Inside story: Vero and the Orioles
The Baltimore Orioles are headed to Sarasota, and Vero Beach will never again be the Spring Training home of a major league baseball team. But could last year’s negotiations have brought the Orioles to Dodgertown to replace the Los Angeles Dodgers? Were the Orioles ever serious about Vero, or were they always leading Vero on while trying to leverage a better deal elsewhere?
At last, the detailed story of the negotiations can be told. Vero Beach 32963 obtained the first look at hundreds of pages of confidential documents and e-mail exchanges surrounding the dealings between the negotiators representing Indian River County and the Orioles. Here is the inside story of what really happened.
Even now, more than eight months after the collapse of the sometimes serene, often contentious talks that marked the year-long negotiation between the Baltimore Orioles and county officials over Dodgertown, none of the participants or those close to the discussions questions that a deal could have been struck to keep baseball in Vero Beach.
In fact, at one point the negotiators put together what they thought was a deal the principals could sign. But within weeks, amidst charges that Indian River County was setting artificial deadlines and accusations that Baltimore was basically seeking to renegotiate the entire agreement, the deal was dead — and the two sides have not spoken substantively since.
From documents, copies of e-mails, and talks with many of the key participants, a picture emerges of negotiations that began in good faith and ended with the two negotiators (both lawyers) engaging in a testy exchange over whether the controversial confidentially agreement Baltimore had insisted on was still in effect after the county had ended talks and pulled its final offer off the table.
The talks actually stretch back to 2007 when the Dodgers first made clear their plans to abandon their spring training home, and former Maryland state Senator Frank Kelly, who owns a home at the Orchid Island Golf and Beach Club, reached out to his friend, Orioles owner Peter Angelos, and suggested Vero Beach as an alternative to his team’s present winter home in Fort Lauderdale.
“When I heard the Dodgers might be leaving, I called Peter (Angelos) and said, ‘You ought to consider Vero Beach. It is made to order for the Orioles,’” said Kelly. “Peter Angelos listened and said he had never been there before but that he would take a look. Then I got a call from Peter in February or March that he had talked to (Dodgers owner) Frank Mc- Court and he was really interested in coming to Vero.“
Kelly — who served throughout the process as an interested party who tried to keep the talks going when the going got tense, but was never part of either side in the negotiations — next heard from Angelos’ lawyer, Alan Rifkin, with whom he had worked in Baltimore. Rifkin was to be the lead in the talks for the Orioles along with Angelos’ son, John. Rifkin is described by all as a tough negotiator.
“Shortly after that, Alan called me and said he’d love for the Orioles to come to Vero, but the devil was in details, and he had to get the lay of the land. Rifkin came and really liked what he saw, and told John to come up (from Fort Lauderdale) and see the place, and John came up later that same day.”
Senator Kelly was heartened by the Orioles’ response, and thought everything was on track at this early stage. County Administrator Joe Baird agreed.
“It started out as a simple deal,” Baird said. “They were going to assume the Dodgers’ lease. They had met with Frank McCourt, and I was invited over because they were going to assume the agreement, but there was some money that was going to change hands between the Dodgers and the Orioles. It was the third or fourth meeting, and Alan Rifkin walks in and all of a sudden Alan Rifkin says: ‘I don’t know why I am talking to you guys (the Dodgers), because you don’t have any rights, the county does. I don’t need you.’ So that was the end of that.”
It was during this period that the Orioles requested a confidentiality agreement, which forbade local Vero Beach officials from referring to the Orioles by name. The county acceded. And after five months of fitful discussions, the Orioles and the county on Dec. 10, 2007 entered into an option agreement whereby they would negotiate exclusively upon the Dodgers announcing they were vacating their lease.
But ‘exclusively’ meant one thing for the Orioles, and another for Indian River County. The pact allowed Baltimore to continue to explore options at their current Spring Training home of Fort Lauderdale; the county was not permitted to talk with any other teams.
