Can Steinberg Repeat Gigantic Feat in O.C.? : Sports: Deal-maker who helped San Francisco keep its baseball team now fighting to retain Rams.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was mid-August, 1992, and efforts to keep the San Francisco Giants out of the hands of Florida poachers had nearly expired in the hot, waning days of summer.

Bitter fans tossed up their hands: Who could compete with an owner's greed? Call them the St. Petersburg Giants. End of story.

San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan, desperate to avoid being forever linked to the loss, called on mega-sports agent Leigh Steinberg and his fat Rolodex of connections. Business bigwigs and politicians rallied, launching a fierce, arm-twisting drive that snatched the baseball team back. Sound familiar?

In many ways, the current campaign to keep the pro football Rams in Orange County echoes the battle waged for baseball's Giants two summers earlier. Both efforts only got underway after the teams seemed ready to pack up the moving vans. Both marshaled diverse groups of the area's wealthiest and most powerful people. And both featured the last minute hyper-cheerleading of Newport Beach deal-maker Steinberg, 45, perhaps the most powerful attorney in professional sports.

Today, saving the Giants for San Francisco occupies a prominent spot on Steinberg's illustrious resume. He sees himself as the star relief pitcher who pulled out a win for a hapless San Francisco squad.

Now, he is leading an Orange County group's last-ditch bid to save the Rams from suitors in St. Louis and Baltimore.

Can he do it again?

There are those in San Francisco who say he didn't do it the first time.

"He kept talking, but he didn't contribute," said Richard Goldman, a San Francisco insurance broker who owns a more than $5-million chunk of the Giants. "He's got his own business. His own agenda. He's playing his own game."

But Steinberg says that after the San Francisco battle was won, some investors who were "dragged in kicking and screaming" rewrote the story, downplaying the roles of those who captured the media spotlight.

"The team was ultimately saved and everybody in that (investor) group are huge heroes," said Steinberg, who maintains a home and office in Berkeley. "The problem is they did a revisionist history. . . . And I'm left out of their revisionist history. But the fans know who was standing there when everyone was making fun (of the effort), so I came out of it feeling good."

Whether Steinberg helped lead the effort, or, as some say, simply hogged the headlines, a look at the how an ego-heavy group of San Franciscans were able to keep the Giants in town is an instructive handbook for dealing with the big leagues.

And it is a lesson on how keeping the local ball team happy has become America's favorite pastime.

As with the Rams, the trouble with the Giants started over a stadium. In San Francisco, it was Candlestick Park, which the Giants share with the San Francisco 49ers football team.

Candlestick was (and still is) old, often down-to-the-bone cold, windy and downright inhospitable. When Mayor Jordan took office on Jan. 8, 1991, his predecessor, Art Agnos, left one bit of advice in a note on his desk: "You better build a ballpark for the Giants or they're going to leave town."

A year and a half later, Agnos' parting words looked to be coming true. Giants owner Bob Lurie, like Rams' owner Georgia Frontiere, wanted a new stadium and, when San Franciscans voted not to give it to him, he vowed to go somewhere that would.

Just as in Orange County, the polls were grim reading. Eighty-five percent of the general public believed the Giants were gone. The disgruntled rumblings were clear, Jordan recalled: "You have a budget to balance. You have homeless people. Let's get on with running the city."

On June 1, 1992, the night before San Jose voters were to decide whether to build Lurie a $250-million stadium, Jordan's three top advisers met in San Francisco City Hall. They were convinced that if the San Jose measure failed Lurie would try to sell the team, which was losing about $7 million a year.

Clint Reilly, Jordan's chief political adviser, put in a call to real estate developer Walter Shorenstein, a savvy deal-maker and one of the richest and best-connected men in town. Shorenstein agreed to round up local investors.

A friend of Shorenstein's hooked him up with H. Irving Grousbeck, a Stanford business professor who had made a fortune in the cable TV industry. Lurie agreed to send Grousbeck, who'd always wanted to run a pro ball franchise, the team's books.

But while Grousbeck waited for the financial records, Corey Busch, the Giants executive vice president, was jetting cross-country, meeting with potential buyers. Every plane stop was detailed by the local newspapers.

"It was like he was banging his chest and saying, 'In your face, San Francisco. Look at all these people who want to buy the team,' " remembers Ron Blatman, then Jordan's director of business planning.

By late July, Busch had narrowed his choices, meeting secretly with St. Petersburg city officials and Tampa Bay investors.

Then on Aug. 7, Lurie dropped a bombshell: He had agreed to sell the team to the Florida investors, who had already sold 30,000 season tickets, and not to negotiate with any other buyers.

