Alex Spanos is either one of the most vilified or misunderstood guys in San Diego history, depending on whom you talk to. On one hand, the Chargers owner is pals with all sorts of interesting dinner guests like Bob Hope, Rush Limbaugh and Pat Boone. On the other hand, he's been a cranky old coot to some of my best friends.
One gal who used to hostess at a restaurant said Spanos was rude and would be a very demanding customer-the kind that makes cooks spit in the food. Another guy who parks cars for a living told me he and Spanos got into a fight over where the Chargers owner could park his car. Things got heated until my friend agreed to everything Spanos wanted-and then ignored it after he left.
Obviously, a man like that can only mean one thing to someone serious about San Diego: A chance to suck up for a job.
It should have been so grand, attending a San Diego Chargers game as Spanos' guest. If there were any justice in the world, he and I would be celebrating a win over the Oakland Raiders and a clinched playoff spot. By all rights, the Ouzo should have been flowing for me and Mr. Spanos, who would insist I call him “Unca Alex” as we celebrated the type of friendship that only exists between two people who root enthusiastically for the same football team.
In a perfect world, Unca Alex would have patted my beautiful, pregnant wife's tummy, declare me “one of the few journalists I can trust” and hired me to be the minister of propaganda for the new stadium effort-especially after we told him that we were naming our baby Alex.
But none of that happened.
I did meet Alex Spanos. I did attend the Dec. 8 Oakland Raiders game as his guest and I did sit in the owner's box. I did make an effort to be a congenial guest and not get drunk (and so did my pregnant wife). I complimented him on his autobiography, Sharing the Wealth, and I even promised to bring him good luck.
Alas, my chances at upward mobility were shattered by a Chargers loss, and I may never have the chance to schmooze a rich and powerful sports team owner for free tickets again-unless John Moores reads this and decides to take me under his wing.
It all started last spring. I am a journalist living in San Diego who interviewed Spanos by phone last May when he was promoting his autobiography. Although I'd read all sorts of stuff about him being cranky and temperamental-including lines from his own book-I found him to be loveably crusty, á la Rudy from Survivor.
I think he enjoyed the conversation, too. I think it helped that I was more interested about his tap-dancing career with Bob Hope than digging up dirt about any new stadium. We both tap-danced around that issue.
Gotta be honest, though. It wasn't one of my better interviews. When Unca Alex mentioned his hometown, Stockton, I told him the city has great asparagus. And when he told me that he has a five-year-plan for everything, adding, “I'm almost 80 and I still have a five-year plan,” I responded, “Gee, if I were that old, my five-year-plan would be simply living to 85.”
Despite that, he graciously invited my pregnant wife and me to be his guest at a Chargers game-and even promised the team would make the playoffs. Whatever you want to say about Spanos, the guy prides himself on keeping his word. A few years ago, he said San Diego would eventually need a new stadium, and he's keeping his promise to try to get it. And he kept his promise regarding my football game.
A few months after the interview was probably long forgotten, Spanos' secretary called and asked me which game I wanted to take my pregnant wife to-Seattle Seahawks or Oakland Raiders.
Was she kidding? Can you imagine a self-respecting football fan choosing the Seahawks over the Raiders, the hated rival with whom the Chargers are locked in a close division-championship race?
Considering the sort of violent tension that typically accompanies a Raiders game, my wife worried that I was putting our unborn child at risk just for a chance to hobnob with the rich and powerful. “Don't worry,” I told her. “The owner's box should be a fairly safe place-unless me and Spanos' buddy, Rush Limbaugh, fight each other for the last of the nachos.”
Despite her initial worries, I was more affected by the pre-game stress. I feel a calling to help my fellow humans, and I wanted to make sure I used what little access I had to Spanos for the greatest good. Some of my friends suggested I tell Unca Alex that he'll have a better chance of getting a new stadium if he puts up money for local libraries. Yes, but if I only have one chance to schmooze Spanos, I'd better do what's best for the city and ask him to add a new Frisbee golf course. After all, only a small percentage of the population uses libraries.
I was also hoping to ask Unca Alex if he planned on using the new stadium to help San Diego bid for the Olympics in the future-and, of course, for the new Frisbee golf course.
