At 2:40 of an otherwise balmy afternoon last week at San Francisco's Candlestick Park, a typically capricious gust of wind caught a stray hot dog wrapper near first base and transported it aloft on a voyage that would have done Phileas Fogg proud. As if jet-propelled, the wrapper shot to a height of a hundred feet above home plate—where Giants slugger Will Clark stood, as usual, oblivious to all but the opposing pitcher, in this case Zane Smith of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Then, dipping on occasion almost to ground level, the wrapper sailed to left-field at breathtaking speed. Just when it looked as if it might join fellow paper discards pinioned to the fence at the 365-foot sign, it took off once more and fluttered majestically over the rim of the stadium to whatever freedom a loose hot dog wrapper may reasonably expect in a hostile environment.
This is an article from the June 1, 1992 issue
If only it were that easy for Bob Lurie to get out of Candlestick Park. Lurie, the mild-mannered owner of the Giants, has been trying with singular unsuccess to escape that wind-whipped edifice virtually from the day he bought the team in the spring of 1976. And he'll try again at the polls on Tuesday, June 2. Three times before, Lurie has gone to voters, pleading with them to spend money to build him a spiffy new ballyard somewhere, anywhere away from Candlestick Point. Each time, they have turned him down, although never emphatically enough to deter him permanently from his mission.
A proposal in 1987 to build a new park near downtown San Francisco failed by 11,440 votes of 181,450 cast. In '89, with his team a National League pennant winner, Lurie looked like a good bet to prevail at the polls. But the Loma Prieta earthquake rattled Candlestick moments before Game 3 of the World Series and caused billions of dollars in damage to the Bay Area. All at once, financing a new playpen for the Giants seemed to many voters a trivial expenditure, and that November the measure went down to defeat, if by only 2,054 votes of 173,646 cast.
To the horror of hidebound San Franciscans, a bloodied but unbowed Lurie next turned south to Santa Clara. However, he lost again in a 1990 countywide election, this time by 3,491 votes of 272,537 cast. Still he saw a ray of hope in that referendum, for at least one city, the county seat, San Jose, voted for him 86,628 to 86,013.
So now he's up for the fourth time, with Measure G on Tuesday's California primary ballot, asking voters, in San Jose only this time, to approve a new stadium on the city's northern periphery that would cost, what with roads and site preparation, at least $265 million. This fourth time at bat in the electoral ball game, Lurie insists, will be his last, and who can blame him? The Giants, wrote San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist C.W. Nevius recently, "have run more often than Harold Stassen. Unfortunately they have about the same record of success."
Lurie has not been without political allies in his seemingly fruitless quest, and this time, in San Jose mayor Susan Hammer, he has one with uncommon zeal and resourcefulness. Hammer collared Lurie at a 1990 postelection party in San Jose's Le Baron Hotel shortly after he had gotten the news that he'd been rejected by the citizens of Santa Clara County. She urged him not to despair, which was a rather bold thing for her to say, because Hammer had no idea at the time whether she had won her mayoral bid—and wouldn't know until three days later, when the last of the absentee ballots were finally tabulated.
Acquiring the Giants for her city would be a top priority of her administration, she told Lurie. And true to her word, she repeated that pledge to constituents in her State of the City address in January 1991. Many of those constituents, she says now, considered her "nuts" for taking a shot with a proven loser. Lurie was impressed, and he and the mayor soon began, as it were, hammering out the details of a new ballpark deal.
Hammer envisions a major league franchise delivering to San Jose somewhere between $50 million and $150 million a year in economic benefits, but that's not all. She asserts that the Giants will also bring her city the recognition she feels it has earned as a big league metropolis. "The best-kept secret in the country," says Hammer, is that San Jose, with a 1992 population of 803,000, not only is larger than San Francisco by 75,000 people but also is the third-largest city in the nation's largest state—behind only Los Angeles and San Diego—and the 11th largest in the country. It also is the self-proclaimed "capital of Silicon Valley," situated among the world's largest concentration of high-tech computer corporations. "And yet," says Hammer, "everyone thinks of us as being small," or even, as the Santa Clara County weekly, Metro, recently deplored, "suburban."
