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Team on the Run

In Baseball, Football on July 8, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Can you imagine the New England Patriots ditching Boston for greener pastures, or the Philadelphia Eagles playing in the desert? CDH’s Ian Brickey looks at six franchise relocations that almost occurred.

It’s hard to imagine your favorite sports franchise moving to a different city. Fans tend to blend civic identity with sports success, to the point where teams become synonymous with the city. But those connections that seem so permanent one minute can quickly be undone, and the next minute, you’re redeeming your season tickets in a different time zone — just ask fans of the Baltimore Colts, Brooklyn Dodgers and Los Angeles Rams.

As painful as they can be, many team relocations have come to define the modern leagues, and reinvigorated languishing franchises. It’s difficult to imagine Atlanta without the Braves, Pittsburgh without the Steelers or Detroit without the Red Wings. But for every successful relocation, there are multiple proposed moves. Here are six franchise moves that almost happened.

The San Francisco Giants trade a bay for a lake (1976)

The 1960s were a good decade for the San Francisco Giants. Powered by stars like outfielder Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, and pitcher Juan Marichal, the Giants won the National League pennant five short years after their relocation from New York. But the team’s fortunes quickly turned, as Mays, McCovey and Marichal moved on or entered serious declines. By the 1970s, the Giants were a perennial sub-.500 team playing in a half-filled stadium and were nearly bankrupt. Facing financial ruin, team owner Horace Stoneham agreed to sell the Giants to a Canadian consortium led by Labatt’s Breweries for $13.25 million, with plans to relocate the team to Toronto. However, a court-issued injunction and an 11th-hour bid from San Francisco real estate magnate Bob Lurie torpedoed the relocation, and the team remained in San Francisco. Toronto would have to wait until Major League Baseball’s 1977 expansion before securing its first franchise, the Blue Jays.

The St. Louis Blues head north (1983)

By 1983, the St. Louis Blues were living up to their moniker. The team that had begun its existence with three straight trips to the Stanley Cup Finals had regressed to a bottom dweller in the NHL’s Norris Division. Despite continued trips to the playoffs, the Blues hadn’t been legitimate title contenders for the better part of a decade. The team’s ownership situation did not help their chances. Barely 10 years into the franchise’s existence, the Blues’ original owner, Sidney Salomon II and his son, Sidney III, were in a tight financial situation and looked to sell the team. Out of a sense of “civic responsibility,” St. Louis-based Ralston Purina chairman R. Hal Dean orchestrated the purchase of both the team and the St. Louis Arena for $8.8 million. However, neither Dean nor the rest of the Ralston board expected the purchase to be long-term, and after Dean’s retirement in 1981, the company’s new chairman, William Stiritz, wanted to get the feed giant out of the hockey business. In January 1983, Stiritz announced plans to sell the Blues to a Canadian consortium, with plans to relocate the team to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. But the NHL’s Board of Governors rejected the sale, arguing that Saskatoon wasn’t large enough to support an NHL franchise. Despite an on-going legal battle, the team was sold the following season to Harry Ornest and a group of St. Louis businesses, who pledged to keep the team in the Gateway City.

The Philadelphia Eagles visit the Grand Canyon (1984)

Many franchise relocations begin with a cash-strapped owner, but fewer involve the original owner keeping the team. But such was the situation when Philadelphia Eagles owner and trucking magnate Leonard Tose agreed to sell a 25 percent stake in the team to Arizona real estate developer James Monaghan for $40 million. Under the handshake agreement, Tose would maintain a majority share of the franchise, but would relocate the Eagles to Phoenix. A press conference announcing the move was scheduled for Dec. 17, 1984 after the Eagles’ final regular season game against the Atlanta Falcons. But word of the secret agreement got out the week before the announcement, and Philadelphia fans were shocked. Civic leaders immediately entered into negotiations with Tose to upgrade the Veterans Stadium and draw up a new lease. On December 18, Philadelphia mayor W. Wilson Goode announced that the team would stay in Philadelphia. Phoenix would get a team several years later, when St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill Bidwell moved his franchise to the city in 1987.

