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How Kraft's Mass. dream fizzled

By Scot Lehigh and Tina Cassidy, Globe Staff, 12/16/98

Behind locked doors in the basement of BankBoston's downtown headquarters, the suite of rooms sits like a secret vault preserving dreams of what might have been.

One enters over mahogany floors, walks along silk-hung walls, and smells the faint hint of new leather club chairs. A sparkling granite bar flanks one wall, a panel of large-screen TVs fills another.

But what draws the eye is this colorful sight: six rows of blue stadium seats, ten per row, facing a huge blowup of a New England Patriots game in which players are frozen in gridiron glory. Overhead, stereo speakers pipe in the voice of Gil Santos doing play-by-play as the crowd roars in the background.

In 1996, Patriots owner Robert Kraft spent more than $1 million to build this subterranean section to help sell clients on the club seats for his proposed stadium in South Boston. During his doomed quest, Kraft was host to a half-dozen community groups in the plush suite, hoping he could bring opponents around to the advantages of his stadium plan. Build it, and they will succumb, he seemed to think.

But with last night's approval by the Connecticut General Assembly of the deal to move the Patriots to Hartford, the mockup stands as a mausoleum for Kraft's dream. Even now, with the South Boston plan almost two years dead, the Krafts haven't quite been able to give up on the fantasy. They still pay more than $100,000 a year to maintain the BankBoston rooms.

``This is just one of the testaments to our work; this was our vision,'' Kraft's son Jonathan said recently on a tour of the site. ``I just hope it comes across how much effort we put in. It wasn't a fool's errand. We wanted to spend our own money and keep the team here.''

It was an effort that began with the state's grand plans for a Boston Megaplex, which morphed to ever-more ambitious schemes for a South Boston stadium, and then dwindled to shrunken hopes for a renovated home in Foxborough or a new facility there before ending in bitterness and recrimination on both sides with the announcement last month that Kraft had signed a deal to move to Hartford.

Through it all, the Krafts and Beacon Hill policymakers viewed each other warily across a cultural chasm separating two very different worlds.

The Krafts, seeing themselves as community heroes who had saved the Patriots for Massachusetts, still can't understand why state politicians never turned their rhetoric into reality.

The family found that even more perplexing because Kraft was willing to pay for a $200 million stadium himself, asking state help only for infrastructure, while other National Football League teams were receiving huge taxpayer funding for their facilities.

They aren't the only ones perplexed by what often appears to be the state's politically balkanized, can't-do climate.

``Massachusetts would never offer the kind of expensive deal that Connecticut did to keep the team, but the point is, we didn't have to,'' said US Rep. Martin T. Meehan. ``We had several proposals for a privately financed stadium.'' Still, a particularly Boston blend of problems would combine to doom the stadium plans -- and cost Massachusetts its NFL franchise, along with the associated prestige and the millions of dollars in annual tax revenue it generates.

With the Patriots long ensconced outside of Boston, the capital city's business and civic leaders felt no strong connection to the franchise. Its political community was always divided about the appropriate site for a stadium and about how much state aid to contribute, while voters themselves were seemingly indifferent to the fate of the team. Ironically, in a city and a region that has long been seen as passionate about politics and sports, politics was instrumental in killing a major sport.

But if politicians and businessmen were ambivalent about a new stadium for the Patriots, Kraft had high expectations when state officials asked him to be part of the Megaplex and, later, when former Gov. William F. Weld suggested he build a stand-alone facility on state land in South Boston.

``We had been led to believe that if we bought the team, that it would get done,'' said Jonathan Kraft, citing Weld's words.

But no one should have taken that as an ironclad guarantee, said House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran.

``You can feel sympathy. But at the same time there's an extraordinary naivete, which is a kind word for it -- an absence of comprehension of the steps one should take,'' said Finneran. ``There's no one person who speaks for the government.''

As Kraft became exasperated, he turned into his own worst enemy. On Super Bowl Sunday in 1995, Patriots fans woke to disturbing news. In a Globe interview, Kraft charged that commitments to help him, made when he was contemplating purchasing the team, were being reneged on. Saying he had lost $13 million in his first year owning the Patriots, Kraft seemed to raise the specter of moving or selling the team.

