The Midas Touch

Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. has a knack for making money without risking his own. Meet the guy who wants you to cough up $250 million for a new stadium.

How hard might DeWitt squeeze taxpayers? Heekin, the former Stingers owner, isn't sure whether DeWitt would abuse his catbird-seat position to extract an overly lopsided deal from the city and Missouri legislators. "I don't know," he says. "I doubt if he would. You never know." Even some of DeWitt's biggest fans say they wouldn't want to be on the other side of the negotiating table from him. "I don't think I would," says Hewig, who calls DeWitt the most honest boss he's ever had. In trade talks and player negotiations during the Stinger days, Hewig recalls, DeWitt was a man who wouldn't be pushed around. "When I would be in his office and he would be talking to another general manager or somebody on the phone and the general manager would be trying to get a little more out of Bill, he'd just say, 'No, I'm not going to do that. I'm going to hang up now.' Not rude, but 'No, I can't do that.'"

DeWitt answers "probably" when asked whether he'd want to face himself in negotiations. "I think I'm fairly pragmatic," he says. "I don't like to negotiate deals that don't get done. I feel like I'm flexible enough to have the other side, whoever's negotiating with me, feel like they've gotten a fair deal. I think it's being able to adapt to what the situation is, in terms of doing a deal -- whether it's signing a player or selling a business or working out something with one of the senior executives. What I try to do is put myself in their shoes and see what would be acceptable and what wouldn't be acceptable. It doesn't make any sense to steamroll somebody or to try to get the last dollar or try to get the best of a transaction. If it's not good for both sides, generally it's not going to work."

In baseball deals, sentiment can be as important as dollars and cents for DeWitt. Consider his bid for the Orioles in 1993: At the time, he stood to gain a healthy profit from his investment in the Rangers, who'd closed a deal for a new stadium that would increase revenue and the value of the franchise. But long before the team was sold and other investors cashed in, DeWitt sold his interest to buy into the team that was once the St. Louis Browns. Besides emotional ties and what he thought would be a chance to run the franchise, DeWitt says he jumped to the Orioles because the team was drawing well and played in Camden Yards -- "I think it's about the best place in the world to watch a baseball game," he says.

St. Louis Cardinals owners Bill DeWitt (left) and Fred Hanser gave Fernando Tatis a gold Rolex for being the first major-leaguer to hit two grand slams in one inning in 1999. This offseason, they gave Tatis his walking papers.
Tim Parker/Reuters
St. Louis Cardinals owners Bill DeWitt (left) and Fred Hanser gave Fernando Tatis a gold Rolex for being the first major-leaguer to hit two grand slams in one inning in 1999. This offseason, they gave Tatis his walking papers.

"When it comes to baseball, I think he's particularly enamored of the old franchises," says DeWitt's son. "It sounds like he's owned a ton of teams. In reality, he's actually turned a bunch down. He might get a call here, a call there, saying, 'Hey, the so-and-so franchise is available for sale. What do you think about putting a group together?' I know he got calls like that when people knew he was interested [in getting back into baseball]. I think he was looking for the right opportunity."

In many people's minds, the right opportunity has always been the Cincinnati Reds, a team for which DeWitt made an unsuccessful bid in 1984. Rumors flew when Marge Schott sold the franchise in 1998. Surely DeWitt wouldn't be able to resist the chance to buy the league's oldest franchise, his father's old team, a club in the same town he lives in. While keeping close tabs on negotiations, talking with Schott and potential buyers, DeWitt at the time refused any public comment, which fueled speculation. "Obviously I've got friends who were interested in that and asked me to help and take a look and maybe give them advice on it," he says now. "Beyond that, that was about it."

DeWitt III paints a picture of a man inexorably drawn to the 1998 negotiations for the Reds. "He tried to stay out of it," the son says. "He just knew everybody who was interested in selling or interested in buying. It was just more out of, I think, curiosity that he just kind of stayed on top of the situation there. I think with Marge calling him and talking to him, I think he kind of felt like it was nice to at least be consulted on who was the right guy."

Given the chance to swap the Cardinals for the Reds, the son and Hanser say DeWitt would stay put. In Cincinnati, John Williams, former chamber-of-commerce president who retired this month, thinks otherwise. "Knowing Bill, and with his father having owned the team, I can't imagine if he had the opportunity and it was a reasonable business deal that he wouldn't do it or wouldn't be a part of it," Williams says. DeWitt himself stops just short of guaranteeing he'll own the Cardinals forever. "I'm totally committed to the Cardinals and can't ever foresee doing anything other than what I'm doing today with the Cardinals," he says.

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