El Segundo to Raiders: Just Pay, Baby
Not so long ago, when the Raiders played football in Los Angeles, they actually spent most of their time at their practice field in El Segundo, running through the plays designed to carry the silver-and-black to another Super Bowl.
A love affair blossomed, with the town embracing the team. It wasn’t uncommon after practice, at what had once been El Segundo Junior High School, for the players and coaches to stop in at the barbershop down the street, maybe for a trim, always for some neighborly shooting of the breeze.
“Just win, baby!” the kids would screech in joy as they circled their heroes on bikes and skateboards, echoing Raider owner Al Davis’ battle cry.
That, though, was then--before the Raiders high-tailed it back to their original home in Oakland.
And this is now. There’s a new motto in town, one flung at Davis and the Raiders: Just pay, baby.
Because of a dramatic increase in school enrollment in El Segundo, the Raider compound--still leased by the team yet all but abandoned--needs an extensive going-over so it can once again be used as it was intended, as a junior high.
The whirlpools, the oversized cubicles big enough for shoulder pads, even the executive suite replete with restroom and shower--all of it must go to make way for classrooms, a wood shop, even kid-size potties.
The estimated cost to put the school back in the shape it was in when it was leased to the Raiders in 1982 is $1.2 million. To bring it up to 1997 standards, the cost could run to $3.5 million.
But the Raiders and the El Segundo Unified School District cannot agree who should pay for the repairs and how much.
Thus far, negotiations between the team and the school district have proven thoroughly unproductive. While both sides profess a desire to strike a deal and avoid the nasty legal fight that’s brewing, it’s unclear whether that can be avoided.
District officials say they are more than willing to let the Raiders out of their lease, which runs through August 1998. But “there has to be some kind of payment,” said school board President Christine Sherrill.
As time passes, complaints mount that the site is a neighborhood blight.
And, as in many divorces, while the lawyers wrangle over money, the real issue is far more dear.
Under the ficus trees shading the brick storefronts downtown and in the corner stores and small cafes that dot the city, a love affair has soured.
“We have a love-hate relationship with them,” said Ken Smith, proprietor of the Village Barber Shop. “We really love to hate them now.”
It is a measure of the animosity swirling around the town that Smith now freely volunteers the tale of a certain Raider coach--a coach, not Davis--who would get a haircut but somehow always manage to forget to bring cash or even a checkbook for a $9 trim. “He never paid,” Smith said, shaking his head in disgust.
At Jim & Jack’s Automotive & Body Shop, meanwhile, where a number of autographed Raider jerseys remain on display, President Jim Kizirian has installed what may be the ultimate sign of disaffection: Marcus Allen’s red-and-gold Kansas City Chiefs jersey.
A future Hall of Famer, Allen played for the Raiders for 11 years and remains their all-time leading rusher. When he left after the 1992 season to sign with the Chiefs, one of the Raiders’ fiercest rivals, he blamed his departure on a feud with Davis.
Kizirian said he remains fond of several Raider players. But, speaking of Davis, Kizirian said: “The people in town are mad, very mad at him.”
It has come to this despite a beginning that was filled with such promise and good feeling.
When the Raiders came south in 1982 looking for a place to settle, the junior high seemed a shrewd fit, both for the team and the town.
Built in the 1960s in a residential neighborhood, the school was closed in 1979 because enrollment had declined precipitously. The school’s grounds featured half a dozen buildings and room for a full-length grass field--even enough room for the team to lay down an AstroTurf field, too.
The Raiders signed a 10-year lease with the option to renew for two three-year extensions. The rent originally was $10,000 a month. Now, according to the district, it’s $15,071 a month--which the Raiders continue to faithfully pay.
Besides the money--the school district has banked about $2 million in rent over the years for a site that would otherwise have been vacant--the Raiders also brought to town an intangible that had some undeniable appeal: prestige.
