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Charles Steinberg has had a pretty good year. Until last week, the one-time Baltimore dentist and his lawyer pal Larry Lucchino were riding high on this season's storybook success of the Boston Red Sox, of which Lucchino is president and chief executive officer and Steinberg is executive vice president of public affairs. Before that, as most local sports fans no doubt remember, both men were affiliated with the San Diego Padres in similar roles. Indeed, the pair's Boston success has many of the earmarks of the Padres's trip to the World Series in 1998. Then in San Diego, as now in Boston, the baseball team was interested in taxpayer financing for a new venue. Long-suffering fans -- desperately grateful for a winning season -- seemed willing to give the wealthy baseball owners almost anything they asked for.

In San Diego, that ultimately meant abandoning Qualcomm Stadium and anteing up more than $300 million of taxpayer money for a new downtown baseball park. In Boston, the team's plans to abandon or radically remodel venerable Fenway Park remain thinly veiled, pending conclusion of the current season. "We have a vision for what Fenway should, and, I believe, can be," Lucchino cryptically proclaimed last August. "What we don't know is whether we can get there from here." Added Red Sox owner John Henry: "Someday, maybe after I'm gone, there needs to be a new ballpark. The question is: 'When?' We're trying to push that date back as far as possible."

That was more or less the same line offered by Lucchino and Steinberg to San Diego back in 1995, as they planted palm trees around the Qualcomm outfield and put up new fish-taco stands. They called the team the "new Padres" and played down the need for a new ballpark until the time was ripe. The same technique is today on display at Fenway, where Lucchino has just opened a new bank of seats atop the left field fence (called the "Green Monster") and inaugurated a sprawling new food mall beyond the right-field bleachers called "The Big Concourse."

The mayor of Boston also appears to be acting in a manner all too familiar to students of San Diego politics and Mayor Dick Murphy. Boston's Thomas M. Menino showed up at the August ribbon-cutting for Fenway's Big Concourse and announced, "It's better than a new ballpark. We have all the history at Fenway. Why do we need a new ballpark?" But when pressed by reporters to tell whether he would lend his support to a major taxpayer-backed ballpark expansion of the kind hinted at by Lucchino, Mayor Menino tersely acknowledged, "We would look at it."

Murphy, too, was an early skeptic of Lucchino's plans. During the mayoral primary campaign in the spring of 2000, he questioned whether the location of the new stadium would create monumental traffic tie-ups on game days. And he argued that outgoing mayor Susan Golding and her staff had underestimated the financial burden on taxpayers. "They know there is not going to be adequate revenues from hotel taxes," he told a Union-Tribune reporter in March 2000. Many voters said they believed the mayor would veto the huge public expenditures demanded by Lucchino and team majority owner, multimillionaire John Moores.

But after that November's election, Murphy abruptly changed his tune. In his January 2001 State of the City speech, the mayor proclaimed his unconditional support for the project and vowed he would do everything in his power to finish it by 2003. He was off by only a year. But why did Murphy turn from a self-described healthy disbeliever of the Moores ballpark to its biggest proponent? The mayor himself said he was just honoring the will of the city's electorate, citing the 60 percent majority who had voted for the 1998 ballpark referendum, which had come just weeks after the Padres lost the World Series 4-0 to the New York Yankees.

Others who worked for the city took a darker view. They believed that Lucchino and Steinberg had somehow managed to infiltrate Murphy's operation, cajoling and bullying the mayor and his staff into doing their bidding, and obtaining public information regarding the city's ballpark-negotiating position for their own benefit. Exhibit A, according to the critics, was Elena Cristiano, the mayor's strikingly attractive 36-year-old press secretary.

She was born Elana Marie Myers. As she later would explain to a reporter, she "informally" changed it to Elena Cristiano because "I was adopted, and my adoptive father was extremely abusive, and I didn't want his name anymore. I didn't want my ex-husband's name anymore for the same reasons."

Murphy's office told questioners that Cristiano had been a newswriter at KNSD-TV and a public relations woman, but that was just a small part of her story. A dropout from UC Santa Barbara, Cristiano had started her career in San Diego as a waitress at Seau's Restaurant in Mission Valley and later had gone to work in 1997 as a member of the "Pad Squad," a cheerleading organization sponsored by the San Diego Padres. Later she would go to work for the Stoorza PR firm, handling the Padres' campaign for the new ballpark.

During her initial interview for the Pad Squad, Cristiano said, the divorced mother of two met Charles Steinberg, then the Padres' publicity chief, and they quickly became friends. Not lovers, she stressed, just close friends. Steinberg agreed they did not have a "romantic" relationship. His role, he said, "was more to teach her that good things happen when you surround yourself with good people."

They were close enough, both acknowledged during separate interviews, that during her time as the mayor's press secretary they frequently exchanged gifts, including dental care in Baltimore for her children. They also purchased a Poway condominium together for $130,000. "Charles owns the condominium, but I'm on the deed because he used my money as a down payment, and he basically came into the situation to help me keep the property when I was renting it and the landlord was selling it." She said that she had never reported her ownership of the condo on the city's required conflict-of-interest forms because someone in the city attorney's office had told her she didn't have to.

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