``I can last like this maybe two or three more years, but if I don't see something happen in the next six months, I'll have to do some planning,'' Kraft said.

On Beacon Hill, even the once-supportive Weld administration came to be annoyed by a team owner who never seemed satisfied with the state's effort -- and whose demanding demeanor and sharp tongue alienated many who tried to help him.

Two dates stand out

Two days stand as stark bookends in the saga of the New England Patriots.

On the most recent date, Nov. 19, 1998, Kraft stood with Connecticut Governor John Rowland and, flanked by legislative leaders and businessmen, announced he would relocate his football team to Hartford. Rapid reverse to Feb. 25, 1994. On that day, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Weld joined Kraft at Quincy Market for an appreciation ceremony. Weld was delighted by Kraft's decision to buy the team for $170 million and keep the franchise here. Menino told the grateful crowd that within several years, the team would be playing in Boston.

Between the two events would come three frustrating attempts to find an in-state home for the team, an effort spread across two changes of legislative leadership, a mayoral election during which Menino did not want to squander votes in South Boston, and a US Senate election that distracted Weld.

But that day at Quincy Market, the award seemed appropriate. Kraft appeared less the hard-bargaining NFL mogul than a local white knight who had brushed aside bottom-line concerns to stop the Patriots from moving to St. Louis, in the process sparing Boston and the region a blow to their civic psyches.

But the realities of operating in the NFL would soon hit home to the Krafts. In a recent interview, Jonathan, who does much of the public speaking for his family and who has spearheaded the stadium projects for his father, said it quickly became apparent that to afford top-flight players, the Patriots needed a stadium that would let them tap revenues other NFL franchises enjoy.

The first attempt to find a new home flowed from Weld's invitation to the Patriots to be part of a proposed Boston megaplex, consisting of a convention center and domed stadium. By most accounts, the Krafts were initially skeptical, but later agreed, thinking it was what policy-makers wanted.

It was and it wasn't. If Weld had an edifice complex, there were signals from the start that the Legislature was skeptical. Only a year or so before, legislation needed to clear the way for a new Boston Garden had gotten snagged on Beacon Hill, passing only after a protracted struggle.

During that battle, Finneran, then chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, had attracted headlines with a blunt challenge to Garden owner Jeremy Jacobs: If he didn't like the deal the Legislature was offering, ``I invite him to walk.''

That was a portent of things to come.

House Speaker Charles Flaherty seemed no more enthusiastic about a megaplex; ironically, Kraft's purchase of the team -- reducing the threat the Patriots would leave -- had lessened the urgency for it. ``There were just too many problems to it,'' Flaherty said in a recent interview. ``The money didn't make any sense, the financing didn't make any sense, and the site didn't make any sense.''

No go in South Boston

The next attempt -- a free-standing South Boston stadium -- would fail in the face of community opposition. Policy-makers said Kraft should pay for the $185 million stadium himself. He agreed.

In late 1996, Weld and Stephen Tocco, then executive director of the Massachusetts Port Authority, secretly guided Kraft to a mostly vacant parcel on the Reserve Channel owned by the agency. Kraft, by then hooked on the vision of building a stadium in Boston, had his architects design a state-of-the-art facility and began work on the BankBoston showcase to sell the luxury suites.

Keep it quiet, was the word from Weld and Tocco. When they had a concrete proposal, that would be the time to inform the community and its leaders. But when news of the plan leaked in December of 1996, it took not only South Boston but also most of its politicians by surprise.

``Was it the right tactic? It didn't work, so certainly there was room for improvement,'' Tocco said. ``We wanted to make sure we had a deal first.''

BankBoston chairman Charles Gifford said press negativity did not help, either.

``I think the Boston press is more negative and critical than any I've ever seen,'' said Gifford, a friend of Kraft's. But, he conceded, ``We went too far with others before going to [Mayor Menino and the community]. There were great tactical mistakes made on the part of people involved, including me.''

One fact stands as a metaphor for just how badly the South Boston stadium effort was bungled: Menino says he first learned of the plan when he heard some business leaders had met with Kraft at BankBoston.

