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Cleveland Indians Up for Sale

May 14, 1999

CLEVELAND (AP) _ First baseman Jim Thome, surprised as anyone to hear that Cleveland owner Richard Jacobs is putting the Indians up for sale, figures one radical idea deserves another.

``Hopefully we can get about 10 players and get enough money to buy this team,″ Thome said Thursday night at Jacobs Field. ``We were talking about it coming out here, me and Mark Langston. We were saying, `Let’s get some money and buy this thing.′ It would be great.″

Thome was kidding, of course. But as Clevelanders found out early Thursday morning, Jacobs was not.

In a move that stunned the city, Jacobs put his Indians on the market Thursday, hoping to find someone willing to keep the team in town and its reputation intact as one of baseball’s hottest properties.

``Let’s put it this way: I want to have a say in passing the torch,″ the 73-year-old Jacobs said. ``I don’t want an executor of mine to say, `Well, Jacobs, he has no hand from the grave, he can’t do anything on this. Let’s make up our decision, who should be the owner of this team.‴

Jacobs, the Indians’ chairman, president, CEO and controlling stockholder since buying the team with his late brother, David, for $45 million in 1986, said he decided a few weeks ago it was the right time to sell.

``It’s shocking,″ said Indians fan Selwyn Powell of Cleveland. ``I never, ever, ever thought this would happen. Not with the run they’ve had.″

Just 3 1/2 years ago, Browns owner Art Modell moved Cleveland’s beloved NFL franchise to Baltimore. Only now is the sports-crazed city recovering from that as it welcomes back the new Browns.

Early in his news conference at the ballpark that bears his name, Jacobs sought to reassure Indians fans.

``Don’t worry,″ he said. ``This team’s not going anywhere. We have a lease for 15 more years. And anyway, who would want to move a team like this? We’re in a ballpark that has sold out 308 straight games. Moving is out of the realm of speculation.″

Manager Mike Hargrove said he would explain the situation to the players before they flew to Detroit for tonight’s game against the Tigers. He did not think the announcement would distract the team from its goal of trying to win its first World Series title since 1948.

``We’ve got a job to do on the field,″ Hargrove said. ``We’ve got to keep our focus. And to do that you need a certain amount of tunnel vision, which I think we’ve been able to do. I don’t see that lessening.″

The team is in first place in the AL Central with the best record in baseball at 24-9 _ Cleveland’s best start in its 99-year history.

Several local candidates were among the bidders for the new Browns last year, and their names immediately came up as speculation began about who could buy the Indians.

But even potential suitors were caught off guard by the Indians’ sudden availability.

The sale ``is a real surprise,″ said local lawyer Larry Dolan, who with his brother, Charles, chairman of Cablevision Systems, unsuccessfully bid for the Browns. The Dolans also have tried to buy the Cincinnati Reds, New York Yankees and the NFL’s Washington Redskins.

``While I was certainly very interested to learn about his decision, it is premature to say whether or not I am a prospective buyer,″ Larry Dolan said.

Toy manufacturer Thomas Murdough, who briefly allied with Jacobs in a Browns bid, did not return calls.

The Browns were eventually purchased for $530 million by billionaire suburban Cleveland banker Al Lerner. The Browns issued a statement saying they were certain Jacobs ``will make the right decision for the Cleveland community and the Indians fans.″

New York developer Howard Milstein, another would-be Browns and Redskins buyer, declined comment.

Jacobs said the team’s board of directors hired two investment firms, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and McDonald Investments Inc., to identify potential buyers.

Jacobs said he wants any prospective owner to be ``somebody committed to baseball and committed to Cleveland″ and that any sale would not be finalized until after this season.

He would prefer any potential owner or ownership group to be from the Cleveland area, and insisted that if the right offer didn’t come along, he would take the Indians off the market.

Jacobs said his decision was not prompted by any health or financial problems. With the price for major sports teams skyrocketing _ the Redskins’ price tag, pending NFL approval, is $800 million _ Jacobs understands that now might be the perfect time to sell.

``If the Redskins can command $800 million, the Indians should bask in that also,″ he said.

Last June, the Indians became the third pro sports team, along with the NHL’s Florida Panthers and NBA’s Boston Celtics, to offer stocks to the public. The club sold about four million shares at $15 per share, a move which raised about $60 million for Jacobs.

Jacobs said he has turned a healthy profit from his initial investment in the team and that the Indians, whose net revenues in 1998 were $144.6 million, are ``making money, very good money.″

The team’s stock closed Wednesday at $9.94 but soared to $16.25 by the end of Thursday on the strength of the announcement.

Jacobs, who made his fortune in real estate, has kept a low-profile as owner, deferring to general manager John Hart. Like everyone else, Hart was caught off guard.

``From a personal standpoint, my reaction was one of surprise and a feeling of sadness,″ Hart said. ``But as Dick explained them to me, his reasons were good, and it made sense for him and the franchise.″

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