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Baseball group defended

Published Oct. 13, 2005

Stephen Porter had hoped to own a major-league baseball team, but Wednesday he came to town with neither a team, an explanation for what happened nor an apology. All he knew, as managing partner of Tampa Bay's would-be ownership group, was that Major League Baseball this week announced Miami and Denver as National League expansion sites. He said he was still trying to figure out why.

"There has been and there will continue to be much speculation regarding why Denver and Miami were chosen over the bid by Tampa/St. Petersburg," he said. "I'm afraid that today I can give you no definitive answer."

"I offer you no apologies for not being successful in this round," Porter said. "We worked very hard, and we . . . were prepared to meet baseball's requirements."

Porter, a Washington lawyer and co-owner of the minor-league St. Petersburg Cardinals, said at a news conference that the loss was not because of a reduced money commitment from investors Sidney and Allen Kohl.

And Porter insisted a St. Petersburg Times front page report Wednesday explaining what happened _ that it appeared the finances in Porter's group fell apart because the millionaire Kohl brothers drastically reduced their investment _ was wrong.

The Kohl brothers have declined requests for interviews.

Porter said: "Contrary to the rumors that have been written in the newspapers in the last few days, no member of our group defaulted on any obligations. Some members of our group have been unfairly singled out in this regard. Financial commitments made have been met."

He also said, "We worked long and hard to do something that we thought complied" with baseball's requirements. "And today I stand before you telling you that I think we complied and I tell you unequivocally, had we been selected, when the first down payment was due in July of this year, we were prepared to pay it."

However, assistant city manager Rick Dodge and top baseball officials said this week that Tampa Bay struck out because of financial changes in the Porter group.

Dodge said that the Kohl brothers reduced their stake in Porter's group and that the change may have cost St. Petersburg a team. William R. Hough, president of a municipal bond company and a late investor in the Porter group, told the Times on Tuesday that members of the group apparently "didn't invest the amount of money that they implied they would invest" early on.

"I'll be very surprised if that's not what happened," Dodge said.

He cited statements by National League expansion chairman Douglas Danforth, and by baseball owners chairman and St. Louis Cardinals chairman Fred Kuhlmann.

St. Petersburg lawyer Robert Ulrich, until recently mayor, has said the Kohls went from a $50-million commitment to a $5-million commitment. And St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce executive vice president Paul Getting has said the same.

However, Porter rebutted those figures Wednesday, and Dodge avoided contradicting Porter later when speaking to reporters.

"I think it would be wonderful to say this is right, this is wrong, this is what happened, this is what didn't happen," Dodge said. "And I think that if you've followed how baseball's made decisions in the past, it's never particularly clear exactly what occurred and why it occurred."

Porter's appearance at the Florida Suncoast Dome news conference came two days after baseball commissioner Fay Vincent announced Miami and Denver as preliminary winners; baseball's formal vote could come later this month. Porter's visit also occurred while radio station WYNF-FM (95) was penning lyrics to a new song titled Kill the Kohls, and while finger-pointing for Tampa Bay's defeat came to a searing boil.

And his visit coincided with freshly organized plans by business leaders to form a group of wealthy local investors who might help buy an existing team to play in the empty Florida Suncoast Dome. Seattle, Houston and Cleveland have been mentioned as teams that might be lured here.

Ulrich, the former mayor, and Getting, of the chamber of commerce, said their goal is to have at least $30-million in local money in the bid to get an existing team. Out-of-towners, including Porter and the Kohl brothers, would be welcome to help, Dodge said. But the key, said Dodge, would be local commitment and accountability from "a stand-up guy that says "I'll back the deal.' "

Porter, 52, appeared tired as he stepped alone to the lectern in a large room at the publicly owned stadium. As his statement and answers were carried live on Tampa Bay radio and television stations, he sought to assure the community that his group did everything it could to secure a team.

Many of the questions at the news conference pertained to Porter's group's financing and how he was going to come up with the huge expansion fee. Porter said that Sidney Kohl, of Palm Beach, and Allen Kohl, of Beverly Hills, Calif., "never made any representation to baseball as to what their statement was going to be in dollar terms." In fact, he said, "Baseball would be hard pressed to find any statement to which the Kohls say that they were putting in $50-million. This is absolutely untrue."

Rather, Porter said, the Kohls had said they would take a certain percentage of the ownership. And later, after Polk County trucking executive Mark Bostick joined in as an investor, "their percentage went down," Porter said.

The expansion fee is $95-million.

Of his partners' share, Porter said:

"I think if my memory serves me correctly, the Kohls would have had 50 percent of this enterprise in the beginning. ... And at the end, I'm not sure what the percentage is, they would have had 20 percent of the general partnership share collectively. And I can't make a calculation in my head as to what percentage of the limited partnership share they would have had. So, if you just took the general partnership share ... maybe their check would have been $12.5-million.

"But in fact, that's not how it turned out and we rearranged the finances. We ended up with a completely different kind of capital plan and Mr. Bostick came into the group and he filled in some of the capital that the Kohls otherwise would have put in.

"And so, we were not short. We were not shorted by the Kohls in the respect of they pledged $50-million and ended up with $5-million."

In the end, he said, the investments of the Kohls, Bostick and Los Angeles group member Roy Disney "were substantially similar," while his own investment and that of his cousin, S. Joel Schur were "a little bit less."

He called a Times report, quoting a Kohl business partner as saying that the Kohls decided to invest in something else, "an outrageous lie. It's just an outrageous lie." Asked who the public should believe _ baseball owners and community members who say they are familiar with the finances, or Porter _ Porter replied to Times staff writer Stephen Koff:

"Mr. Koff, I think the public should believe you because you write whatever you want. You're calling Mr. (Allen) Kohl at 5:30 in the morning and you're writing a completely phony story this morning that got headlines. I think they really ought to believe you. Because I think you are really are the greatest expert down here and you have been for several months."