The Mid-Nineties: George W. Bush greeting fans and signing balls at the ballpark in Arlington.
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
How he ran the Texas Rangers and became, finally, a successful businessman.
HE MAY BE IN THE MIDDLE OF A LEGISLATIVE session and at the start of a run for president, but priorities being what they are, George W Bush spent the first Monday in April at the Ballpark in Arlington, where his career as an organization man took shape. It was a glorious spring afternoon, with clear blue skies providing a brilliant contrast to the emerald green of the outfield grass. Over the course of nine innings at the Texas Rangers’ home opener against the Detroit Tigers, Bush sat in a box seat behind the first-base dugout next to his wife, Laura, team owner Tom Hicks, and then team president Tom Schieffer; signed autographs in the stands; strolled into the clubhouse to chat up players and personnel; and fielded questions in the press box. He even popped into the booth where Rangers games are broadcast in Spanish and called the play when Juan Gonzalez broke up a no-hitter: “Un hit de Juan! El primer hit de Texas del juego!”
The Ballpark is the legacy of Bush’s five-year stint as managing general partner of the Rangers, a time in which he built U both the franchise’s bottom line and his own, along the way honing many of the skills he draws upon in politics. Fundraiser Bush shook out $46 million from various investors during the depths of Texas’ last economic bust in the run-up to busing the team. Consensus-builder Bush got the Ballpark referendum passed in Arlington when similar measures were being nixed by voters elsewhere. Manager Bush ran a business efficiently in the glare of the public eye. People-person Bush nourished the egos of the famous and the anonymous, from Juan Gonzalez to the groundskeepers, always addressing them k name.
After all that, running the free world might seem like T-ball.
PRIVILEGE, PEDIGREE, AND PERSONAL relationships were the reasons Bush hooked up with the Rangers in the first place. His name surfaced as a possible major league owner in the weeks after his father was elected president. “George had spent most of 1988 campaigning and then on the transition team, but he decided he didn’t want to he in Washington-he wanted to go back to Texas,” says one of his fraternity brothers, Roland W. Betts, a movie financier who’d been looking for a pro sports team to buy. “In December he called me and said the Rangers were in play. The Macks [a venerable baseball family] wanted to buy the team from Eddie Chiles, but there was growing concern that they wanted to move the team to Florida.”
Chiles, the Fort Worth oilman who achieved notoriety with his ‘I’m Mad” radio spots, had known George W. as a kid. A friend of the Bush family, he flew George’s sister Robin to hospitals in his private plane when she was diagnosed with leukemia. He’d bought the Rangers in 1980, but at age 78 he was ready to call it quits-a fact Bush was made aware of by William DeWitt, Jr., his oil-business partner in Midland in the eighties. DeWitt, whose father had owned the St. Louis Browns and the Cincinnati Reds, wanted a piece of a team himself.
Bush got cash commitments from several sources. Betts signed on, but only after receiving assurances that his friend wasn’t going to run for office anytime soon. Also ponying up were Connecticut real estate whiz Craig Stapleton, Bush’s cousin through marriage; former Marriott Corporation executive Fred Malek, who had been a member of Richard Nixon’s inner circle; and three Cincinnati investors: produce wholesaler Bob Castellini, oilman Mercer Reynolds, and broadcasting executive Dudley Taft. Chiles was so impressed that he signed a letter of agreement with the Bush group.
But baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth wasn’t satisfied. Although he wanted Chiles to find a buyer who would keep the Rangers in Texas, a top ten media market, he thought Bush’s investors didn’t have enough local ties. At Ueberroth’s urging, Bush went to see Fort Worth financier
Richard Rainwater, the money man behind the Bass family. Subsequently Rainwater met with Bush, Betts, and Stapleton at the Highland Park home of Edward “Rusty” Rose, a financier known as the Mortician for his ability to squeeze profits from failing companies acquired through leveraged buyouts. “We talked about the possibility of owning the team together,” Betts recalls.
At the end of the day Rainwater said if he was going to do it, he wanted Rose as general partner because he liked and trusted him. I said the same thing about George. Rose and George met, and after a few lunches they agreed to run the team together.” The publicity-shy Rose made one stipulation: Bush would be the managing general partner, meaning he’d deal with the media and the public, while Rose would serve as chairman of the board.
Rose threw in $3.2 million and raised another $9 million from other investors, including Rainwater and cable television mogul Jeff Marcus. Bush rounded up $14 million, contributing $606,000 of his own-the smallest amount of any major investor. All told, seventy investors representing 39 limited partnerships bought a piece of the team. Betts and fellow film financier Tom Bernstein paid the most money ($7 million) and received the largest share (18 percent).
