City basketball league denied aid from bottler


The basketball courts at the Madison Square Recreation Center are empty this week. About 150 Baltimore area teen-age athletes who want to play there are sidelined. And the originator of the successful summer league in which they play is scrambling for money to keep it going.

City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, who established the league in honor of slain Calvert Hall basketball star Craig Cromwell, says the Coca-Cola bottlers in town reneged on a $5,000 commitment to finance the league because they were unhappy that the city did not repeal the tax on beverage containers.

Would Coke spokesman Michael Jordan play ball this way? Mr. Ambridge thinks not.

While the bottlers deny that their support for the league was tied to the city's willingness to end the container tax, a spokeswoman for Mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola Bottling Co. made it clear that because the tax had cost the firm money, "there are some things we are not being able to support in the city because of this bottle bill."

Kate Whiting, public affairs manager for the company, said the bottlers "have been impacted very negatively by this tax in the city. We have informed the council that our business is down, and our sales are down."

She said Mr. Ambridge didn't follow up on his original request for money, and when he did, it was too late. "We did everything we could possibly do to find funds for that camp," she said.

And so the teen-age players wait and, their coaches say, it's a darned shame.

Since it began seven years ago, the Craig Cromwell League has showcased the finest high school basketball players in the metropolitan area and lured college scouts from across the country. It has grown to 12 teams from public and parochial schools, including Dunbar, Walbrook, Southern, Calvert Hall and Loyola. Plus, there are five more teams that want to join, said William Wells, director of the Madison Square rec center and the league coordinator.

"There's no other organized high school or summer league here," Mr. Wells said.

"Kids need competition in the summer and the better it is, the better they get," added Ray Mullis, basketball coach at Cardinal Gibbons School. "Most of the major cities on the East Coast that rank nationally have summer leagues. We need a summer league."

For the past four years, the league has been financed by the Dome Corporation, the real estate development arm of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. But last summer, Dome said it was ending sponsorship of the league. Mr. Ambridge, D-2nd, said he then approached Robert Anderson, the legislative lobbyist for Mid-Atlantic Bottling for help.

Mr. Ambridge said the lobbyist asked him some questions about the league, pledged the company's support and told him to call him when they needed the money.

But then came the fight over repeal of the container tax, which has been bitterly opposed by the beverage industry.

In May, as the beverage industry lobbied the City Council to override Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's veto of the council's repeal of the tax, Mr. Ambridge said Mr. Anderson told him the bottle tax had cost his client plenty and the likelihood of Mid-Atlantic sponsoring charitable events in the city was slim.

"Let's see what happens with this override vote," Mr. Ambridge said he was told.

Mr. Ambridge then called Ms. Whiting, the public affairs manager for the bottlers and Mr. Anderson's boss.

Ms. Whiting said yesterday that was the first she learned of the Cromwell League or "this supposed agreement" for the bottlers to finance the league. She said Mr. Anderson "wouldn't make a commitment like that without talking to me." Ms. Whiting said she told Mr. Ambridge in May that although Mid-Atlantic had no money budgeted for the league she would see what she could do.

But then last week, Ms. Whiting told Sarah Cromwell, mother of the slain athlete, that Mid-Atlantic couldn't foot the bill this summer for the program. She said they would consider doing so next year.

"There was never any follow-up" by Mr. Ambridge, Ms. Whiting said. And if the councilman misunderstood Mr. Anderson's interest in the program, "that's unfortunate," she said.

And although her firm has sponsored other charitable events in the city -- such as a block cleanup campaign and the Special Olympics -- Ms. Whiting said the lost sales attributed to the container tax has forced the beverage bottlers to tighten their belts.

"We are facing some very real difficulties in the city. There's absolutely no question about it. And when we have blatant disregard for our business, our viability, from the mayor on down, it makes life difficult," she said.

Mr. Ambridge says if he made a mistake, it was believing Coca-Cola's lobbyist represented the firm.

"I figure a person's word is their bond, especially when they tTC represent a corporation. One way or the other, we'll get this league going," said Mr. Ambridge, who yesterday secured $1,000 for the league from the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 37.

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