SAN DIEGO — A "new" old era in San Diego Padres ownership began Friday when it was announced that the pending sale of the National League club by Joan Kroc to Newport Beach businessman George Argyros had been terminated.
Lack of time apparently thwarted the deal. Argyros also owns the Seattle Mariners and had to sell that franchise before he could buy the Padres. Kroc and Argyros had hoped to complete the complicated transaction in time for approval at a meeting of major league owners June 10. That couldn't be done.
"Both Mr. Argyros and I entered negotiations thinking this would be a simple, uncomplicated deal," Kroc said. "We met Tuesday, and it had become quite clear that it could not be completed on time. I didn't feel it was fair to the community to keep things in limbo. We ran out of time."
There have been strong rumors, however, that National League owners were not prepared to approve Argyros' purchase.
At a simultaneous press conference in Seattle, Argyros said that he intended to keep the Mariners.
"It's in my personal and family's best interest to stay with what we have," Argyros said. "It was prudent to act now and not linger any further, for both franchises.
"Sometimes, the best deals are those that are never made," he said.
Argyros said he will "press ahead to sell the previously announced minority interest (in the Mariners) to one or more local owners."
Mariner President Chuck Armstrong said he was happy with Argyros' decision to retain ownership.
"I think it affects us positively," he said. "We have a stable ownership. We still have a chance to sell a minority interest.
"For the past several weeks it's been like Chicken Little, the sky is falling, the team is leaving town. That's over now."
The deal with Argyros, announced March 26, would have ended an era that began in 1974, when hamburger magnate Ray Kroc bought the club just before it was to be moved to Washington. Mrs. Kroc inherited the franchise when her husband died in 1984.
With the sale canceled, Kroc said she would keep the club at least through the 1987 season and left the door open for longer involvement. Her priorities, she said, will be to negotiate a new stadium lease with the City of San Diego and hire a new club president to replace Ballard Smith, her son-in-law, who announced that his departure--anticipated since the announced sale--would be in two weeks.
Asked if she had any other potential buyers in mind, Kroc said: "That's the last thing in the world I'm looking for. My intention is to turn this thing around. I have no intention of selling the club this year."
Kroc, who said she has missed only three Padre home games this year, was noncommittal, however, about keeping the franchise beyond 1987.
"Do you want me to?" she asked the media. "Do the fans? We'll find out. I hate to speculate about the future, but this year's going to be stable."
This was a different Joan Kroc from the one who announced last December that the club was for sale, claiming that she found charitable interests more fulfilling and noting ruefully that a baseball team was something she had never asked to inherit. She seemed ready to take charge Friday, and expressed disappointment that the Padres were off to an 11-37 start.
"Maybe it's the agony of defeat," she said. "I don't like what's happening. Ray Kroc wouldn't like what's happening. He'd be turning over in his urn. I feel badly, but neither Ballard nor I are going to give up. The fat lady hasn't sung yet, hasn't even cleared her throat. We're going to improve it this year."
Both Kroc and Smith said that Larry Bowa, the first-year manager, is secure despite the slow start.
"It's not fair to judge Larry Bowa based on 40 or 50 games," Smith said. "We can't blame Larry for what's happening."
Asked if she thought the uncertainty regarding ownership had an impact on the team's performance, Kroc said: "Tonight will be the first time we have an opportunity to look at that. If we start winning and have a good streak, maybe it did have something to do with morale. If not, that question is answered."
Although promising to work for improvement on the field, Kroc said that top priority will be a lease to replace the current agreement, which will expire after the 1988 season.
According to Beth Benes, Padre general counsel, negotiations with the city had been progressing until the sale to Argyros was announced. At that point, talks ended.
"Negotiations were ongoing up until Mr. Argyros stepped into the picture," Smith said.
Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and National League President A. Bartlett Giamatti ruled that Argyros could not negotiate a lease because of his continuing involvement as owner of the Mariners.
"It was only fair to wait when George was told he couldn't participate," Kroc said. "A new lease is now our No. 1 priority. I want the community to be assured that no matter what happens, the team will stay in San Diego."