Royal Flushed: How a Nashville apartment building contributed to a baseball franchise's misery

Sunday, April 10, 2011 at 10:05pm

Thousands of Middle Tennesseans drive by Stewart’s Ferry Apartments every day and never give the complex a second thought. It’s a massive, 700-unit behemoth next to Interstate 40 and Stewart’s Ferry Pike, near Nashville Shores and Percy Priest Lake. It’s one of a number of sprawling, anonymous multi-building apartment projects that sprang up around the same time in the 1980s, when Nashville and other Southern cities were on the up. 

There’s nothing spectacular about Stewart’s Ferry Apartments. Now more than a quarter-century old, it’s a mature, healthy development. It’s one of those places everybody lives in at one time or another, it seems. 

But Stewart’s Ferry Apartments is a brick-and-mortar footnote to one of the strangest, saddest stories in baseball history. It played a key role in the decline and fall of the Kansas City Royals. 

That sentence reads like nonsense. But it isn’t.

 

It’s 1985. The Kansas City Royals are champions of the American League. That sentence, hard as it is to believe now, is fact. It’s the Royals’ second pennant of the decade. 

The Royals are playing the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. This is a big deal in Missouri, bigger than Lewis & Clark, the state’s famous Compromise and Truman’s election. There is no interleague play in the mid-’80s. The Royals and Cardinals don’t meet in the regular season. 

The Royals win — coming back from a 3-1 deficit to do so and, as Cardinals fans maintain to this day, getting a little help from first-base umpire Don Denkinger. There are lots of great stories from the I-70 Series, but to many Kansas Citians, it’s a win for the man whom Royals fans to this day refer to respectfully as Mr. Kauffman. 

Ewing Kauffman, the avuncular pharmaceutical chairman and philanthropist, who brought big-league baseball back to Kansas City after the A’s left for Oakland, is much-beloved in Kansas City nearly two decades after his death. His name graces the stadium. 

But Kauffman wasn’t the sole owner of the Royals at the time. Beset by health problems, he’d sold nearly half his stake in 1983 to an eccentric, sports-loving, Memphis-based real estate man named Avron Fogelman. 

In the mid-’80s, Fogelman had a Midas touch. His Fogelman Properties brought nearly every aspect of multi-family development under one roof: property acquisition, development, architecture, management. His was a successful model, creating spacious complexes in the suddenly resurgent Sun Belt. 

Fogelman’s success gave him entrée into professional sports, at various times owning the minor-league Memphis Chicks and the American Basketball Association’s Memphis Tams. But bringing Fogelman in is a move Royals fans still wring their hands over. Chris Kamler was 13 when the Royals won their world title. He’s a season-ticket holder today. 

“Ewing was so desperate to win a championship … he did all kinds of crazy [things],” he said ahead of a Royals afternoon game last week.

The Royals were expected to be pretty good in ’85. After all, they’d just missed out on a world title in 1980. Most of that team was still around as the ’85 season started.“Most” because four players — Willie Wilson, Willie Aikens, Vida Blue and Jerry Martin — served short jail terms in the offseason following the ’84 season for attempting to buy cocaine. Aikens, Blue and Martin were traded or released from the team. Wilson stayed.

Wilson, in fact, re-signed to a contract that was — and still is — mind-blowing. 

Fogelman, and to a degree his aging partner Kauffman, wanted to lock up the nucleus of a surging Royals team to long-term deals. So to three players — all fan favorites and bona fide stars — he would offer “lifetime contracts.”

Baseball was different in the mid-1980s. Cable wasn’t ubiquitous; there was no constantly updating Twitter stream, no blogs. Not preoccupied with protecting an image that would score them millions in endorsements or with the prospect of every misspoken word blasting around the world at the speed of light, baseball players in the ’80s were, in a word, characters.

The Lifetime Three were no different.

There was Wilson: Switch-hitting. Fast as lightning. Troubled. 

There was Dan Quisenberry: The Quiz. The Q. A poetry-writing, submarine-style reliever who is as remembered for his cavalcade of quotable material as for his pitching. He dominated the AL in saves during the first half of the decade at a time when closers were becoming more and more valuable. And he said things like, “I found a delivery in my flaw” and “I’ve seen the future, and it’s much like the present only longer.”

Finally, there was George Brett: The man who would be at Kauffman’s shoulder on the Mt. Rushmore of Royals. He’d eventually retire as one of the best third-basemen in the history of baseball. He’s one of only four men to get 3,000 hits, 300 homers and have a lifetime average of .300 or better. 

The three led the Royals to the hardball stratosphere in1985. Fogelman and Kauffman wanted to lock them in. But, as it often does, Major League Baseball’s collective-bargaining agreement got in the way. So Fogelman found a loophole. 

