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Did Aborted NFL Team Bid Set Stage for Dodger Sale?

Sports: O'Malley won't say, but sources claim that City Hall's lack of backing for plan disappointed him.


History has its own surprising symmetries, and one of them seems to be coming into focus in the aftermath of Peter O'Malley's stunning announcement that he is putting his family's business, the Los Angeles Dodgers, up for sale.

The Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to the West Coast in 1958 on the strength of baseball's new economics, L.A.'s centralized, can-do, growth-at-any-cost politics and the late Walter O'Malley's relentless opportunism. Now, the rapidly changing fortunes of the national pastime, the divided, chaotically immobile politics of Los Angeles and the sensitive, nonconfrontational personality of the elder O'Malley's son have converged to put control of the city's premier professional sports franchise up for grabs.

No one in City Hall could have affected the structure or economics of baseball. But Peter O'Malley appears to have been influenced by at least one additional consideration--his deep personal disappointment over the failure of the city and the community immediately around Dodger Stadium to back his bid for a professional football franchise. And that factor does involve decisions made by Mayor Richard Riordan and the City Council.

State Sen. Tom Hayden, Riordan's only announced challenger in the upcoming mayoral election, already has attacked the incumbent's handling of this affair. Two questions, therefore, are likely to linger in the local air for at least some weeks to come:

* Among the considerations O'Malley weighed, how important was his frustration over his aborted bid for a football team?

* Could or should the mayor and the council have done anything to prevent O'Malley's disenchantment with City Hall?

The relative importance of O'Malley's unhappiness with the city's treatment of his football bid is hard to gauge. Since his announcement Monday that he is selling, O'Malley has declined further public comment. Moreover, he is, according to friends and close associates--all of whom refused to be quoted by name--a thoughtful, personally sensitive, deeply private man who keeps his own counsel. There is no doubt, however, according to a source close to O'Malley, that he was "disturbed greatly" when City Hall asked him to bid for the franchise, then decided that a new National Football League franchise ought to go into the Coliseum rather than Chavez Ravine.

"What the city did surprised the hell out" of O'Malley, the source said. "We'd all gone down the Coliseum road before and we knew it led nowhere." O'Malley "went to the expense of meeting with the neighbors, hiring consultants and drafting a plan" and was stunned "when the deal was pulled out" from under him.

Riordan, who did suggest to O'Malley that he bid for a pro football team, has no regrets about his office's conduct in the matter. "I was in favor of getting the quickest possible deal to bring professional football back to the people of Los Angeles," he said in an interview Friday. "At the time, Peter looked like the best deal. The NFL agreed; he was exactly the kind of person they wanted.

"Unfortunately," Riordan said, "his bid never got a chance to play itself out fully. And it is hard to say what the City Council might have done if it had." The mayor added that O'Malley's bid probably was doomed when Councilman Mike Hernandez, who represents the neighborhoods around Dodger Stadium, opposed it.

"This is one of the reasons you need charter reform," Riordan said. "All Angelenos ought to have a say in decisions that affect the interests of the entire city. They ought not to be disenfranchised by the unilateral actions of individual council members, who now essentially have the power to block any project in their district."

Moreover, according to Riordan's senior policy advisor, Steven Soboroff--who dealt directly with O'Malley on the mayor's behalf--the Dodgers "never completed a thorough economic analysis of their [NFL bid] and they were a long way from financially validating its viability." That, said a source close Riordan, became more important as Hernandez and the stadium's neighbors became more vocal in their opposition.

"Peter got very badly beaten up in the public meetings they held with the neighbors," the source said. He had no personal support on the council and never tried to develop any because he felt that when the Coliseum bid failed, the city would have to come to him.

"Finally, though," the source said, "the mayor's office went to him and said, 'This thing of yours is not going to play out any further. It's time for you to make a gesture to the city by withdrawing your bid and supporting the Coliseum.' That's what Peter did."

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