Once those initial arrangements were hammered out, Bush approached several other investors. Among them were Schieffer, a former state representative from Fort Worth, and Comer Cottrell, the CEO of a Dallas hair products firm. Edward Gaylord, the Oklahoma City media magnate, reduced the one-third piece of the team he’d bought from Chiles in 1986 to 10 percent. Other small shareholders from the Chiles era, including Arlington realtor Mike Reilly, held on to a total of 4 percent.
The Bush-Rose group was formally incorporated as BR Rangers. No decision would be made without the approval of the two general partners. “Neither of us has the responsibility to make any decision without consulting with the other,” Bush would later explain. “On a certain task, he may lead on it or I may take the lead. The buck stops on our desks.” For his efforts, Bush was paid an annual salary of $200,000; Rose’s company would reportedly receive a retainer of $120,000. In addition, once all the investors were repaid with accrued interest, both Bush and Rose were to be compensated for putting the deal together with a bonus, or promote fee, of 10 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
The $86 million deal was officially approved by baseball’s executive committee in April 1989. But the real work had only just begun.
T0 PUT IT KINDLY, THE RANGERS WERE a beaten-down franchise. Since relocating to the Dallas-Fort Worth area from Washington, D.C., in 1972, they had consistently performed poorly on the field and at the ticket office. They were finally drawing fans (they passed the 1.5 million mark in attendance in 1986, 1987, and 1988) and cultivating talent (pitcher Nolan Ryan, a bona fide star; Ruben Sierra, an outfielder with Hall of Fame potential) but they were playing in a jerry-built stadium that was originally intended for minor league competition. “The first time I went down there, I was just shocked,” says Betts, and he wasn’t alone in his assessment. “At our first meeting, that was the mantra: To turn this thing around and add value to our investment, we were going to build a new stadium.”
Most of the 1989 season was devoted to learning the business of baseball. Quickly adapting to his role as the public face of the owners’ consortium, Bush was as much of a fixture at the old Arlington Stadium as John “Zonk” Lanzillo, Jr., the drum-beating superfan. He was always in his seat next to the dugout, boots up on the railing, munching peanuts, watching the game, signing more autographs than most of the players. His parents got involved too. In 1989 their springer spaniel Millie gave birth to Spot Fletcher, who was named in honor of Rangers shortstop Scott Fletcher. Two years later the president broke tradition and threw out the first pitch of the season in Arlington instead of Baltimore, the closest city to Washington with a major league club.
Behind the scenes, George W. set to mending fences, improving the team’s image, and winning over critics like Jim Reeves of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, who covered the sale of the Rangers and had few kind words for the Bush group. “I had an early built-in grudge against George in particular,” says Reeves. “I thought he was a failed politician and obviously a guy who was playing off his dad’s name because he wasn’t putting much money in.” Bush went out of his way to win over Reeves, even inviting him to play a round of golf, and the reporter gradually came around. “I found him to be a very personable, direct, very informed general partner. The more we were around him, the better the team’s relationship with the press would be. You could believe what he told you.”
He was good at other things as well: He was instrumental in neutralizing the agendas of various personnel, marketing Ryan aggressively, and broadening the team’s appeal by instituting Spanish-language broadcasts. Baseball details, however, were left to the baseball people. “They went out of their way to let us know they weren’t going to be hands-on owners,” said Tom Grieve, then the Rangers’ general manager. “They made it clear from the start they did not buy the team because they wanted to brag to their friends that they owned a baseball team. They told me, ‘We’re business people and expect to be profitable, and we expect our baseball people to be accountable.’ But never did they come in and say, ‘When are you gonna get rid of this guy?'”
By the end of the first year the initial plan that had been in the back of everyone’s mind was formalized. If the Rangers were going to make the transition from a have-not franchise to one of the haves and maximize their value, they would have to play in a new stadium-ideally, a state-of-the-art facility that looked old and traditional but had all the requisite sky boxes and other modern bells and whistles. The partners looked around for someone who could manage a large public project, considering both Tom Luce and Bush himself at one point before designating Schieffer the stadium czar in July 1990. He was charged with selecting a site, developing a strategy, and getting the project under way despite a seemingly impossible obstacle: The partners didn’t want to have to pay for the new park themselves.
Schieffer looked around the Metroplex for a few months before concluding that Arlington was the best site and that a half-cent local sales tax was the best way to pay for it. He then got busy winning over voters to raise the $135 million in bonds it would take to build a new home for the home team. Tarrant County judge Tom Vandergriff, who was instrumental in luring the
Rangers from Washington, and Arlington mayor Richard Greene were enlisted to spearhead the three-month effort. Both Schieffer and Bush were actively involved. At one point both men spoke from the pulpit of the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Arlington, with Bush declaring, “A vote for the tax would be a vote for contracts for African American businesses.”