First Wilson and Quisenberry, in May of 1985, followed by Brett the next year, signed contracts that even now are regarded as some of the strangest, most convoluted — and ill-advised — in the storied history of baseball. 

They were so bad, in fact, “they wouldn’t even be allowed now,” according to Andrew Zimbalist, professor of economics at Smith College and an expert on the business of baseball.

There were the actual dollar figures of their salaries, which each hovered around $2 million a year. But to provide for the players long after any reasonable person expected them to play, Fogelman hedged their talents against some of his real estate developments. Brett was guaranteed at least $1 million from Country Squire, an 1,100-unit Memphis complex, until December 1991, at which point the Royals would buy his 10 percent interest for $2 million. 

Through salary deductions, Quisenberry would gradually become owner of 24.7 percent of Stewart’s Ferry Apartments. He was guaranteed cash for 20 years with the chance of receiving a lump sum of at least $23 million in 2006 or to get annual payments of $1.875 million until 2025. 

Wilson was given a 9.5 percent piece of Stewart’s Ferry Apartments with guaranteed payments until 2005, at which time he would be promised at least $16.8 million or continued yearly payments, similar to Quisenberry’s deal.

Go into the Davidson County Register of Deeds and pull the dozens of filings for Stewart’s Ferry Limited Partnership and its successors. There are some of the most famous names in baseball: Quisenberry. Wilson. And because the Royals had to have a stake in order to execute the contracts and salary deductions, they’re there too, represented by a young general manager named John Schuerholz who’d later gain fame as the man behind the Atlanta Braves’ dominance in the 1990s. 

The deals worked out for the players at first, as they did for the Royals. The contracts now bear a reputation as not only some of the most bizarre, but in fact some of the worst in baseball history. And they were a symptom of the coming decline of the once-proud Royals.

Things started off right. Wilson stole 43 bases in the regular season and smacked 21 triples in 1985, taking advantage of the infamously quick fluorescent-green artificial turf in Kansas City. He’d hit a blistering .367 in the World Series. 

Quisenberry had 37 saves to lead the league, though he was a little shaky during the playoffs. 

Brett went for .335 and 30 homers and finished second in MVP voting.

They were times of high cotton in Kansas City. They’d be the last for 25 seasons. 

Almost right away, Fogelman admitted he might have made a mistake in hastily constructing the deals — part baseball contracts, part real estate transactions. Neither of those two pieces of legal paper is usually forged quickly. These were. Brett’s brother — who acted as his agent — famously described the real estate stakes as “nice little kickers.” Fogelman, in an exasperated 1987 interview with The New York Times, agreed. 

“I regret that we signed contracts such as that,” he said. 

The errors would start to rear their ugly heads, beginning with the Quiz. His 37 saves in ’85 became 12 (with seven losses) the next season. He never reached double-digit saves again, and the Royals traded him to St. Louis in 1988. He retired with the San Francisco Giants two years later. 

Wilson stayed relatively productive into his late 30s (speed, as old baseball hands tell you, doesn’t age). But you can’t steal bases unless you get on base, and that started to be an issue for the man they called Will o’ the Wisp. His batting average, once regularly above .300, hovered in the mid-.200s until the Royals released him in 1990 — as with Quisenberry, no other team would take on Wilson’s exorbitant contract. He signed with the A’s and then the Chicago Cubs, retiring when the 1994 strike began.

Zimbalist says the Royals fell victim to something that’s plagued many baseball teams, but with a special twist because of their beloved majority owner.

“They simply made a bad baseball decision,” he says. “Kauffman was one of the few owners who was genuinely independently wealthy and not worried about the financial consequences [of his contracts]. He tended to look at his players not as players but as part of team he could win championships with.” 

By the time Wilson and Quisenberry’s careers were ending, Fogelman was in trouble. In 1989, a Securities and Exchange Commission filing revealed that Fogelman was having a liquidity issue. He blamed the problem on his vertical integration model of controlling the multi-family market; truth is, he was overextended. He had to sell the Royals, and in 1989 he did — right back to Kauffman, who survived his earlier health scare. 

“Simply put, Kauffman had a lot of money, and Fogelman [at the time] didn’t have a lot of money and was being asked to answer a capital call,” Zimbalist says.

And with that, the Royals were again controlled by one man, who was in fragile hea lth and bore no obvious heir. 

Kauffman died in 1993. His will gave the team to a foundation charged with finding local owners and, if that failed in six years, selling the team to someone who promised not to move the team from one of baseball’s smallest markets. The foundation slashed the Royals’ payroll. Once boosted by Kauffman and Fogelman’s considerable personal wealth, the Royals’ payroll went from nearly $50 million — one of the league’s top-paying clubs — to below $20 million, one of the lowest.