Baird has been roundly criticized for agreeing to keep the talks confidential, and not keeping the county’s options to talk to other teams open. He clearly is pained by suggestions made in the wake of the collapse of the talks that he was outmaneuvered by a high-powered Orioles negotiating team.
The county, he emphasizes, had its own high-priced negotiator ˆ Robert Reid of Bryant Miller Olive, a Tallahasseebased law firm ˆ who was paid a sum others say was tens of thousands of dollars for the hours spent representing the county in the talks. Reid earlier had negotiated the pact with the Dodgers.
During the first half of 2008, discussions between Reid and the Orioles’ Rifkin generated three drafts of a Memorandum of Understanding setting out terms and conditions under which the Orioles would come to Vero Beach. Among the things the Orioles wanted were significant improvements to Holman Stadium at the county’s expense, and to obtain the adjacent golf course from the city to build a retail complex and perhaps a Cal Ripken baseball academy.
The Orioles were willing to agree to the same lease terms for Holman Stadium as the Dodgers – rent the facility for one dollar a year and pay all expenses for Dodgertown’s operation – but they were insistent on developing other revenue streams from the adjacent golf course.
At this point, the talks became two sets of negotiations. Rifkin was dealing with Reid and Baird on upgrading Holman Stadium and the Dodgertown grounds, and with Vero Beach City Manager Jim Gabbard and city attorney Charlie Vitunac in seeking development rights to the city-owned golf course.
For the facility, the Orioles wanted to extend the bleachers at Holman Stadium, enlarge the walkways and add luxury boxes. They went so far as creating drawings for the enhanced Holman Stadium (shown, page 4) and put a price tag of $24 million on the improvements. Baird’s position was that the county could add 1 cent to the tourist tax, which is extracted from hotel room charges, but its budget for improvements was only in the $12 million range.
“Basically, the ongoing dialogue with them was how much money — they loved the facility, plus they wanted to bring the Cal Ripken park as a part of the project,” Baird said. “So that meant that they had to get the city’s golf course as well as the facility. It really got down to basically how much we could afford. We looked at refinancing (the $17 million in bonds the county already held as part of the Dodger deal), going some additional years and adding a penny to the tourism tax. But that only got us to $12 million, and they were sitting around $20 to $24 million in improvements.”
At this point the county and the Orioles still seemed to be moving forward, working on bridging the difference between the improvements the Orioles wanted and the money the county was willing to put out.
At the same time, Rifkin’s talks with the city were becoming increasingly crucial to the Orioles’ plans to turn their spring training home into a profit center.
Among the possibilities discussed by the Orioles were construction of a Cal Ripken baseball academy, aimed at bringing little leaguers to a multiple diamond baseball facility, as well as building a baseball-themed retail center with shops, restaurants and even a hotel that would serve as the new entrance to the stadium grounds.
There remains considerable doubt over whether Cal Ripken was ever serious about building a baseball academy in Vero Beach. “We were never able to get the wording beyond a Cal Ripken-like project in any of the documents,” Baird said. “We kept putting it in, and they kept crossing it out.”
However, the Orioles were definitely interested in developing the golf course property for a retail operation, and the city seems to have been willing to make that happen. Those talks were a challenge in that they would have required zoning changes to the property which had been designated a green zone, when purchased several years earlier by the city.
Despite the challenges, the city was on board with working with the Orioles and the county to re-zone the property in order to keep Indian River County a spring training destination.
While Baird was working on whittling down the Orioles price tag for renovations and the city was considering proposals for commercial development of their golf course property, there were other issues of concern to the Orioles. Chief among these was Peter Angelos’ concern that Indian River County is not served by a commercial airport.
Angelos would come here in his own jet to size up Vero, staying a number of nights at Quail Valley, and wondered why it would not be possible for Orioles fans to fly directly to Vero Beach from Baltimore’s BWI Airport.
“I know Alan talked to Air Trans and Southwest Airlines and asked if they would be willing to work to bring flights to Vero, but ultimately they decided that just wouldn’t work,” Kelly said.