It was not meant to be.
During the months leading up to the game, I drove my wife nuts talking about all the possibilities-good and bad-meeting Spanos in person could do for my career. After all, he's a legitimate millionaire, not like Rick Rockwell or anyone who's bought a home in the last year.
I tried to get my pregnant wife to make stifado, a Greek lamb stew mentioned in his book. I figured bringing a crock full of the stuff into the owner's box would make Spanos shed a nostalgic tear. My wife didn't agree, and she didn't want me to come across as a social-climbing cad. She also nixed my suggestion that we bring her famous peanut butter cookies. “He's there to be the host,” she admonished. “You don't want to come on too strong.”
Maybe she's right, but, unlike the City Council, I wanted to negotiate with Spanos. Everyone with the Chargers organization always seems so guarded and closed that I figured they must have some pretty fun parties behind closed doors. Besides, everyone who watches TV knows that rich, stuffy millionaires are always waiting for fun-loving middle class folks to give them that spark that they've lost.
The way that everything fell into my lap, I felt like I was Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan and Spanos was Ralph Fiennes, just waiting to have his wealth-struck world turned around by a lower-class charmer. I didn't want to be Spanos' lover, but I figured I could be his Gilligan and he could be my Thurston Howell.
Still, I had to be frank and tell her straight: Honey, there's no way I'm going to be able to support this child we're having and live in sunny San Diego unless some kindly millionaire takes me under his wing. I probably should've mentioned this before we got hitched, but whatcha gonna do, right?
Although my wife tried to point out that maybe Spanos invited me to the game in order to get good press from at least one member of the San Diego media, I disagreed wholeheartedly. Why would a loveably crusty millionaire need good press?
In the end, we both agreed that I, David Moye, am the key that the Chargers need to convince the city to build a new stadium. Why? Because I'm really good at writing jingles and I'm a mover and shaker in the Frisbee golf community.
On game day, I was surprisingly calm as I put on a dark blue sweater to represent my team pride. Because Spanos is very much a family man and extols the virtues of being married 50 years to the same woman, I made my pregnant wife wear an outfit that would accentuate her pregnancy-which, by the way, is not hard to do.
Walking through the stadium on my way to the press-level owner's box, I examined the walls and halls of Qualcomm closely. Considering how talk of a new stadium dominated local news the week before the Oakland game, I wanted to give Spanos the benefit of the doubt and see if things were really as crappy as he and his son, Dean, had claimed.
Admittedly, the halls surrounding the press level seats seemed dark and dingy and tomb-like, and I told my pregnant wife so. “Take off your sunglasses,” she said.
My wife and I walked into the owner's box and met his hostess, who sported a friendly smile when we showed our embossed invitation with the Charger logo, and she showed us to our seats. From where we sat, I immediately understood why Spanos and son might want a new stadium. Poor design is to blame for visibility of half the field being completely cut off from some of the seats-like mine. And my wife's. And this nice little old lady sitting in front of us.
“This is my first professional football game,” the woman told me. Wow, considering how Raiders and Chargers fans hate each other, that's like attending your first professional war.
Seriously, about these tickets-which are marked with a value of $72-I can understand why a guy like Spanos, who is friends with lots of big shots, would be embarrassed to offer those seats to Bob Hope, Rudolph Giuliani or Rush Limbaugh or his many grandkids.
Although Spanos is one of the biggest construction guys in the country, he's a man with a cool house-figuratively-with a badly designed kitchen that he can't change because of some bureaucratic rule. If that happened to you or me, we could call KUSI's Michael Turko. But that's probably not a viable option for Spanos.
Frankly, the seats in the stadium owner's box aren't all as good as they should be considering the hassle Spanos has to go through in order to entertain VIPs like me. But he is an excellent host, food-wise. For breakfast, the lucky guests (who included lots of family, more family and men in Bill Cosby sweaters) enjoyed gourmet omelets and muffins, salmon, fresh fruit, green salad, jumbo shrimp, waffles, pastries and, best of all, bacon and bagels. Plus fresh-squeezed orange juice, which supposedly makes babies kick-and that, I figured, was exactly the sort of life-affirming thing a wonderful, generous millionaire like Spanos would love.