“It totally sucked the life from this town,” Kamler says, expressing the sentiment of many Royals fans of his era who grew as winners. 

The chairman of that board, controversial Walmart exec David Glass, bought the team outright for $96 million in 2000. The Royals haven’t sniffed the postseason since the ’85 series.

 

Avron Fogelman’s sons, Mark and Rick, run Fogelman Management Group these days. After their father’s struggles in the late ’80s, the family has foregone the sports business. 

“That side of the business has been long gone, as well as most everyone involved,” Mark said. 

But not the family’s rooting interest. Mark punctuated a recent email with “A good start so far this year for KC!” after the Royals began this season winning an all-too-unusual four of five. 

The Fogelmans say Quisenberry and Wilson divested themselves of the real estate business when the Stewart’s Ferry Apartments ownership was reorganized amid their father’s liquidity troubles in 1990. 

Quisenberry, who died of brain cancer at age 45 in 1998, was due $23 million in 2006. Wilson, who’d made a series of bad investments, was due $16.8 million. But the pair didn’t see nearly that much. 

In 1990, the apartments had a value of roughly $20 million (they’re valued at $24.5 million now). Through some combination of the mists of time, typical business confidentiality and, perhaps, regret, no one — not Mark Fogelman and not Willie Wilson, who says, “That was a long time ago, man” — remembers the exact details of the buyout. But making an estimate is fair. 

Wilson’s 9.5 percent share was worth $1.89 million in 1990, and Quisenberry’s 24.7 percent was worth $4.9 million — both far less than they were originally owed — but at the time, both were staring down the end of their careers. Quisenberry was readying to retire and Wilson was simply playing out the string. Neither was still with the Royals.

Wilson wishes he’d held out for more. His slow decline on the field portended a precipitous decline off it. He invested thousands to become chairman of a wireless startup that went bankrupt in 1998. In 2000, he filed his own bankruptcy and left Kansas City for Toronto two years later. The bankruptcy court auctioned his baseball mementos, including his World Series ring, which went for $16,250. 

Wilson is back in the fold with the Royals: His foundation helps inner-city kids learn the game. And after a long absence from the stadium that bears Kauffman’s name, he’s a fixture around the club.

Wilson doesn’t speak about his troubles with any specifics. Instead, he hints at a book deal, saying he’s going to get paid to tell his side of the story with the attitude of a man who made more than his share of bad business decisions. 

But Wilson’s renewed involvement — and that of George Brett, who has served as the Royals’ VP of baseball operations since his 1993 retirement and who took his ’91 buyout as scheduled from the Memphis complex — has yet to result in many Royals wins.

 

Are Stewart’s Ferry Apartments the reason for the Royals troubles? Is this sprawling, anonymous complex in Donelson the Kansas City cognate of the Cubs’ infamous billy goat? Was this transaction — like the deal that paid for the production of No No Nanette, which allegedly doomed the Red Sox — cursed?

Baseball fans are quick to point to curses, to find boogeymen in the shadows of team lore. That’s part of the charm of America’s sleepy pastime. 

It’s an easy game, as they said in Bull Durham. You hit the ball. You throw the ball. You catch the ball. And eventually, you catch a break. And then you catch another one. And like Bull Durham said, you don’t mess with a streak. You don’t think. You think, you hurt the ball club. 

And eventually — eventually — you win.  

The Red Sox did it. But the Cubs haven’t. The Royals haven’t either.

It’s not the goat that’s doomed the North Siders. And it’s not Donelson that’s done in the Royals.

Baseball’s stories are told in poetry, but reality is written in cold prose. The Cubs aren’t bad because of a goat. The Cubs are bad because the disinterested ownership of The Tribune Company doesn’t give a whit what the on-field product is like as long as the stands at Wrigley are full. 

And the Royals can point squarely at their win-now-at-all-costs attitude for their current troubles. Fogelman’s cash helped prop up the club, brought them the glory Kauffman desperately wanted before he died. But Fogelman’s all-too-1980s attitude of assuming that everything he touched would turn into gold was as doomed as Kauffman’s dreams of a Midwestern baseball dynasty.

It’s not the apartments’ fault. They’re just a footnote. 

2 Comments on this post:

By: fdanshep on 4/11/11 at 6:27

I knew Mr. Fogelman back in the day. Did some business with him. His saving and restoration of The Peadbody was the catalyst for the Beale Street experience, Mud Island and eventually the Pyramid and Auto Zone Park. Without the Peabody preservation, I think downtown Memphis (other than the office buildings primarily related to he court system) would have stayed a deteriorating no-man's land for any type after-dark entertainment. I commend to Fogelman for that.

By: deannt.busch on 6/26/13 at 4:57

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