Longform

Keeping Score

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Once Williams and Macey had won over the legislature, they set out to win over the voters. Macey's easygoing sense of humor appealed to audiences, and he was a good match for Williams, a down-to-earth Adams County Republican who made a dollars-and-cents argument for the benefits of bringing a team to Denver.

With an August 1990 vote looming, the first polls showed only 26 percent of the electorate would support the proposed baseball stadium district. So the pro-ballpark campaign began emphasizing community pride, and that proved to be a powerful force in a city just emerging from its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. A $100,000 contribution from cable magnate Bill Daniels jump-started the campaign, which eventually assembled a $500,000 war chest.

In Denver in 1990, homes were still being sold at bargain-basement prices after being repossessed from their bankrupt owners, downtown skyscrapers were known as "see-through" buildings because they were half-empty, and lower downtown was a place suburbanites were afraid to go for fear they'd stumble over a bum passed out on the sidewalk.

The town had a major inferiority complex and was desperate for some sort of good news. By election day, 54 percent of the voters had decided to take a gamble that the possibility of getting a major-league team to Denver would be worth a sales-tax hike. (Even though Coors Field would become the quintessential urban ballpark, the tax was turned down in Denver; suburban voters provided the winning margin.)

While Denver's hard economic times helped to sway voters to baseball's side, they'd also created a psychology that made the city vulnerable to fast-talking hustlers who could promise better days ahead. Sure enough, a pair of them showed up soon after the vote, and they played off the city's low self-esteem to win themselves a financial grand slam.

Building a ballpark wasn't enough. To land a team, Denver had to assemble an ownership group with pockets deep enough to convince the National League that the owners could cover the substantial costs of launching an expansion team.

By now, John Dikeou's real estate empire had crashed; he no longer had the financial resources to bankroll a team. Spooked by the economic freefall of the 1980s, the people in Denver who still had money weren't offering to pick up the tab for a new team. Since money was tight, outsiders with cash were welcomed with open arms.

Enter Mickey Monus and John Antonucci, two wheeler-dealer Ohio millionaires who had been friends since childhood. When they showed up shortly after the election with seemingly enough money to single-handedly keep the prospective team afloat, Romer quickly designated them the team's primary owners.

With an ownership group in place, the wooing of the National League commenced in earnest. There was plenty of courting to be done, as Major League Baseball was skeptical that Denver had enough people to support a team. And even if it did, would football-loving Coloradans rally around baseball?

"Behind the scenes, the National League was telling us they had strong reservations about bringing a team here," says Tom Gleason, former deputy director of the baseball stadium district. "They thought there wasn't enough population here. They were very concerned that the ownership group have enough resources to support a team, especially in the early years."

Monus and Antonucci used the National League's hesitation as a bargaining chip in their lease negotiations with the baseball stadium district. Give us a great lease, they argued, and Denver will be more likely to win an expansion team.

And so in private, McHale sketched out a lease that would give almost all stadium revenues to the Rockies, saddling the taxpayers with virtually all the costs for the new stadium.

This was quite a change from McHale's promise to voters before the crucial August election. Nine days before the vote, McHale wrote in the Denver Post: "Our finance plan makes the stadium a true private/public partnership, with $42 million in revenue coming from the private sector and $97 million from sales tax revenue...Taxpayers are protected."

Within weeks of making these assurances, though, McHale was slurping down martinis and sharing cigars with the new, out-of-town owners of the future team. "They started kissing McHale's fanny right away," Williams says. "They started going to games together and having drinks with John. They knew John had a lot of power as chairman of the stadium authority."

Monus, whose Phar-Mor drugstore fortune made him the chief carpetbagger, was also wowing the locals in oil-bust-weary Denver, pulling up in a limo at society soirees and boasting of his numerous financial conquests. His partner, Antonucci, plunked down $2 million for a Cherry Hills home with an elevator and disco floor. Denverites hadn't seen such a display of cash-fueled chutzpah since dozens of Texas oil millionaires descended on the city like buzzards in the early 1980s.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers