The Passionate Pilgrim

He owns a baseball team, he's spent millions to wipe out a devastating Third World disease, and now he's out to save pro football for Houston. But what does John Jay Moores really want?

When NFL president Neil Austrian sat down with John Jay Moores and County Judge Robert Eckels to discuss pro football's future in Houston, it would have been easy for Austrian to judge Moores as an easy mark. After all, Moores is a most unprepossessing rich man. Soft-spoken and self-deprecating, he rarely bothers to drape himself in a coat and tie, usually preferring to meet the world in Polo shirts and casual slacks. His face is round and somewhat bland; his physique is listing toward pudgy. Other than the blue-gray eyes peering intently out from behind wide-framed lenses, there's nothing about John Moores that immediately conveys power or determination.

Certainly there's nothing on the face of him to suggest a man on a two-decade voyage of self-discovery, one who in his early thirties tracked down the father who abandoned him as a young boy, then quit a secure job in order to discover a huge fortune in what was then a mostly uncharted world of computer software for businesses. Using that wealth, Moores has embarked on other pilgrimages, re-creating himself as a world-class philanthropist, professional sports franchise owner and, perhaps, future statesman.

On the spectrum of publicly involved Texas millionaires, Moores sits on the opposite end from, say, H. Ross Perot or Clayton Williams, showboats with a big public bark and razor-sharp boardroom skills. But Moores, the founder of one of Houston's all-time success stories in BMC Software and the owner of the San Diego Padres, stands out in the ranks of Texas' big rich for a defiantly liberal political perspective and a determination, in his almost mantra-like phrase, to use his money "to make a difference."

That urge has found expression in a variety of undertakings, from an effort to wipe out a devastating Third World disease to a more controversial underwriting of the athletic program at his alma mater. Saving pro football for Houston is just the latest of Moores' crusades.

Like his mentor, Jimmy Carter, Moores approaches negotiations from the stance that the people across the table "want to make a difference and do the right thing," a position that draws reactions from his inner circle ranging from "the best man you'll ever meet" to "Pollyanna." For Moores, the ultimate goal is to fashion a solution that will be, in his words, "win-win for both sides."

But as Moores has discovered since his meeting with Austrian in early April, it may be nothing short of impossible to fashion a win-win solution to the impasse that Houston has reached with Bud Adams and the NFL.

Moores left the meeting thinking he and Eckels had reached an agreement with the league that would give Houston a commitment for a replacement franchise in exchange for allowing Adams to wiggle out of the remaining two years on the Oilers' Astrodome lease and promptly move the team to Nashville. But before Austrian left Eckels' office, the NFL executive was on the phone to Adams. And just as quickly, Channel 26's Mark Berman, an Adams favorite, was airing reports of the discussions that evening.

Some in Moores' camp viewed the development as an indication that Adams had leaked word of the negotiations to damage the orderly procession toward Adams' eclipse and the installation of John Moores as Houston's new sports hero. When the NFL got around to releasing a statement several days later, it was considerably less positive than the tone of the discussions. A week later, Adams would further undercut Moores' diplomacy by declaring that the Oilers would play out their Astrodome lease.

Then came word that the NFL was reaffirming its rule against the cross-ownership of pro sports teams in different cities, meaning that Moores would have to sell the Padres to get an NFL franchise for Houston -- something he's said he won't do. The following week, on a day when Moores could not be in Houston, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was brought to town by Senator Phil Gramm -- one of Moores' least favorite politicians -- to discuss the league's intentions with business and political leaders.

But however annoying Moores' dealings with the NFL have been, they're unlikely to impede his pilgrim's progress toward the helm of a Houston professional sports franchise. Just ask Rebecca Baas Moores, who knows her husband is almost impossible to deter from a goal once he's begun the pursuit.

A case in point: Moores' decision to buy the Padres two years ago. Moores returned to his home in San Diego one afternoon and blithely informed his wife they were now the owners of a baseball team. Becky, a shrewd financial analyst herself, had no desire to take on a fiscally ill sports franchise and the attendant public responsibilities of a team owner. Moreover, the couple had already decided their future base of operations in their semi-retirement years would be northern rather than southern California. It seemed a rather cavalier gesture, and Becky Moores at first was none too happy about the prospect of team ownership. But eventually she came around, and is now perhaps the most single-minded fan of the Padres, one who has picked up the rules and nuances of the game and travels to all away games.

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