``I was taken aback by it,'' said Menino. ``I just don't think he [Robert Kraft] was listening. I don't think he was flexible. And he just didn't do his homework'' in the community.

Jonathan Kraft said Weld had assured them he would take care of all the political spadework necessary to sell the plan.

``Bill Weld basically led us to believe Tom Menino, as an elected official, was his responsibility,'' the younger Kraft recalled. ``He said, `You guys work on putting a plan together. I will deal with the mayor.' ''

But that clearly didn't happen. Tocco says the administration was still forming its plan when the word broke, catching everyone off guard. The news helped galvanize neighborhood opposition. A convention center, not a stadium, was Menino's priority. Moreover, with South Boston as riled as it had been about anything since busing, and his own reelection approaching, the mayor was hardly eager to go to bat for Kraft.

But there was another reason as well, according to several well-placed sources. ``When Kraft didn't get everything he wanted [from Menino] in five minutes, he goes around town saying that `this guy's elevator doesn't go all the way to the top floor,' '' one source said. ``That took about one minute to get back to Menino. That, as much as any other thing, I believe was responsible for Menino not lifting a finger in South Boston.''

Jonathan Kraft strongly denies this, saying, ``I've only heard my father speak about the mayor in respectful tones. But when it came to the stadium situation it was always curious why he didn't want a privately funded stadium in his city.''

But Menino wasn't the only one growing exasperated with Kraft. Inside the administration, some of Weld's top aides, who already felt the governor was expending too much political capital trying to help Kraft, were put off by the owner's demanding ways. When he called, he expected Weld to take his calls. And when the governor didn't, Kraft treated staffers brusquely.

``He thought he should be dealing with the governor directly, and he made that clear to people on the governor's staff,'' said Ray Howell, Weld's former director of communications and a close adviser.

Administration sources say several top officials had confrontations with Jonathan Kraft, whom they considered accusatory and overbearing.

At one meeting, Jonathan accused Transportation Secretary James Kerasiotes of not having done enough to help. Kerasiotes, who was overseeing $40 million in infrastructure and transit improvements designed to help make Foxboro Stadium workable, bluntly challenged him on what hadn't been done.

When Kraft whipped out a cellular phone to call Patriots business manager Andy Wasynczuk, Kerasiotes replied: ``What's the matter, Jonathan, you need Andy to come up and hold your hand?'' Kerasiotes then walked out of the meeting.

Sources said Administration and Finance Secretary Charles Baker had a similar blowup, warning the younger Kraft to stop badmouthing Weld. Baker declined comment. ``We were all under tremendous pressure from the governor to try to accommodate the needs of the team, and when we were told over and over again that we weren't doing that, and that the governor and the administration weren't following through, it got a little hard to take,'' said Kerasiotes.

Political know-how lacking

Nor did the Krafts understand the careful preparation and attention it takes to get things done with the Legislature.

``I think for Kraft it was a whole new arena he had never been involved in before,'' said Flaherty. ``He didn't know the players, and he couldn't understand why everybody wasn't laying out the red carpet for him because he had `saved the team.' ''

Thomas Joyce, a Beacon Hill lobbyist who worked for Kraft during the Megaplex discussions and parted with him on strained terms, said Kraft made a common mistake.

``I think in Robert's case, he tried to deal with political leaders like they were members of his board of directors,'' Joyce said, adding that Kraft would have been more successful if he accepted political advice. ``Robert wouldn't leave the room until he had a commitment. . . . I have never asked for a commitment from a government official. I have asked for consideration.''

Admitted Jonathan Kraft: ``We are politically naive. But from our perspective, if you're going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of your own money, you'd think they'd cut you a little slack.''

While Robert Kraft did deal successfully with Governor Rowland in Connecticut, he grew to annoy Weld, who prided himself on his imperturbability. Several sources said that after one Weld fund-raiser, Kraft, uninvited, hopped into the governor's car and began to unroll a set of stadium plans to explain them to Weld.

``It was typical of Kraft,'' said one source. ``He thought he should be able to deal with Weld whenever he wanted to.''

