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ORIOLES SUITOR IS A THROWBACK DeWitt tied to team's St. Louis roots

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CINCINNATI -- The man who would own the Baltimore Orioles is not just an out-of-town investment banker looking to make a quick financial killing, or a bored middle-aged executive seeking a new play toy.

For William O. DeWitt Jr., leading a group of Cincinnati investors negotiating to purchase the Orioles from principal owner Eli S. Jacobs, baseball isn't about business -- it's about blood and family.

Mr. DeWitt, 51, may now inhabit a world of high-finance and blue-blood society in Cincinnati, but his roots are deep in baseball's dusty past. He followed his father's footsteps from old-time ballparks in St. Louis and Cincinnati, watching him own and operate storied franchises like the old St. Louis Browns, forerunners of the Orioles, and Cincinnati's sporting jewel, the Reds.

He even played a small role in baseball history, lending his pint-sized Browns' uniform to 3-foot-7, 60-pound Eddie Gaedel, whose one plate appearance in 1951 created a nationwide sensation and led to a walk.

"Bill DeWitt is passionate about baseball," said Dave Martin, general manager of WLW-AM, a Cincinnati radio station once owned by a company controlled by Mr. DeWitt. "His single biggest dream would be to own a baseball team."

That dream could soon come true as Mr. DeWitt tries to retrieve a long-lost family heirloom, the Orioles.

Mr. DeWitt and his partners will not even acknowledge they are pursuing the team, nor will they disclose the makeup of any prospective ownership group.

But the Cincinnati-based group is believed to include Mercer Reynolds III, 47, Mr. DeWitt's partner in an investment banking company and brokerage firm; Dudley Taft, 52, president of Taft Broadcasting Co., and a former part-owner of the Philadelphia Phillies; and Robert H. Castellini, 51, president of the Castellini Co., a produce business.

The four are part of the 28-member limited partnership that controls the Texas Rangers.

Mr. DeWitt and Mr. Reynolds declined comment for this story. Mr. Castellini and Mr. Taft could not be reached for comment.

Orioles president Larry Lucchino, who is also said to be part of the investment group, would only say, "We don't comment on speculation."

Those who know them say the Cincinnati investors would make an effective baseball ownership team. They are described by John Williams, head of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, as conservative businessmen who shun publicity.

"They are the kind of group, if they were the owners of the Reds, I'd be real comfortable with," Mr. Williams said. "None of them are pushovers, but they're not sharks either. These are guys with some substance. They're not Rolexes and gold chain types. They're not Donald Trump-like guys."

They're very much representative of upper-class Cincinnati. Their families are in the city's Blue Book, a listing of Cincinnati's prominent citizens. They belong to many of the same private clubs.

"In every city, you have 800 people with old money and then you have 200 entrepreneurs," said Bob Kolb, a South Carolina-based real estate developer who once received financial backing from Mr. DeWitt and Mr. Reynolds. "These guys are the entrepreneurs."

Like all entrepreneurs, they also have had some failures. A Cincinnati hockey team Mr. DeWitt helped found dissolved. He and Mr. Castellini and other investors also helped build the arena where the team played, the Riverfront Coliseum, which has struggled throughout its history.

One of its darkest moments: a day in December 1979, when 11 rock music fans where killed before a Who concert, a tragedy blamed on poor crowd control.

And Mr. Taft, though considered a pioneer of the broadcasting industry, lost a fight for control of the family's business empire.

Collaborating on an investment like the Orioles would be nothing new for the group. Members have crossed paths repeatedly on projects ranging from Texas gas leases to a brokerage in downtown Cincinnati. Mr. DeWitt, Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Castellini even laid the groundwork to purchase the Reds in 1984, losing out at the last moment after Marge Schott entered the bidding.

"They've been involved in a lot of different things over the years. They are not flashy. They are not likely to end up in the tabloids," said Richard Castellini, deputy city manager of Cincinnati and a cousin of Robert Castellini.

"All those guys are a class act. If they tell you they are going to do something they will do it," he said.

Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Dewitt, for example, formed Reynolds, Dewitt & Co., a Cincinnati investment banking and brokerage firm that serves an exclusive clientele. Working out of the company's offices, they put together a string of successful business deals during the 1980s.

They bought and sold Coca-Cola Bottling companies in Cincinnati and Dayton.

1983, they formed Seven Hills Communications and purchased WLW-AM and an FM license in Hamilton, Ohio, later adding two radio stations in Knoxville, Tenn., and one in Nashville, Tenn., before merging with Jacor Communications in January 1987.

Mr. DeWitt and Mr. Reynolds also operate 64 Arby's fast food franchises in Ohio and Kentucky through Restaurant % 5/8 Management Inc. In 1989, they joined a group that bid $200 million in an unsuccessful attempt to purchase the 2,100-store Arby's chain from financier Victor Posner.

In 1980, in an investment that eventually led back to baseball, the two men formed a Texas oil and natural gas exploration investment company, Spectrum 7 Energy Corp. Four years later, the company merged with Bush Exploration Co., owned by George W. Bush, son of President Bush.