But before you accuse him of living in luxury, please note: Spanos serves only three kinds of beer: Budweiser, Bud-Lite and Miller Genuine Draft. Even the folks in the cheaper seats have access to Heineken or Corona.
My pregnant wife and I gorged on the goodies before us. She pointed to her stomach and said, “For the baby.” I pointed to my beer and said, “For the baby.”
Trying to make small talk, I made a big deal about the orange juice to the people around us. “I heard that orange juice makes babies kick. Oh, do you feel any kicking? Honey?” Unfortunately, my future baby (due in April) had stage fright and never bothered to kick, certainly not when it mattered-around Spanos.
I am an objective journalist, and, in this case, my objective was tasty food, free beer, exciting football, good conversation-and a high-paying job. So I was hoping to make nice-nice with Dean Spanos about his editorial in that morning's San Diego Union-Tribune in hopes he would say, “Hmm, I like the cut of his jib. I'm going to hire him to manipulate public thought.”
But I never got the chance. I've learned the “I'm busy” vibe-I use it myself quite frequently-and it was quite clear he was using it on me. So I let him avoid me gracefully by falling to my knees when he passed by.
When my wife went to powder her nose, I used her absence as an opportunity to introduce myself to the elder Spanos before he went to hug more grandkids. Did I mention he has a lot of grandkids? In fact, I could swear he gained three more during the game. If he doesn't get the new-stadium measure on the ballot by 2004, Spanos may have enough grandkids of legal voting age by 2006 to help the measure pass.
In the following scene, the part of Alex Spanos is played by Alex Spanos. The part of David Moye should be played by Eddie Haskell.
David: Uh... hi, Mr. Spanos. My name is David Moye, and I'm a journalist who interviewed you back in May regarding your autobiography. You were gracious enough to “Share the Wealth” with me and invite my wife and me to today's game, and I wanted to thank you.” (David shakes hands with Spanos, who seems to have no earthly idea who David is.)
Alex: Just get a win for me, baby! (He pats David on the back and walks past him to greet his real friends.)
David: Uh... we will (getting louder and squeakier as Spanos walks away). We've won every game I've attended.... Thanks!
The folks sitting in the Spanos box are mostly his grandkids and old guys wearing the Bill Cosby sweaters. Considering the importance of the game-the Chargers and Raiders were deadlocked atop the AFC's Western Division, tied at 8-4-I was surprised how subdued Spanos and friends were as the team was announced. Hardly anyone was cheering. Then, I remembered. Chargers fans are a notoriously mellow group, even when we want to scream.
So we're sitting in the lap of a luxury box in seats that only allow a partial view of the field while cute, Greek-looking girls in cheerleader outfits are serving us popcorn, Cokes-anything we wanted. The only thing they can't serve is a win. The Raiders score a touchdown within the first few minutes of play and never look back.
Although our seats have a blocked view of the field, we have a profile view of two of the coaches, including a guy who looks like former Talk Soup host John Henson. They're watching the game at a desk right above two other coaches and below them is Unca Alex, Cousin Dean and football guru John Butler.
By the way, Butler looks a lot like Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street, which is a compliment, by the way. I love the character. Both Butler and Snuffleupagus have dealt with their share of adversity. Butler is currently fighting lung cancer and, for a long time, Snuffy's only friend was Big Bird.
I was hoping to see Dean and Alex high-five each other, but they kept very low-key. When the Raiders scored one time, Alex looked back at his wife, Faye, and raised his arms as if to say, “Yeesh.” And when the team scored their one touchdown, he smiled and gave her the big thumbs up. But the Chargers didn't score very much-and I knew enough about Unca Alex from reading his autobiography that unless the Chargers won and bettered their chances at a playoff spot, any opportunities I might have to impress him enough to make me minister of propaganda for the new stadium would be dashed forever.
I soon realized that Alex and Dean would have their minds too much on the game to notice what a cool guy I was and figure out how I would be an asset to their corporation and hire me. I would probably have to wait until there was some post-game celebration-so I had to act fast.