Weld thought otherwise. Irritated by what he considered an inappropriate intrusion, the governor made it clear he didn't have time for Kraft, sources say. Weld says he can't recall the incident.

Kraft was clearly bitter. In February 1997, when US Rep. Joseph Moakley finally talked him into abandoning his South Boston hopes, Moakley suggested a press conference with Kraft, Menino, Weld, and himself.

Moakley still remembers his response: ``He said, `No, I have dealt with all of those people before. I was misled, and I don't want any of them there when I make my statement.' . . . He was very upset.''

Some administration officials insist that above all else, it was the Krafts' personal style that impeded their efforts with top decision-makers.

``It's very simple,'' said one top-level official. ``There are two reasons why this didn't get done. Reason Number One is that Tom Menino hates Bob Kraft. Reason Number Two is that Tom Finneran hates Bob Kraft.''

Owner vs. Speaker

Despite being stymied in South Boston, Kraft wasn't ready to give up. Thus, the stadium struggle entered its third and final phase, where Kraft's requests for state help collided squarely with Finneran's insistence that state funds not be used to pay for land for private businesses.

When Finneran said in February of 1997 that building a 71,000-seat stadium in Foxborough would be ``the easiest deal in the world,'' the Krafts were once again hopeful.

But when Weld resigned in July of that year, Kraft lost his principal ally in state government.

Although Acting Governor Paul Cellucci pushed a Patriots plan, several sources say that Cellucci was less willing to push a bill for infrastructure improvements in Foxborough when he needed Finneran to help approve campaign-year tax cuts.

While Cellucci introduced his own $50 million plan for road and other improvements along Route 1 -- issued as Rhode Island officials were also wooing the team with offers to pay about half of stadium construction costs -- he made no efforts remotely comparable to Rowland's in Connecticut.

Still, at times a Foxborough deal seemed tantalizingly close. In February, Senate President Thomas Birmingham negotiated what in retrospect looks like a very good deal: For a net state cost of $2.3 million a year over 20 years, Kraft would have built a new $200 million stadium, and the state would have spent $72 million on land and infrastructure.

One Democratic legislator says that package, costing only about $100,000 more a year than the deal Finneran had offered calling for $52 million in infrastructure spending, would have passed if put to a secret ballot. But Finneran refused to budge. Meanwhile, his references to Kraft as ``a whining multi-millionaire'' and a ``fat-assed millionaire'' -- a comment Finneran says was directed at Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell -- only underscored speculation about a personal grudge. According to that theory, Finneran was determined to thwart Kraft because the owner's wife, Myra, was an ally of Richard Voke, whom Finneran defeated to become speaker.

But while Finneran pleads guilty to being an inner-city ``street-corner kid'' who sometimes ``fires back with a wise comment,'' he denies any personal animus against Kraft, noting that he maintained the same posture toward other private concerns in the past.

Finneran also claims he was willing to work a fair deal all along, but he resolutely refuses to go along with the state acquiring land for a private enterprise, saying the precedent is just too dangerous -- even if it means losing Boston's professional sports teams.

Stripped down, the fundamentally different world views of Finneran and the Krafts are best described this way: Finneran says that the deal the House proposed was the most generous subsidy package the state has ever offered a single private concern. But Jonathan Kraft notes that the package was one of the least generous offered any NFL owner during the last four years.

In the end, it was that irreconcilable difference that made the Krafts decide to look elsewhere. Finneran said he has only two real regrets. One is making his ``whining multi-millionaire'' jibe. The other, he said, was in believing Kraft really wanted to keep the team in Massachusetts in the first place.

``It is about nothing but money,'' said Finneran. ``Expressions of loyalty to Massachusetts, affection for the fans . . . is propaganda.''

But in the basement of BankBoston, where Jonathan Kraft sits in a stadium model that now mocks the family's failed hopes for a new facility in Massachusetts, the perspective is very different:

``I'm personally disappointed because I really wanted this to happen for my dad -- in Massachusetts. I personally feel like I failed and I didn't get it done. But I wonder what else we could have done. I wonder. . . .''

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