San Diegans think of former Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf as a draft bust known for drug busts he got nabbed in. But few remember that Leaf was another kind of bust: in 1998, shortly after the Chargers drafted him, the Union-Tribune wrote an editorial claiming that the quarterback would not only turn the Chargers around, he would turn the city around.
Yes, that was really written.
First, some background: on March 30 and again on April 2 of this year, Leaf was arrested for allegedly breaking into homes in Montana and stealing dangerous prescription painkillers. He has been charged with four felonies and is in jail without bond.
Leaf is an addict: three years ago, he was indicted on burglary and drug charges in Texas. At the time, he was going through drug rehabilitation in British Columbia. In 2010 in Texas, he pleaded guilty to eight felony drug charges. He got ten years of probation.
In 1997, as a star for Washington State University, he finished third in voting for the coveted Heisman Trophy. In the 1998 draft, the Chargers traded away two first-round picks, plus a second-round pick and a good player, to move up one notch in the draft to take Leaf second overall. Leaf got a $31.25 million contract — great money in those days. The quarterback who would become an icon, Peyton Manning, was drafted first by Indianapolis, but local sportswriters gloated that Leaf had more potential than Manning.
Soon, Leaf was fighting with the media and his teammates. He was missing meetings. His work ethic was abominable. He was a flop, with the Chargers and two other teams. An MSNBC commentator called Leaf “the biggest bust in the history of professional sports.”
Leaf’s “biggest robbery was me drafting him and him getting all the money from the team,” former Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard told USA Today this month. Beathard suspects that the quarterback’s Washington State coach did not level with the Chargers about Leaf’s proclivities.
Fourteen years ago, on April 20, 1998, two days after the Chargers drafted Leaf, the Union-Tribune penned an editorial titled, “New hope blooms with Leaf. Chargers QB may help quiet city’s controversies.”
Exulted the newspaper, “In a town where sports and politics have been inextricably bound for the past two years, Ryan Leaf means a lot more to San Diego than just a new quarterback for the Chargers. The controversy over Qualcomm Stadium has cast a shadow over so much in our city, such as the convention center expansion, the new ballpark, the main library, the political careers of Mayor Susan Golding and other city politicians and the relations between Chargers owner Alex Spanos and the people of San Diego.
“Leaf may finally put that controversy behind us.”
For those who weren’t in San Diego at the time, here’s some background: downtown power brokers, led by Copley Newspapers editor-in-chief Herb Klein, had arranged for then-named Jack Murphy Stadium, which was used for both football and baseball, to be turned into a football-only stadium at taxpayer expense. The Padres would get a new, heavily subsidized ballpark downtown. The deals were kinky and secretive and shoveled piecemeal to a naive public. The City guaranteed, in effect, that if the Chargers didn’t sell 60,000 seats per game, the City would pick up the difference. It was ridiculous because the Chargers’ previous attendance records had been poor. Many in the city smelled a rat (justifiably, as it turned out), but the Union-Tribune and downtown power brokers loved it.
The U-T editorial quoted Chargers president Dean Spanos bemoaning the “tremendous amount of off-the-field negative issues…Ryan [Leaf] will add a new positive image.”
Gushed the U-T editorial, “The rebuilding of the team, highlighted by but by no means limited to the signing of Leaf, will also rebuild a good relationship between the Spanos family and the people of San Diego.… With a better team and an impact player like Leaf, San Diegans will begin to see the stadium deal in a different light. An exciting team will draw more fans. Despite all the yammering about it, the only real problem with the much-maligned ticket guarantee is what happens when not enough tickets are sold.”
Then, enthused the U-T editorial, if the public were to look more favorably on the team and the stadium deal, “the rampant cynicism that spread to everything about local government could be diffused. That could result in the people of San Diego taking a less jaundiced view of other projects, such as the convention center expansion and a downtown baseball park,” which, of course, were being touted by the U-T in so-called news stories.
In the euphoria engendered by the arrival of the phenom Leaf, Mayor Golding could “regain her past vigor” and local politicians would not be sneered at, rhapsodized the U-T.
The editorial concluded with these words: “Leaf signifies that San Diego is moving forward.” Those who complained about the stadium deal “have just been proven wrong. Now maybe we can put controversy in the past and get back to the business of building a 21st century city.”
At the time this was written, Klein ran the U-T editorial page, as well as being a key leader of the downtown overlords pushing these corporate welfare projects. He also heavily influenced the reporters writing about the ballpark and football stadium makeover. As I have said before, Klein, now deceased, was a skilled lobbyist and public relations practitioner, particularly when seeking a government handout for the private sector. However, his title was “editor.” He was one of the reasons San Diego is at the brink financially.
Oh, yes. After Leaf and the City of San Diego plunged into a slough of despond, the U-T’s editorial writers claimed the April 20, 1998 piece was just a bit of satire that hadn’t gone over. I can’t imagine any intelligent reader believing that.