cum laude in 1971. Werner spent nine years at ABC, beginning as a $125-a-week research assistant, where he quickly made an impression, working with a who's who of Hollywood--Brandon Stoddard, Michael Eisner, Barry Diller, Fred Silverman and Carsey, the woman who became his partner.

Married with three children, he divides his time between homes in Los Angeles and Del Mar.

"Part of his genius," said Stoddard, the president of ABC Productions, was in pairing such talent as Roseanne Arnold and John Goodman, a beefy couple who proved that not looking like models could mean a No. 1 rating for years.

Werner's friends say his personal style, as well as his shows, shatters the Hollywood stereotype.

"Tom is not the old-school Billy Rose type of producer who walks around in a big fur coat and a cigar hanging out of his mouth," Stoddard said.

Roseanne Arnold's husband, Tom Arnold, said that Werner is "not one of those egomaniacs who has his finger in every inch of the pie," and that, despite being rich, he "drives one of the cheapest-looking BMWs you'll ever see."

Werner attributes his reluctance to spar with the press to shyness, admitting that the storm swirling around him has blown his hair back a bit. He even asked a reporter for The Times if an article about him could appear anywhere but on the front page of the paper.

Werner says it's not his style to confront hostile inquisitors as Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones did when buying the team in 1989 and firing saintly coach Tom Landry. Four years later, Jones' team won the Super Bowl, silencing critics.

Werner likes the idea of having the last laugh, as Jones did.

"People may not believe it, but we're in this to stay," he said of his baseball commitment. "It would be so nice for the Padres to win the World Series. If and when that happens, I can finally say this has all been worthwhile."

Profile: Tom Werner

* Born: April 12, 1950. New York City

* Residences: Los Angeles and Del Mar.

* Education: Harvard University, A.B. degree in government, cum laude, 1971.

* Career highlights: Documentary producer, "Shirley Chisholm: Pursuing the Dream," 1972; ABC Television, planning and development department, 1973; ABC manager of prime-time program development, 1975; ABC, senior vice president of prime-time series, 1980; formed Carsey-Werner Co. with Marcy Carsey, 1981; executive producer of "Oh, Madeline!," "The Cosby Show," "Roseanne," "A Different World" and "Davis Rules"; became managing general partner, San Diego Padres, 1990; chairman, major league baseball television committee, 1992.

* Family: Married, three children.

* Quote: "All my life, I've operated on the level of trying to do what I think is right. I've been very proud in my TV career to be involved in shows that stand for something . . . quality shows. I hope to do the same in baseball."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°