In a dramatic, fourth-quarter substitution, Gov. William Donald Schaefer yesterday endorsed a Cleveland-based multimillionaire with strong football connections to be the owner of a potential Baltimore NFL expansion franchise.
Mr. Schaefer said he hoped the new face -- Alfred Lerner -- and new strategy would make the difference for Baltimore Nov. 30, when NFL owners will meet near Chicago and vote on which of the four finalists will be awarded the league's 30th team.
"It's a whole new ballgame. I think it gives us a whole new dimension," Mr. Schaefer said yesterday.
In backing Mr. Lerner, Mr. Schaefer was effectively snubbing two prospective owners who had been working alongside community leaders for about two years to get a team: Florida-based corporate investor Malcolm Glazer and a group led by Baltimore-born retail executive Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass. Both men said they would stay in the race, but their failure to garner the official support of the state is bound to weigh heavily with NFL owners. Mr. Schaefer called NFL president Neil Austrian yesterday to say he supported Mr. Lerner.
Mr. Schaefer, who recruited Mr. Lerner, said neither Mr. Weinglass nor Mr. Glazer generated sufficient enthusiasm among NFL owners to take the city over the top last month, when the NFL awarded a single franchise to Charlotte, N.C., and deferred naming the second.
"Mr. Weinglass and Mr. Glazer, they fought hard . . . but we didn't get the franchise. We did not win. We cannot stand pat," Mr. Schaefer said.
Mr. Schaefer said it was a difficult decision, especially because Mr. Weinglass' investment group included a number of blue-chip community leaders who became involved at the urging of the governor. Among its members are H&S; Bakery owner John Paterakis and Crown Central Petroleum chairman Henry Rosenberg, both Schaefer supporters, as well as moviemaker Barry Levinson.
"If I were them, I would not be happy. But I've been working since Mr. Irsay moved the Colts from the city. We've been working for 10 years," said Mr. Schaefer, who was mayor of Baltimore in 1984, when the Colts moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis.
The governor met separately with Mr. Weinglass and Mr. Glazer's two sons Sunday and explained his decision. Also present were the other members of the committee overseeing Baltimore's NFL bid: Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, local businessman and Greater Baltimore Committee representative Mathias J. DeVito and Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herbert J. Belgrad.
Mr. Schaefer said Mr. Lerner, a real estate and financial services executive who got his start in Baltimore and once headed its biggest bank, has the financial strength to mount a solo bid for a team and is well-known within the league.
Mr. Lerner, who did not return phone calls yesterday, owns 5 percent of the Cleveland Browns and is a close friend of Browns owner Art Modell, a member of the committee of team owners that will recommend where to award the next franchise.
Mr. Schaefer said he called Mr. Lerner about a week ago to ask him to file an application with the NFL, which he did yesterday. The league set a deadline of noon yesterday for new ownership applications, although it reserves the right to name any owner it wants to the winning city.
St. Louis, generally considered the front-runner for the second franchise, filed a franchise agreement on behalf of a group led by a Missouri developer, E. Stanley Kroenke. A rival group headed by former New England Patriots owner Fran Murray did not file an application, effectively taking it out of the running, an NFL spokesman said. Mr. Murray says he has control over the lease to St. Louis' domed football stadium, an issue he has hinted may have to be settled in court.
The other finalists for a team, Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville,
Fla., made no changes in their ownership applications, although Memphis' leaders said they enhanced their financial package.
Mr. Schaefer said the state decided to abandon its long-standing policy of neutrality on team ownership after consulting a number of NFL owners and league officials who suggested the stance was causing confusion. He said he didn't regret the old policy, but was thankful the NFL's delay in naming a second city gave him the opportunity to change it.
"We couldn't get a Baltimore group. I tried for a long time to get a key member of the Baltimore community to do this, but I was not successful," Mr. Schaefer said.
Mr. Lerner is a publicity-shy ex-Marine described by friends as a no-nonsense businessman unlikely to get involved unless he thought the city could get a team.
Though he is based in Cleveland, Mr. Lerner got his start here as a furniture salesman and has had a number of significant holdings in the area, including the Baltimore-based Town & Country Management Corp., which owns thousands of apartments in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Mr. Lerner, 60, became chairman of Equitable Bancorp in 1981, eventually engineering the sale of the company to MNC Financial. He took over control of MNC, then the largest banking company in the state, when it was in trouble, corrected a number of its financial problems, and sold it to NationsBank in a deal consummated this year.
Among his other significant holdings is MBNA Corp., a Newark, Del.-based company that is one of the nation's largest credit-card issuers and was once a unit of MNC Financial.
Mr. Weinglass convened a news conference yesterday afternoon and bitterly criticized the decision to support Mr. Lerner. "My group is Baltimore," he said. He has purchased a full-page ad in The Sun for tomorrow in which he plans to appeal to football fans in the city.
Mr. Weinglass' legal residence is Aspen, Colo., but he grew up poor in Baltimore and made a fortune in retailing, founding the Joppa-based Merry-Go-Round chain of clothing stores.
Mr. Glazer, who has made millions investing in such wide-ranging companies as motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson and Houlihan's restaurants, said: "It hasn't changed our status at all. We're committed to Baltimore."
Later, in a statement read by his son, Joel, Mr. Glazer predicted the NFL would remain loyal to one of the two groups that have been a part of the process for two years. "The NFL is aware that we worked tirelessly and spent millions of dollars to put the city where it is today," the statement said.
NFL owners have been publicly supportive of Mr. Weinglass and Mr. Glazer, but privately a number of them have expressed reservations about them. Mr. Weinglass' flamboyant style and background turned off some, as did Mr. Glazer's bottom-line orientation to the sport.
New York Giants part-owner Bob Tisch described the two men as "strong candidates" for team ownership, but predicted Mr. Lerner's ties to Mr. Modell could be an important asset for Baltimore.
"He's a first-class guy. He's very capable and bright guy," Mr. Tisch said of Mr. Lerner. "He is really first-rate. You couldn't get anybody better than that.
"The owners are going to decide which city they are going to go to, but they are not going to go to a city whose owners they don't like and respect," said Mr. Tisch, a member of the Finance Committee that, along with the Expansion Committee, jointly will issue a recommendation on the next franchise.
Baltimore's greatest drawback generally is considered its proximity to the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles. The addition of a new owner could compensate, said Mr. DeVito, the Greater Baltimore Committee representative who participated in strategy sessions with the governor.
"We can't do anything about geography. I think he [Mr. Lerner] gives us the strongest possible ownership presentation. He knows the owners, is a known quantity. . . . Therefore, he makes our application much stronger," said Mr. DeVito, chairman of The Rouse Co., a developer based in Columbia.
Mr. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said: "We're not in any way urging either of the [other] two groups to change their direction. The choice belongs with the 28 NFL team owners."
But, he said, "We felt that we've gotten the message that our current package didn't do it and to go back with the same package didn't seem responsive to the message we received."