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Jim Donaldson: Kraft’s crafty move gave the Patriots a new lease on life in Foxboro. | New England Patriots | projo.com | The Providence Journal
FOXBORO — The Rams play this afternoon in New England.
Which makes this a particularly appropriate time to recall how close the Patriots came to playing in St. Louis — permanently.
That’s where the Pats appeared to be headed early in 1994.
Two years earlier, the franchise had been purchased by James Busch (as in beer — Budweiser, to be precise) Orthwein, whose ties to St. Louis were strong. That city had lost its NFL team in 1988, when the Bidwill family took the Cardinals to Arizona.
When the NFL announced it would add two teams for the 1995 season, St. Louis was very much in the running for a new franchise. But the city didn’t get one. Instead, teams were awarded to Charlotte and Jacksonville. That’s when St. Louis turned to one of its native sons — Orthwein. He had a team. If Bidwill could take the Cardinals to Arizona, then, surely, Orthwein could bring the Patriots to St. Louis.
The Pats had a lease to play in Foxboro Stadium through 2001, and that lease was held by Robert Kraft.
“I was offered $75 million to break the lease,” Kraft recalled. “My wife, Myra, said: ‘You’re going to take it, aren’t you?’ ”
But Kraft knew that, if he did, Orthwein would take the Patriots to St. Louis. And, since the NFL had just expanded, who knew how long it would be before New England would get another team? Or even if New England would get another team?
That greatly concerned Kraft, who’d been a season ticket holder at the no-frills, bare-bones stadium beside Route 1 in Foxboro long before he became the lease holder.
Section 10, Row 25 — that’s where Kraft would sit with his sons when the Patriots played at home.
“I’d always been a fan,” said Kraft, who grew up in Brookline and followed the fledging Patriots as they moved from stadium to stadium around the city before finally settling in Foxboro.
“Those were wonderful times — driving to the games, tailgating beforehand,” he said. “It was a great family experience. I was passionate about the game of football.” So passionate, he said, that he’d “always dreamed about buying the team.”
Because of his business acumen, that was a dream Kraft was in a financial position to do something about.
He took the first step in 1985, when, at a cost of $1 million, he took a 10-year option on the land surrounding the stadium.
“My banker thought I was nuts,” he said. “But, in any business, you’re always trying to figure how to get a competitive edge. That option was the first step. We wound up controlling the parking for all the events at the stadium. We overpaid to get that option in order to have the right one day to buy the team.”
It was at that time that Billy Sullivan, who in 1959 purchased Boston’s original American Football League franchise for $25,000 — money he’d saved to buy a house on Cape Cod — was looking to sell his beloved Patriots.
Money always had been tight for Sullivan, and the family’s financial situation took a turn for the worse when his eldest son, Chuck, lost millions promoting Michael Jackson’s “Victory Tour” in 1984 and plunged the stadium into bankruptcy.
Remington razor magnate Victor Kiam had purchased the Patriots from Sullivan in 1988. With the stadium also up for sale, Kiam made a low bid for it because, after all, who would want the stadium if they didn’t own the team?
Bob Kraft, that’s who.
“My banker again thought I was nuts, that I was buying a white elephant, that the team would never play there,” Kraft said. “But the bankruptcy judge reaffirmed our lease on the stadium through 2001, which turned out to be the year we won our first Super Bowl.”
Beating — in a strange, but delightful, turn of fate — the St. Louis Rams, who’d moved to Missouri from Los Angeles in 1995.
That lease in Kraft’s pocket was also his ace in the hole in his high-stakes gamble to buy the Patriots. According to the terms of the lease, if the Pats were going to play football, it would have to be in Foxboro. Breaking the lease would result in the owner of the team paying treble damages to the owner of the stadium.
“The reason I bought the stadium,” Kraft said, “was to get into position to own the team.”
As a boy, Kraft had been broken-hearted when the Braves left Boston for Milwaukee. He didn’t want to see the same thing happen with the Patriots.
So it was that, instead of pocketing a substantial profit by accepting the offer to buy out the lease, Kraft shelled out $172 million — then the highest price ever paid for an NFL team — to purchase the Patriots.
“This team was gone,” he said, “if somebody didn’t step up with a good local bid. If we didn’t have that stadium lease, there was a high probability this team would have been in St. Louis.”