The two sides also worked at adding to the Vero Beach package the $7 million the state had been willing to give Fort Lauderdale as part of a program to keep major league spring training teams in Florida. The state ultimately rejected that request, but Baltimore and Indian River County representatives both made pitches to add that cash to the pot.
On July 10, 2008, then Dodgers Vice President Craig Callan hand-delivered to Baird and Gabbard official notification that the Dodgers intended to “terminate the Facility Lease Agreement” for Dodgertown and move their spring training operations to Arizona.
Up to that point, the Dodgers had signaled their intention to leave, but were keeping their option open to stay another year if they were not certain their new spring training home would be ready for 2009. The Dodgers had until July 15 to notify the County it was leaving, and waited until the final days to make it official.
With that, negotiations began to intensify. The Orioles wanted the county to assume liability for the renovated Dodgertown stadium, something the county flatly rejected.
“To withstand the next 15 or 20 years as a viable ballpark facility (structurally and operationally), the facility needs $16 to $18 million in capital improvements,” Rifkin wrote to Reid in an e-mail dated July 10, 2008. “Yet the County is only able to cobble together approximately $8 or $9 million over a 15 year term – leaving the facility exposed over that period of time.
“Under these circumstances, the Orioles are unwilling to assume liability for structural and other major repairs. The ballpark is the County’s asset – and we simply cannot assume the major obligations associated with that facility without the upfront or future resources to do so.” For his part Baird, recognized the limitations the county faced competing against some of the larger markets for one of the only spring training teams searching for a new home. He knew the county was unlikely to approve any plan that involved a tax increase on residents, and was limited by the comparatively small amount of money the tourist tax could generate.
“We thought we had a great facility, with historical value,” he said. “They liked the facility and the layout of the facility; they just wanted some minor improvements to the stadium. But they tried to put a lot of the liability on us; they wanted us to guarantee the integrity of the stadium, even after their engineer designed it. We couldn’t do that, we told them you hired the engineer and you hired the architect.”
After these exchanges in the middle of July, the negotiating pace slowed. The county was looking at a Jan. 1 deadline when it would become responsible for the upkeep of Dodgertown, and was becoming increasingly anxious to get something settled.
In an effort to get things moving, Reid sent a fifth Memorandum of Understanding to the Orioles dated October 1, stating that the city no longer wanted to be part of the memorandum, but would work with the Orioles to locate a youth baseball academy on the golf course property. The e-mail also gave the Orioles a deadline of 5 p.m. October 10 to agree to the terms of the pact.
“If the Orioles have not accepted the County’s proposed MOU by this time, the County will deem the negotiations with the Orioles to have been concluded, and the County will have no further discussions with the Orioles about their lease of the Dodgertown spring training facility,” the e-mail stated.
The Orioles were said to be very unhappy about the deadline. While they got an extension until the end of October, they also began talking to other municipalities, most notably Sarasota, which had lost out to Fort Myers in a bidding war for the Boston Red Sox.
But the two sides continued to talk, and in a sign that perhaps a breakthrough had finally been reached, at the end of October Rifkin told Joe Baird and Jim Gabbard told to bring their tooth brushes and meet with him in Orlando to come to a final agreement on bringing the Orioles to Vero Beach.
By all accounts, that is exactly what happened. Over two days, the negotiators put together a package involving improvements to Holman Stadium and some sort of commercial development on the golf course that everyone thought would work.
One of the first to get the good news was Senator Kelly. “Joe Baird called me after the meeting and told me he thought he had a deal,” Kelly said. “And within a half an hour, Alan called and told me ‘I have something I can show Peter Angelos.’”
But while Indian River County and Vero Beach thought the game was about over, the Orioles appear to have felt the game was just beginning.
“Alan Rifkin had told Joe and Jim to pack their bags, because I have instructions to not return without a contract,” County Commissioner Peter O’Bryan said. “Joe and Jim were in Orlando for two days and hammered out an agreement, Mr. Rifkin took it back to show to Mr. Angelos. My position was OK, that’s it, we agreed to all this, we negotiated it out and I thought we had a contract. I thought we had a deal.
