So You Wanna Own A Baseball Team

Before he bought the San Diego Padres in June, 1990, television producer Tom Werner loved to play rotisserie-league baseball, "owning" an imaginary team composed of major-league stars. Owning the real thing isn't always as much fun. A month after he and 14 partners closed their $75 million deal to buy the Padres, Werner watched in horror as Roseanne Barr, star of his hit series Roseanne, screeched and scratched her way through the National Anthem. His first year as an owner also featured a still-simmering salary dispute with All-Star catcher Benito Santiago, open feuding between stars Tony Gwynn and Jack Clark, and a front-office purge. "I'm glad that year is over," says Werner. "I've learned that baseball is a tough, bottom-line business."

NEW LOOK. To its owner's evident relief, the team's future looks better than its past, even though the Padres, as of the All-Star break, are in fourth place, 10 1/2 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League's tough Western Div. Werner, who parlayed The Cosby Show into a sizable fortune, is remaking the team from top to bottom. "It was a dormant operation, too conservative," says Michael Megna, a sports-valuation expert for American Appraiser Inc.

No longer. Out went the dreary, brown-trimmed uniforms, in came classy blue pinstripes. Sayonara, General Manager "Trader" Jack McKeon and 40 other front-office employees. Later for you, Clark: Feel free to do your righthanded power-hitting for the Boston Red Sox from now on.

To retain the team's most marketable players and develop new talent, Werner, 41, brought in Joe McIlvaine, late of the New York Mets. McIlvaine traded slugger Joe Carter and promising second baseman Roberto Alomar to Toronto for first baseman Fred McGriff and shortstop Tony Fernandez. And he shelled out nearly $40 million to sign multiyear deals with McGriff, hitting machine Gwynn, and pitcher Bruce Hurst.

McIlvaine's moves, which sent payroll costs up 30%, to $21.7 million, are already showing results. McGriff has 16 home runs, tying him for second in the National League. Gwynn is the league's leading hitter, with a .358 average. Hurst could become the team's first 20-game winner since 1978.

The clubhouse isn't all smiles, though. Santiago, 26, isn't satisfied with the Padres' offer of $11 million over four years and could become a free agent after next year. The friction highlights a long-term problem for Werner and McIlvaine: Teams in larger TV markets can generate more revenues than the Padres, so Werner needs to keep down payroll costs. To that end, the Padres have increased their minor-league budget and added scouts.

ROCK CONCERTS. But there's more to running a team than spending big on a few stars and pinching pennies elsewhere. Perhaps Werner's biggest task is to get the turnstiles clicking. Even after raising ticket prices by as much as $1.50, to a top price of $11, and hiking parking $1, to $4, the Padres will be lucky to break even on more than $40 million in revenues, says club President Dick Freeman. The St. Louis Cardinals, by contrast, bring in some $56 million a season. To draw crowds, Werner has added postgame rock concerts, targeted ads to San Diego's large Hispanic community, and improved ballpark food.

The real money in team ownership, though, is often in the appreciation of franchise value, not operating profits. And, says Megna, partly because the $95 million entry price for the two new NL expansion clubs set a floor price for franchises, the Padres are now probably worth $100 million. "That's if someone wanted to buy it," says Werner quickly. "And I'm not selling." But hey, after a first year like Werner had, he's earned the right to have a little fun.

Ronald Grover in San Diego

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