In 1985, the company was sold to Harken Energy, taking Mr. DeWitt out of the oil business. But four years later, Mr. Bush, Mr. Dewitt and the other Cincinnati investors resurfaced in the owners' box of the Texas Rangers.

Mr. Taft and Robert Castellini are now directors of a company that Reynolds, Dewitt & Co. helped take private in a leveraged buyout and have since taken public again with spectacular results. The company, called Future Now Inc., installs and services computers and computer products.

Revenues for the company hit $101 million in the third quarter of last year, the most recent figures available, a more than three-fold increase from the same period a year earlier. It has been on a targeted buying binge, picking up kindred firms, and moving steadily forward and delighting investors.

"They are doing very well," said Kevin Morrow, an analyst with The Ohio Co., who credits the company's success with a strong, marketing-driven management led by ex-IBM salespeople and a unique distribution system.

Among Mr. Castellini's other holdings is the produce company, a trucking company and a portion of Comair Airlines Inc., a regional carrier based in Cincinnati. He also controls 17 acres of river-front real estate in Cincinnati and has proposed developing the area with several restaurants and floating entertainment establishments.

Mr. Taft is a grand nephew of President William Howard Taft and the son of newspaper publisher Hulbert Taft.

Hulbert Taft was credited with moving the family's publishing business into broadcasting. But in 1987, the Dudley Taft lost control of the company in a takeover battle. Dudley Taft now serves as president of Taft Broadcasting, a new company with limited interests in radio and television.

Not every investment these men have made has succeeded.

One early foray into sports team ownership by Mr. DeWitt -- as a minority investor with his father in the Cincinnati Stingers -- was less than a resounding success. The team never seriously contended for the championship of the World Hockey Association and attendance was uneven.

When the WHA merged into the rival National Hockey League in 1979, the Stingers were not one of the four teams that survived as NHL franchises. Published reports said the the Stingers lost more than $1 million in each of four WHA seasons. But Mr. DeWitt recouped a portion of the losses through a $3.5 million payment from the NHL.

"I felt all along that the team was not promoted properly. It was a 'hold-the-line' operation in a town that didn't know anything about hockey," said Terry Flynn, a reporter who covered the team for the Cincinnati Enquirer and had frequent contact with Mr. DeWitt.

Mr. DeWitt was an investor and executive vice president of the team, effectively the No. 2 man in the organization.

The Coliseum has had its ups and downs, and, after the hockey team folded and the University of Cincinnati got a new arena, the Coliseum was left without a major tenant.

A low point in its history came in the late 1970s when Brian Heekin, a co-investor and arena president, was charged in a utility theft scheme in which maintenance workers, at the direction of Mr. Heekin, circumvented a utility meter at the Coliseum. Cincinnati Gas & Electric discovered the theft and prosecuted.

The utility received nearly $1 million in restitution and interest payments, making it the largest commercial theft in the company's history, said Grady Reid, a revenue security specialist at CG&E.;

Neither Mr. DeWitt or any of the other officers were implicated in the incident.

In the wake of the Who concert tragedy, concert management at the Riverfront Coliseum was forced to settle 32 of 33 lawsuits out of court for a total of $2.1 million. A final lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

Although he is no longer a Coliseum director, Mr. DeWitt retains a financial stake in the building.

Mr. DeWitt also was a charter investor with the National Football League's Cincinnati Bengals. His 15 percent stake of the Reds, which he sold shortly after his father gave up control of the team in 1966, was valued at $1 million.

Baseball, apparently, is still in his blood.

"He grew up in it like the rest of us did," said Charles DeWitt, a St. Louis Realtor and cousin of William O. DeWitt Jr. "He spent most of his youth at the ballpark."

Now, those years sound somewhat idyllic -- the younger DeWitt spending summer afternoons on major league fields owned by his father.

But William O. DeWitt Sr. broke into baseball the hard way, working his way up from the bottom, first as a peanut and popcorn vendor with the St. Louis Browns, joining Branch Rickey as an office boy with the St. Louis Cardinals during World War I, going to school at nights, earning a law degree and then filling front-office positions in St. Louis.

With his brother Charles Sr., the elder DeWitt owned the Browns from 1949 to 1951. With another investment group, the elder DeWitt owned the Cincinnati Reds from 1961 to 1966. While with the Reds, he helped engineer a trade that created a championship team -- in Baltimore.

It was the elder DeWitt who sent Frank Robinson to the Orioles before the 1966 season. After Mr. Robinson led the Orioles to a four-game World Series sweep over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Orioles owner Jerold C. Hoffberger placed a call to the elder DeWitt, thanking him for bringing a title to Baltimore.

"He was a nice man and he took that call in the right spirit," Mr. Hoffberger said.

Upon his death at 79 in 1982, the elder DeWitt left an estate valued at $3.1 million.

But he also apparently left his son something else: the yearning to own a major-league baseball team.

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