“And that’s when they started shopping it around. And so we said, ‘Wait a minute, I thought we had an agreement. And now you are using this to shop around and go from there.’ So by Thanksgiving I was already thinking about putting on the agenda to give them a deadline. I talked to Senator Kelly and he said no, give Peter Angelos a little more time.”
In fairness, as both Kelly and Baird have confirmed, Rifkin made it clear at the time the Orlando agreement was initialed that he still intended to talk to Sarasota about their spring training plans.
But for O’Bryan, enough was enough. “By early December, it was clear that they were not moving forward with us and they were still shopping around. And that’s when we voted 5-0 to give them a deadline of the middle of December.”
The Orioles once again voiced their displeasure at being given a deadline to make a decision (at the time, Joe Baird, asked what the Orioles thought about the December 15 deadline, said, “I was told it was unfortunate because the owner does not like deadlines.”)
It was at this point the deal completely fell apart. Facing the middle of December deadline, the Orioles sent what was to become the final Memorandum of Understanding exchanged between the parties on December 10, marking up the October 28 pact the two sides had worked out in Orlando.
The memorandum came back with 828 changes, including 441 insertions and 227 deletions.
Alan Rifkin told Senator Kelly the changes were minor. The County took a decidedly different view.
“There were all these wording changes, strikeouts, page after page after page of additional wording, that they called minor technical corrections,” said O’Bryan.
“Some of the new stuff in there was that the city would have to make available all utilities at no charge to the Orioles, that we would guarantee road capacity for all their commercial projects at our cost, they wanted the city to rezone everything and eliminate all FAA restrictions on the property. That is something Fort Lauderdale couldn’t do, and they just put in here that the city of Vero Beach had to eliminate all FAA restrictions.
“They wanted a 60-year lease from the city for the commercial land, with two automatic renewals at their discretion and they would have the right to designate a successor without county or city input. They wanted us at our expense to build five or six different driveways into the property. It just went on and on and on with these additional things after the October Come to Jesus meeting that we thought was the deal. That was their response so we voted 5 to zip to rescind our offer, reject theirs and have a 30-day cooling off period.”
And that essentially ends the story. The two sides never had another meaningful discussion. The Orioles moved on to Sarasota, where they recently signed a 30-year, $31 million dollar deal — far below the $65 million they originally sought. The deal is said to include a Cal Ripken-type baseball academy as part of the project.
As for the Orioles ultimate intent, it is difficult to know if they ever were really interested in relocating to Dodgertown. The two principals in the negotiations, Alan Rifkin and John Angelos, declined to comment to Vero Beach 32963. The only statement the Orioles made was through spokesman Greg Bader: “The Orioles believe the negotiations were always handled professionally by the County Administrator and ultimately the club simply found a good fit in another community that met more of our needs.”
Senator Kelly, whose sole interest was in bringing the Baltimore Orioles to Vero Beach under conditions that worked for both sides, is clearly disappointed that he will miss out on watching his team during spring training.
Kelly also is left with some ‘What ifs?’ He is of the opinion that if the County Commissioners had waited out the Orioles negotiations with Sarasota, there might have been a different outcome once Angelos could look at the two deals side by side.
“I just think it is a darn shame,” he said of the outcome.
The county went on to sign a deal with Minor League Baseball, which will bring the possibility of year-round use of the facility rather than just the six weeks of spring training. And the County Commissioners are quite happy to have Craig Callan back running the operation, and Minor League President Pat O’Conner as a partner in the venture.
“Every time I hear Pat O’Conner of Minor League Baseball speak, I say thank goodness the deal ended up the way it did,” O’Bryan said. “He talks about the history of the facility and he talks about Jackie Robinson and he talks about the O’Malleys, and you just know that facility is going to be in the best hands for that. I told the Orioles to come in as a partner and not to come in heavyhanded. They didn’t do that and Minor League Baseball did.”