Our Hero

The most powerful man in Phoenix explains why he's just a regular guy

There is a fairly endless supply of intimates, heads of charities and community leaders poised to extoll Colangelo's honesty and his sincere interest in and dedication to Phoenix--an interest that is fairly rare in this era of independently wealthy sports franchise owners who frequently don't even live in their teams' cities and who treat the teams themselves as expensive toys.

"I think he is a hero!" says Rudoy. "I think Phoenix owes him a great debt of gratitude."

Not one of these admirers, including Colangelo himself, can seem to understand that a great number of Colangelo's community wish he had not been quite so good to us.

You're Nobody 'til Everybody Loves You
It is very difficult to discuss the history of Bank One Ballpark's funding with Colangelo. Difficult to break through to see if he has ever understood citizens' resentment to paying a quarter-cent sales tax they opposed by a large majority. (An Arizona Republic poll, published the morning Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted to impose the tax in the evening, showed that county voters were two-to-one against. In his recent interviews with New Times, Colangelo consistently dismissed naysayers as "fringe.")

It is difficult to discuss stadium funding, in large part because Colangelo cannot seem to grasp the question: Do you think it would have made a difference if you had ever acknowledged the taxpayers' pain and point of view?

Apparently he cannot understand because he feels so personally misunderstood.

He explains again that he did not plot to make imposition of the tax possible. That the legislation allowing the Board of Supervisors to impose the stadium tax--without voter input and immune to a citizen referendum--was introduced by former state legislator Chris Herstam. It was passed by the Legislature in June of 1990, on behalf of Phoenix Firebirds owner Martin Stone, who was trying to land an expansion franchise for Phoenix. (This is true. And Colangelo has always taken a bum rap for taking advantage of the beneficial legislation once it was in place. Moguls don't become moguls by worrying that a perfectly legal enabler in a huge business deal is not a proper exercise in democracy. The fact that businessmen give no quarter does not make them devils walking among us, either.)

Colangelo explains further, again, that he never sought to be involved in the baseball initiative--that former county supervisor Jim Bruner and Joe Garagiola Jr. brought the issue to him and asked him to spearhead the effort to lure an expansion franchise. That he is so innocent of self-interest that at first he told Bruner and Garagiola no.

(Bruner remembers it differently. He confirms that he and Garagiola asked Colangelo to step up to bat, so to speak, but says that Colangelo never turned them down. At the first meeting, Bruner says, Colangelo was surprised by the proposal and merely noncommittal. Bruner says he and Garagiola left Colangelo's office feeling very positive about the meeting.

And sports agent Rudoy, who says he has shared many personal talks with Colangelo over the years, also wonders whether Colangelo's claim that he didn't plan any of this is disingenuous. "He knows his marketplace and he wanted a baseball team for a long time, and he put it together. It was no accident," says Rudoy.)

Later, says Colangelo, he researched the condition of baseball and concluded that, because of his history of transforming the Suns organization, he believed he could do the same with an expansion baseball team.

"This was not me buying a team," he says. (He is a partial owner and, as managing general partner, oversees everyone who runs the team.) "This was the community getting a team for the community." Referring to the team's primary investors, he adds, "Look who owns it: Every major bank--Bank One, Bank of America. And who owns the banks? The stockholders. Also Central Newspapers, Arizona Public Service, Phelps Dodge, America West Airlines. Every major corporate citizen is involved."

There is no awareness in him that a list of merchant princes does not make the Diamondbacks a team of the people. But whatever.

The question was not whether you were to blame for the tax. Do you think you might have quelled public resentment if you had ever acknowledged that, to the average person, the stadium deal was painful?

"I said again and again, 'If we started from scratch and the county was going to put $250 million into something, I would personally put building a ballpark way down the list. I would put $250 million into the homeless situation, $250 million for transportation, water, infrastructure, the schools. But this was not [brought to me by the county as] a multiple choice.'"

That is not the same thing. Again, that is about whether you are to blame. If you had acknowledged--

"The media had a hot issue! It was a great forum! The amount of attention given the anti-tax people was extraordinary. And the more I said, the worse it got.

"One of the worst things that has ever happened to sports is the radio talk show," he continues, hearkening to the unfortunate day last summer when supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox was shot in the behind by a deranged homeless man who said he targeted Wilcox because of her vote for the stadium tax. In the days that followed the shooting, Wilcox blamed talk-show hosts, particularly KFYI's Bob Mohan, for whipping listeners into a frenzy over the tax issue.

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