This, after all, was the place uncharitably called “El Stinko” by outsiders unfamiliar with its small-town charms, who knew it only for the roar of jetliners from Los Angeles International Airport immediately to the north and for the odors emanating from an adjacent Chevron oil refinery and the Hyperion sewage treatment plant.
With their swagger and their familiar skull-and-crossbones logo, the Raiders made El Segundo a destination--for reporters, camera crews, groupies, fans and tourists. And especially for kids who would descend upon the Raidercamp and hang out outside the tall chain-link fences for days and weeks during the long summer, watching their hulking heroes.
“My nieces and nephews from all over would spend vacations parked at the Raider camp,” said Rose Naccarato, 44, an office manager who lives in El Segundo. “The Raider players were always very, very good to them. Signed autographs. Talked to them. Made them feel important.”
In 1984, within two years of their arrival in El Segundo, the Raiders won the Super Bowl, whipping the Washington Redskins 38-9. Allen was the game’s most valuable player, rushing for a then-record 191 yards.
In town, Raider pride was never more evident. A T-shirt appeared: It read “Oakland, Los Angeles, El Segundo,” with “Oakland” and “Los Angeles” crossed out.
“You saw a lot of those T-shirts around back then,” said Carl Jacobson, mayor from 1988 to 1996.
The Raiders have not yet made it back to the big game. And “the love affair kind of ended like a marriage gone bad,” according to former school board member Janice Cruikshank.
In 1995, the Raiders bolted back to Oakland--sort of. That season, the team played its games there but practiced in El Segundo.
Before the 1996 season, the practices and the administrative staff moved north.
In El Segundo, the condition of the school--still prominently emblazoned with a Raider decal but now occupied only by a handful of staffers who handle team merchandising--has become a source of intense ire.
The grass field is gone to weeds and thatch. What used to be the coaches’ parking lot was littered recently with glass, a car battery and a plastic garbage can stuffed with empty buckets of paint. Inside various buildings, visible through windows, are papers, sticks, plastic bags and bottles.
“It’s a blight on the neighborhood, quite frankly,” said Bill Bue, who lives four blocks away and served as mayor from 1982 to 1984.
Amy Trask, the attorney who serves as the team’s business manager, demurred. “The Raiders feel they are making efforts to maintain the facility,” she said.
Since the lease runs for more than another year, the Raiders obviously would benefit if they could leave early and stop paying rent.
The school district, moreover, wants to begin repairs as soon as possible, hoping to reopen the site as a school by September 1998, said Supt. Bill Manahan. Last month, the school board voted 4-0 to commence architectural work.
Enrollment districtwide, which declined from 3,168 in 1971 to 1,803 in 1984, is back up to 2,620 and climbing, he said.
The sticking point in the negotiations is this: Are the Raiders truly obligated to pay to restore the school to the condition it was in when they took it over in 1982? Or do they have an obligation to pay anything at all?
Virtually nobody in El Segundo expects the Raiders to pony up a full $3.5 million. Indeed, many concede that the chances of getting a seven-figure check from the Raiders are about as good as Davis crooning “I Love L.A.” at the next school board meeting.
Funds could become available from a $24-million bond that is up for a vote in the June 3 election. But even if the bond passes, school board President Sherrill said, the Raiders ought not to be off the hook. “They’re two separate things,” she said.
Meanwhile, said Cruikshank, who was on the school board that approved the lease with the team in 1982, “it was my understanding [the Raiders] would . . . put the school back to the way it was when they got it.”
Peter MacDonald, the school district’s attorney, said: “Based on my discussions with the Raiders, I believe they will do the right thing and there will be a fair outcome. But I can’t guarantee that.”
The Raiders’ Trask said: “We really do want to facilitate their use of the school and if they want to get it back early . . . we’d be happy to discuss that with them.”
She added: “We’ve basically left the ball in their court, so to speak.”
School and city officials, however, say they see the Raiders--and Davis--with the ball. Said Manahan, the superintendent: “Just do the right thing, Al. Do the right thing, baby.”