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MIKE PENNER

Disney Again Plays 500-Pound Gorilla

January 19, 1996|MIKE PENNER

For Gene and Jackie Autry, with their franchise at a crossroads, with the stakes higher than ever, this was Donnie Moore pitching to Dave Henderson all over again.

One pitch away.

Deliverance at last.

Nothing could stop them now.

And then . . .

Disney swings from the heels and that smooth, hitch-less, major league-approved transfer of ownership is going, going, gone.

The one difference is that this time, unlike Game 5 of '86, there is a catch.

Not a Gold Glove kind of catch--a brass knuckles kind of catch.

The kind of catch Disney often slips into the 11th hour of high-anxiety negotiations, with deadline looming and aspirin bottles empty, when the party about-to-enter-into-the-agreement is appropriately exhausted and its defenses weakened.

The kind of catch Disney lobbed into the Anaheim Arena lease agreement in early 1993: "We will allow our hockey team to play inside your otherwise vacant building but only if you give us all the dasher-board advertising, acres of office space, the authority to set all ticket prices, a windfall slice of concession sales and the right to name your building 'The Pond' or any other ridiculous name that catches our fancy during one of the laughing jags that tend to occur when we're counting our money."

With the Autrys, Disney agreed to buy 25% of their baseball team and assume the day-to-day headache of running the organization--but only if the city of Anaheim agrees, within 60 days, to $110 million worth of stadium renovations.

If not, Disney can back out of the deal and the Autrys are back to placing classified ads for a prospective buyer. Or Disney can keep the team and dump the city, cut its own stadium deal elsewhere and move the Angels as soon as the team's current Anaheim Stadium lease expires in 2001.

So, instead of Liberation Day for the Autrys, Thursday became merely the first of 60 more days of limbo. Another spring training will likely begin with Jackie Autry still running the operation and Gene Autry having to shell out for the catcher and the fifth starting pitcher his general manager says the Angels still need.

For Richard Brown, this means probably two additional months of employment with the Angels, but for virtually everyone else in the front office, this is disheartening news--60 more days of living, working and sleeping on pins and needles.

Tony Tavares, president of Disney Sports Enterprises, did allow that this may be unfair, "but that's the way it is."

The Disney Way, in six words or less.

Orange County may be reeling from bankruptcy, and the Anaheim City Council may have more pressing priorities than floating a bond measure to fund the rebuilding of a baseball stadium, and taxpayers may not be in the mood to line Michael Eisner's pockets before he lines them some more, and Anaheim may not want to rip 20,000 seats out of its ballpark, since it remains Anaheim's stadium, not Disney's.

Sorry.

That's the way it is.

It's the Disney Way or the highway--and the highway could take the Angels to Orlando or Jacksonville or Charlotte or wherever city officials are amenable to kneeling before Disney because The Mouse, by granting his presence, would make that city whole, healthy and, yes, Major League.

This is not quite the hostage demand the Rams made of the city--"A new stadium or else"--but it is, well, in the ballpark. The Rams' threat was blatant--"Do this or we leave next year." Disney's is more subtle--"Do this or we might leave in six years"--but it is a threat nevertheless.

On the surface, Disney is demanding what the Angels, and their fans, have badly needed for years: a better home environment. As it stands today, Anaheim Stadium is bland and nondescript, sterile and antiseptic, an eyesore from the outside--and, during too many baseball seasons, on the inside as well. It lost any charm it once had when the stadium was enclosed in 1980 and the famous Big A scoreboard unearthed and turned into an electronic freeway billboard.

Disney wants to open up the outfield again, tear the bleachers down, give the fans a scenic view of the 57 freeway again. The idea is not revolutionary. The city of Anaheim proposed the same thing in its wide-eyed "Sportstown" proposal--a plan that would seem to dovetail into Disney's desires. Thursday, however, Disney officials were taking pains to distance themselves from Sportstown.

Why?

Well, Disney didn't think of it first. That's one guess.

Another: It's not a Disney freebie.

Sportstown plans call for a "partnership" between the city and the professional sports franchise--with the city contributing, primarily, the land. Disney prefers a "financial partnership" with the city--the city picking up 60% of the tab and Disney 40%. Or, maybe, a 70-30 split. Or 80-20. Or, ideally, 100-zero.

Eisner posed for all the obligatory, celebratory photographs at the L.A. Biltmore Thursday, basking and grinning beneath a baseball cap that read "Angels In The Outfield."

Appearances with Disney are often deceiving. No one involved with this deal--not the Angels, not Anaheim, and certainly, not Disney--will actually be happy until they see bulldozers in the outfield, clearing out a path to keep the Angels in Orange County beyond 2001.

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