Business Unusual

By pouring millions into the stadium renovation that Disney demanded when it bought the Angels, did Anaheim preserve major league baseball in Orange County or fall for the bluff of a frustrated seller?

Neither, apparently, despite such proclamations from within city hall. So how close did the city and county come to losing major league baseball?

When negotiations between Disney and the city collapsed in March, 1996, Angel co-owner Jackie Autry threatened to move the team from Anaheim. City Councilman Bob Zemel, one of two dissenting votes against the subsequent agreement between Disney and the city, believes his colleagues yielded to a moot threat.

"The American League president told us they weren't going to be allowed to move," Zemel said. "They used that as a bluff tactic. Three council members fell for it."

American League president Gene Budig denied making any such statement, according to the league's vice president, Phyllis Merhige. Neither Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly nor City Manager James Ruth said he recalled Budig voicing that commitment.

The Angels' lease committed the team to Anaheim Stadium through 2001. Richard Brown, then the Angels' president, said Autry wasn't bluffing about considering buyers who might move the team from Anaheim when the lease expired.

"I don't think it's been recognized how close Anaheim and Orange County came to losing major league baseball," Daly said. "We saved major league baseball in Anaheim and Orange County. The Angels had plenty of options, including leaving Orange County for . . . one of the many cities that would like to have major league baseball."

While the Angels could well have abandoned Anaheim and its aging stadium, they likely would not have fled Orange County. In the days following the stunning collapse of negotiations, Autry cited several potential buyers, including Hollywood Park Chairman R.D. Hubbard, who she said had considered building a stadium for the Angels in Inglewood.

But Autry could have negotiated with interested county suitors, including former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth. Autry preferred the team remain in Southern California, Brown said, and encroaching upon the territory of the Dodgers or Padres would not have helped the Angels in their chronic search for identity.

"The team was always destined to be in Orange County as far as we we're concerned," Brown said. "If another buyer would have moved the team to Irvine or El Toro or somewhere else where it could have a better stadium, we would have considered that. We were committed to Orange County."

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