For many of its 215 years, San Jose was small. At the turn of the century, when San Francisco, 50 miles to the north, was already a major international player, San Jose had 21,500 residents, most of them farm people By 1950 the city had grown to 95,290, and then with new industry and finally the high-tech crowd, it underwent a population explosion that left its small-city downtown looking as if it belonged somewhere else. Central San Jose looks no more metropolitan than, say, Terre Haute, Ind. Yet the fringes of the city are, as the local boosters like to say, "the center of the high-tech universe."
Hammer, who was a city councilwoman for 10 years before her '90 run for mayor, describes her current job as "darned fun." Indeed, for all of San Jose's growth, its politics exude a certain small-town innocence, particularly when compared with the Byzantine goings-on up in San Francisco, where a police chief can be fired 45 days after he's appointed, as Richard Hongisto was in mid-May, and a mayor, Frank Jordan, can hear recall noises muffling the echoes of his inauguration speech.
Lurie, after fighting losing battles with more sophisticated political foes in his hometown, is relieved to breathe lighter air. Still, Mayor Hammer did get Lurie to agree to invest from $30 million to $37.5 million of his own money in the ballpark and to pay for any construction cost overruns. Hammer proposes to raise the rest of the money through an increase—from 5% to 7%—in the city's utility tax, a move that does not sit well with a lot of the high-tech folks and other large manufacturers in San Jose, some of whom could see their utility bills increase by six figures. But Hammer, through vigorous schmoozing and a few agreed-upon tax breaks, has persuaded many of them to accept—in principle at least—that having the Giants in town would be worth the cost.
She hasn't won everyone over. T.J. Rodgers, 44-year-old CEO and founder of the Cypress Semiconductor Corporation and one of Silicon Valley's wunder-kinder, objects strenuously to "subsidizing a multimillionaire [Lurie] with a quarter-billion-dollar asset" at a time of economic recession in the valley. "We've got the Japanese in our face, and the mayor is running around with a baseball cap on her head," says Rodgers. "This is a terrible investment when we're losing jobs [Rodgers recently laid off 200 employees] and we don't have enough teachers and police. Lurie's no villain. He'd be a fool not to get the best deal he can. You look for suckers in these deals, which in today's world means government. San Jose is already a major league city in the eyes of most of the world. It's just that the mayor doesn't think so."
The city made its first step into big league sports last fall, when it became home—in name at least—to the San Jose Sharks, an NHL expansion franchise. Despite finishing with the league's worst record (17-57-5), the Sharks enjoyed a hugely successful first season, selling out all 40 of their home dates. Those games, however, were played at the Cow Palace in Daly City, which is in suburban San Francisco. The Cow Palace will be the Sharks' home until the San Jose Arena is finished in the fall of 1993. The arena, a state-of-the-art facility located downtown, is being funded primarily by the San Jose Redevelopment Agency, an arm of the city government, which is putting up about $125 million of public money. (The Sharks are kicking in about $18 million.) The voters in San Jose approved the construction of the arena in 1988—though the margin was narrow.
And the vote will likely be close on Measure G as well. The measure needs only a simple majority to pass. Even if it does, Measure G almost certainly won't win by a two-thirds vote, which it must do to avoid a legal challenge by taxpayers as a violation of California's Proposition 13 tax restrictions. Prop 13 holds that tax increases for a special purpose must win by a two-thirds majority. But Hammer and stall have, in the words of another politician, "camouflaged the measure" by wording it to read that the stadium will be paid for out of "general funds"—general funds dramatically increased, of course, by the higher utility tax.
San Franciscans, meanwhile, observe with a jaundiced eye. Angela Alioto, a member of San Francisco's board of supervisors and the daughter of former Mayor Joe Alioto, has organized a committee to get another proposal for a ballpark on the ballot this November, convinced as she is that San Jose voters will defeat Measure G. Her newest proposal, like the one that was rejected in '89, would call for a stadium to be built at a downtown site.