With minimal opposition–Arlington’s economy is based on tourism and entertainment, and a large percentage of its sales taxes are paid by out-of-towners–the bond issue passed in January 1991 by a two-to-one margin. Nearly 34,000 voters went to the ballot box-more than in any election in Arlington’s history. Under their agreement with the city, the Rangers would chip in $30 million from revenues of ticket sales, surcharges, and luxury-box leases, and pay for any additional costs, which added up to an another $26 million. The team would assume full ownership of the stadium when the bonds were paid off. “This eventually will give us the ability to compete on a payroll level that will put us with a whole new echelon of ballclubs,” Bush said after the referendum passed. “We’ll be able to pay the market price to keep our talent and, at the same time, keep ticket prices down.” Following the vote, Schieffer shifted his focus to the Texas Legislature, which passed a bill that would ratify the arrangement, then he took the lead in getting the park built, soliciting designs from architects-nineteen submitted bids-before hiring David Schwartz of Washington, D.C., a Bass family favorite.
Back home, two flaps surfaced around the construction of the stadium. The first involved the condemnation of thirteen acres of land owned by the Curtis Mathes family, for which the city offered $1.375 million and the Matheses wanted $2.1 million. A state district court eventually declared the condemnation illegal and ordered that the Mathes group be paid the full amount they asked for, plus damages, which ultimately came to more than $11 a square foot, far higher than the $2.67 per square foot maximum that the city paid for any other single parcel during the land acquisition. The Rangers eventually worked out a payment plan to pay off the difference. The second snag was the awarding of minority contracts. The Rangers were criticized by the Arlington chapters of the NAACP and LULAC, the Arlington Hispanic Advisory Council, and even one of their own partners, Comer Cotrell, for not throwing enough business to black and Hispanic firms.
In the end, of course, the problems got resolved and the Ballpark got built. Much of the credit went-correctly-to Schieffer, who demonstrated he could orchestrate and delegate and was rewarded by being named the team’s president. But Bush’s behind-the-scenes involvement-in managing Schieffer, troubleshooting, and going public when necessary-was crucial, people familiar with the situation say. “The bond election, the ballpark, the financing technique, that was all George’s deal,” says Mike Reilly. “He quarterbacked the whole thing, but he never took the credit.”
BUSH TOOK A LEAVE OF ABSENCE FROM the team before the 1994 season to run for governor, missing much of the Ballpark’s inaugural season. The venues, classic lines and distinctively Texan look-from the native granite and red brick to the Longhorns iii the facade-were an instant hit, drawing almost 3 million fans. A museum, sports bar and restaurant, luxury boxes, and a four-story office building outside the outfield fence bumped up the final cost to $191 million, but those additional revenue streams led Financial World magazine to rate it as the most profitable facility in baseball.
During the election, Ann Richards tried to make the public-private arrangement for financing the stadium an issue in the governor’s race, a means of showing Bush as a beneficiary of corporate welfare, but it didn’t take. After he won, Bush put his assets-including his share of the Rangers-in a blind trust and resigned as managing general partner. (His timing couldn’t have been better: A players’ strike cut short the 1994 season, caused the World Series to be canceled, and alienated many fans.)
Bush’s official parting with the team came four years later, in June 1998, when buyout king Tom Hicks snapped it up for $250 million. By the time of sale, Bush’s 1.8 percent share of the ownership had ballooned to 11.3 percent, and he pocketed almost $15 million: $2.7 million as a return on his investment and a $12.2 million “general partner interest”–his 10 percent “promote fee” for putting the ownership group together back in 1989. Not surprisingly, he was widely criticized by the usual suspects–the Texas Observer among them-for earning so much while seemingly doing so little, but his fellow owners sprang to his defense. “To me and to everyone in the partnership,” Schieffer says, “it was not unusual to get a percentage on the hack end like that for putting the deal together.”
In any case, what Bush really got out of the deal was something more important than money: After years as Junior, he finally became his own man. “Before the Rangers, I told him he needed to do something to step out of his father’s shadow,” says Roland Betts. “Baseball was it. He became our local celebrity. He knew every usher. He signed autographs. He talked to fans. His presence meant everything. His eyes were on politics the whole time, but even when he was speaking at Republican functions, he was always talking about the Rangers.”
extra My Wimberley Why Wimberley is not Columbine. [Texas Monthly, Behind the Lines, Texas Feature, June 1999]