The Pittsburgh Pirates get Rocky Mountain High (1985)

1985 was an interesting year for Pittsburgh’s baseball fans, to say the least. Barely two months into the season, a bombshell rocked the baseball world. In May 1985, federal authorities indicted seven men with connections to a drug distribution ring in Pittsburgh. Within days, the arrests turned into a scandal, as numerous current MLB players were implicated in the sale and use of cocaine, including All-Stars Joaquín Andújar, Keith Hernandez and Dave Parker. Even the Pirates’ mascot, Pirate Parrot, was tied to the drug ring. As the scandal expanded, Pirates owner John Galbreath announced his intentions to sell the franchise. While he stated that the sale had been planned for months, many Pittsburgh fans suspected that Galbreath’s motives were influenced by the drug scandal. Two separate Denver-based consortiums, led by John Dikeou and his brothers, George and Deno, and oilman Marvin Davis, made offers to Galbreath to buy the team and move it to Colorado. However, they could not meet Galbreath’s $35-40 million asking price, and the Dikeous and Davis abandoned their efforts, keeping the Pirates in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Drug Trials continued through 1986, and ultimately resulted in fines and suspensions for 11 MLB players, and the conviction of seven drug dealers.

The New England Patriots brought to you by Budweiser (1993)

Believe it or not, but there was a time when the New England Patriots weren’t perennial Super Bowl contenders. The 1990s were one of those times. After a miserable 1992 season that saw the Patriots finish with a 2-14 record, the team was purchased by St. Louis businessman James Orthwein, a member of the Anheuser-Busch brewing family. Immediately after the sale of the franchise, rumors abounded that Orthwein intended to move the Patriots to St. Louis, which had lacked an NFL team since the Cardinals’ 1987 move to Phoenix. Orthwein set about creating a new image for the traditionally inept Patriots, debuting a new logo, new uniforms, drafting the highly-touted quarterback Drew Bledsoe out of Washington State, and hiring future-Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Parcells to lead the team. In the 1993 season, the Patriots improved to 5-11, including a dramatic overtime win in Week 16 that eliminated the Miami Dolphins from playoff contention. In the offseason, Orthwein made his move. He offered Robert Kraft, the owner of Foxboro Stadium and the Patriots’ landlord, $75 million to break its lease, which would allow the team to relocate to St. Louis. However, Kraft made it clear that he would not break the agreement. With his goal of relocation shattered, Orthwein put the Patriots up for sale. Kraft purchased the team for a then-record $175 million. The NFL would return to St. Louis for the 1995 season, when Georgia Frontiere moved the Los Angeles Rams to her hometown. Since Kraft’s purchase of the team, New England has sold out every home game, made 14 playoff appearances and claimed three Super Bowl championships.

The Minnesota Twins secede (1997)

Despite their storied history, which includes Hall of Fame players and multiple World Series appearances, the Minnesota Twins have faced annihilation several times. After a successful run in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which saw the team win the 1987 and 1991 World Series, the Twins fell on hard times. After compiling a 90-72 record in 1992, the twins finished below the .500 mark for the next five seasons. Facing a serious rebuilding period for his franchise, Minnesota owner Carl Pohlad looked to sell the team. In 1997, Pohlad agreed to sell the Twins to North Carolina businessman Don Beaver. After finalizing the sale, Beaver intended to relocate the franchise to the Greensboro-Winston-Salem-High Point region of North Carolina. The sale appeared to be a done deal, but North Carolina voters defeated a referendum to build a new baseball stadium in the Piedmont Triangle, and Charlotte civic leaders balked at supporting an MLB franchise. Without a stadium deal, the sale fell through, and the team remained in Minnesota. However, the team’s future in the Twin Cities was not entirely secured. Despite an 85-77 record in 2001, the MLB targeted the Twins, along with the Montreal Expos, as candidates for league contraction. However, the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which operated the Metrodome, won an injunction that required the Twins to play in the stadium in 2002. With only the Expos remaining as a candidate franchise, MLB abandoned its contraction plan altogether. Since 2002, the Twins have won the American League Central Division six times, and seen pitcher Johan Santana, first basemen Justin Morneau and catcher Joe Mauer take home the 2004 and 2006 Cy Young Awards, the 2006 Most Valuable Player award and the 2009 MVP, respectively.

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