I looked over at Faye Spanos, a nice-looking woman in her 70s. She was sitting there with a little boy about 10 years old, who I figured was probably one of the 101 grandkids. The team was down badly and the kid looked like the type you only see on TV-the child star who plays a sick kid who says, “Can you hit three home runs for me, Champ? (cough, cough) I promise I'll get well.”
Realizing I had to take a calculated risk and try some subtle schmoozing before the first half, I decided to use the kid as bait. The kid was looking glum, so I went up to him and said, “Don't worry, we're a second-half team.” That may not seem much to you, but my thought was that if the Chargers came back-and this team does come back-Mrs. Spanos would remember my kind words to her grandson and how I kept the faith for the team. I have a feeling that, to paraphrase My Big Fat Greek Wedding, even though Alex is the head of the family, Faye's probably the neck and the neck can always turn the head.
Maybe, just maybe, she would say something to her hubby like this: “Alex, I met the kindest man with a pregnant wife at the game. He was so supportive during the win, I think we should bring him in at a large salary. Didn't you say you needed a new minister of propaganda for the stadium? Hire him immediately.”
I had it all worked out so perfectly, except the Chargers lost and the kid just looked at me like, “Get away from me, you weirdo.”
By the way, if you ever wondered what football execs do when their team is down by a lot of points, it's not pretty. I'm no lip reader but when Dean, Butler and Alex were discussing the on-field action, they seemed to be saying technical football-strategy things like, “We need to score more points.” As the game got worse, the whole owner's box became sort of quiet and chilly, and consumption of hot dogs grew drastically.
I wanted to yell at some of the idiotic plays but felt yelling obscenities might not result in enough money for my future baby's college fund. I became very nervous and wanted to pace. Actually, being a lifelong Chargers fan, I felt compelled to leave early so I could watch TV and see if I recognized anyone getting arrested for fighting with Raiders fans. Still, I thought that was bad form, especially when it was only the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Suddenly, I heard Alex boom, “Faye, we're leaving!” and off they went, followed by most of his family and many friends. Watching the game, I looked at my pregnant wife and started to play one of our favorite activities, imitating bad routines from Mad About You:
“Do you want to leave?”
“Only if you want to leave?”
“Well, I'm wondering if we should leave.”
“We don't have to leave but if you're ready to leave, I can go.”
“So, you're ready to leave?”
“Not necessarily, but I definitely would like to beat the traffic.”
“Yeah, that's true. I have laundry that still has to be done.”
“But I don't want to insult Mr. Spanos, who was so nice to invite us...”
“... and has already left.”
So we shook hands and started to go. But as we were leaving, I looked into the kind eyes of Spanos' stadium staff and felt horrible, like we were being disloyal. The staff members also looked embarrassed by the results, and one woman reminded me of how a stewardess on the Hindenburg might react after the flight-especially when she can't say, “Come again.”
After viewing the Chargers game from the owner's box, I think I have a bit of an understanding of the difficulties of being a football owner and executive. When you're a football fat cat, you can't really relax on Sunday when your team is playing, and you can't do anything about it if they're playing badly. You're basically a eunuch.
Some think Spanos and son deserve bad raps just because they want a new stadium that includes an owner's box with better seats. And because they want to make money by using public funds for a new stadium or at least get a land grant.
Still, he's a really good host, food-wise (probably from his early catering background), but that may not be enough to sway the public since only so many people can fit in the owner's box per game. However, he needs an image makeover so he can look better in the eyes of San Diegans who aren't able to mooch free tickets.
If I were Spanos' minister of propaganda, first thing I would do is make him get those tap shoes back on and start shuffling and tap dancing everywhere possible, especially malls. It would be a wonderful way for Unca Alex to show what a kindly, sprightly man he is and not the greedy old coot that journalists who aren't cool enough to be invited to the owner's box insist on portraying him. Next, I would have him start a chain of fast food restaurants featuring those lamb cutlets served in his owner's box.
But will I get the chance to help him sway the public into paying for his new stadium? Probably not. I think Spanos considers me bad luck now.
Will my unborn daughter grow up in a San Diego where there are only two Frisbee golf courses and potentially one less shopping mall? Hopefully not. Sadly, my chances for social climbing were given the kibosh from the get-go because the Raiders had to go and win and ruin the mood of a rich and potentially valuable contact.
I hope my future daughter understands.