Jack Davis, a San Francisco political consultant who is a notoriously tough electoral infighter, sees Lurie going down for a fourth time in next week's San Jose vote, and as far as he's concerned, hooray. "Bob Lurie is one of the cheapest bleeps to ever walk down the street," Davis says. "Here's a guy worth nearly $500 million [Forbes magazine, in its most recent listing of the richest Americans, places Lurie's worth at $480 million, most of it inherited wealth], and they want to build a ballpark for him. Public funds should not be used to build a ballpark. What's obscene to me is that taxing essentials—lighting the darkness, taking the chill out of a room, cooking a meal—would be used for this purpose. Bob Lurie should be ashamed of himself."
Davis, acting strictly on his own, he says, distributed 9,000 copies last week of a photograph of a noseless Lurie that will fit over a light switch, the switch occupying the cutout space where Lurie's nose would ordinarily be. FLIP OFF BOB LURIE, the message reads.
Many San Franciscans are more seriously disturbed by native son Lurie's threatened defection. "Losing the Giants would be like losing the symphony, the opera or the ballet," says Angela Alioto.
Says Ed Moose, a San Francisco restaurateur and veteran campaigner for a downtown ballpark, "It would be a disaster, an outrage. Should the Giants leave, the consequences to the spirit, the economy and the national image of San Francisco would be incalculable. Only when they're gone will we realize what a treasure we've so carelessly discarded."
Of course, if they do move, they wouldn't be moving very far, which is Lurie's point. He has always said that keeping the team in the Bay Area has been a top priority—just not in Candlestick Park. He has not, he insists, talked "even casually" to potential buyers from other cities, although he undoubtedly will if he loses in San Jose. Could someplace like St. Petersburg be in the Giants' future? Lurie says this time he's not crying wolf.
The Giants' lease at Candlestick expires after the 1994 season, but an escape clause would allow the team to pack up and leave as early as next season, an option Lurie might exercise if Measure G fails. If it passes—and survives any legal challenge—the new ballpark would be ready for the '96 season, giving the Giants three more years at the 'Stick before they would become the San Jose Giants.
"Bob has spent millions keeping the Giants here out of loyalty to the community," says Giants executive vice-president Corey Busch. "What he's done is unprecedented in sports. What other owner has given the voters a chance to keep their team? Did the old Giants and Dodgers give the fans a say before they left New York and Brooklyn? Did Al Davis? Did the Baltimore Colts? Horace Stoneham [Lurie's predecessor] had sold the Giants to Toronto, and they were on their way out of town when Bob saved them for San Francisco. Believe me, if it were economically feasible now to build a new ballpark privately, we'd do it. There is nothing this organization would like better than to own its own facility and not to have to deal with the bureaucracy."
With two weeks to go before the election, Lurie, Giants president Al Rosen and manager Roger Craig spoke at a ballpark "community support" luncheon given by the San Jose chamber of commerce. Also in tow were former Giants stars Orlando Cepeda and Vida Blue and current players Rod Beck, John Burkett, Royce Clayton, Kelly Downs, Darren Lewis and Trevor Wilson. It was an impressive show of team solidarity, and it inspired Mayor Hammer, resplendent in an electric-blue suit, to lead cheers. "C'mon," she urged the crowd of 350, "let's keep this enthusiasm up until election time. I can tell you I've never in all my years in politics had more fun in a campaign."
The thrice-beaten Lurie was much more circumspect. He is a short man, and though he is in his early 60's, he looked almost boyish confronting these energetic civic boosters. "You should be proud of your mayor," he said heartily. Laughing nervously, he told his eager supporters, "You know, sometimes I'll wake up in the middle of the night after a night-mare, and I'll realize that the nightmare was that we were going to lose." Then, rousing himself from this tortured reverie, he hastily continued, "But I think we'll win."
It's 50-50, say the experts, that he'll go 0 for 4.