"I remember seeing a limousine pull up to a jet at San Francisco Airport on TV and the newscaster saying that the team had been sold," Jordan said. "Bob Lurie told me, 'I'm sorry, I don't think you could match the $115 million I've been offered, so I signed the contract already.' "

A few days later Grousbeck pulled out, stating publicly that the Giants were a financial sieve and anyone would be a fool to buy the team. The investor group was in disarray.

Crushed, Jordan called on Steinberg, whom he had heard talking about the team on the radio, and Goldman, Jordan's friend and chief of protocol.

"Jordan calls me and said, 'You've got to help me. You've got to lead this. We have to change the public image,' " recalls Steinberg, who also has joined the effort to keep the Oakland A's from moving. "The first key was to make people believe there was a chance to save it. I just hit the airwaves."

Jordan was counting on Steinberg--as are folks in Orange County--to do what he does best: schmooze with the league's other owners, who, for all their power, could ill afford to brush off the man whose firm represents a couple dozen top ball players and 19 of the National Football League's quarterbacks. Steinberg's job: convince the rest of the baseball league that San Francisco investors had the wherewithal to buy the Giants.

"We were coached by the commissioner of baseball that as long as a credible offer was put forth, baseball would not allow the team to leave," said Blatman, who now runs a San Francisco merchant bank.

The local investors also knew the baseball owners stood to lose significant revenue if the Gaints moved from the nation's fourth-largest television market--a factor also at play in a potential Rams move.

The group launched a public relations blitz, similar to the one just getting underway in Orange County. Steinberg was all over the radio talk shows. The group bought billboards and mailed so many postcards to the baseball commissioner and team owners that some owners called Jordan begging him to stop.

Meanwhile, the same day Grousbeck dropped out, Blatman received a phone call from the assistant of George Shinn, the wisecracking, born-again Christian owner of the Charlotte Hornets pro basketball team in North Carolina. Shinn was interested in the Giants. Larry Baer, a friend of Blatman's and Steinberg's and a CBS television executive, flew out to meet with Shinn.

Things suddenly were turning around.

Two weeks later, Shinn told the would-be San Francisco investors, now numbering more than a dozen, how he would market the Giants so they'd make a pot of money, even at Candlestick.

Shorenstein grilled the ebullient Shinn over his somewhat mysterious finances, a quizzing Shinn later likened publicly to a proctology exam. Shinn would put up $20 million and other investors, among them some of the biggest of San Francisco's bigwigs--Goldman, Shorenstein, discount broker Charles Schwab and Donald Fisher, head of the Gap--would put up chunks of up to $5 million a piece. The remaining $35 million would come from a bank loan.

Safeway chairman Peter Magowan resigned from his 11-year stint on the Giants board of directors to join the investor group.

Goldman said some of the investors had never even been to a ball game and most went in believing the only income they would get out of the team was "psychic income," or the goodwill of the community for keeping the team.

Meanwhile, local newspapers were running nostalgic stories about the last season in San Francisco and writing profiles of former Giants' greats. ESPN was out at the ballpark covering the last games. The local group's last ditch effort was simply "smoke and mirrors," the headlines said.

"There were times when I went for months where the newspapers said I was wasting my time, that the deal was collapsing," Jordan said.

But the deal came together just in time. At the baseball owners meeting in the second week of September, the owners voted to put off ruling on the Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg offer for the Giants while the San Francisco bid was coming together.

The respite was short-lived. On Oct. 2, Shinn shocked his fellow investors by announcing his cost-cutting measures: getting rid of some of the most popular players on the team, including first baseman Will Clark.

Shortly afterward, the San Francisco investors, gaining confidence they could handle the ball team on their own, convinced Shinn to bow out. But Shinn had been the needed catalyst. In a three-day whirlwind, the once-skittish money men roped in more investors or upped their own stakes to cover Shinn's $20 million. A local television station signed up, as did a popular radio station. Magowan stepped up as the managing partner.

In the middle of October, the owners approved the sale of the Giants to the local group for $100 million.

"It was so close so many times for them going to St. Petersburg," recalled Goldman, 74. "It's even hard to believe now that we prevailed."

In the end, say players in the battle, it was a combination of ego-wrangling, persistence and the dogged optimism of Jordan that saved the Giants. In retelling the story, many of the players recount their roles with a pride of ownership.

To Steinberg it was a battle lost until he came on board.

"When it was most critical, Larry (Baer) and I got the effort on track and rolling again," Steinberg said. "In terms of the public, I was the spokesman that kept this stuff alive."

Noah Griffin , the mayor's spokesman, said Steinberg "kept hope alive. He was the Jesse Jackson factor in the whole thing."

But others tread lightly on the topic of how big a role Steinberg played in the battle.

"Whenever there was a camera, he was there. But that was the only time he was there," Blatman said. "But everybody had somewhat of a role to play. Steinberg was a cheerleader and he was good at it."

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