He may be the face of the Arena League, but to a stoic security guard in the post-9/11 era, Baker is just another dude without a credential. "I don't care who you are," the guard outside San Jose's HP Pavilion says, staring eye-to-chest at Baker. "You can't get in here." Baker shrugs and walks back toward the parking lot. Having surrendered his credential to longtime girlfriend Colleen Hall, who has gone back to the couple's hotel room to retrieve their forgotten tickets, Baker can only laugh when reminded, "You know Tags doesn't have to put up with this."
Then again, as Baker readily points out, Tagliabue, with whom he is friendly, probably isn't as comfortable roaming the nosebleed sections and having his picture taken with kids on his shoulders. Baker feels no sense of entitlement. His father, Carl, worked for 32 years in a lumber mill, and his mother, Beuna, was a caregiver for foster children. Growing up in Downey, Calif., a blue-collar suburb of L.A., Baker adopted conservative values that belied the tumultuous times. As student body president of Warren High in 1970, he sponsored a Support America Week, for which he was honored by the Freedoms Foundation. Yet on certain issues Baker was more open-minded than his father, who hailed from Possum Trot, Miss. After accepting a basketball scholarship to UC Irvine, Baker invited an African-American teammate to have dinner at his parents' house, and the two drove up in the big center's baby-blue convertible Volkswagen Beetle. "We got to the front door," Baker recalls, "and my dad wouldn't let him in. I cried that night, a lot."
At 30, after a stint as a real estate lawyer, Baker became the youngest mayor in Irvine's history and was working his way up the Republican Party food chain. He ran for Congress in 1988, and a hard-fought primary campaign culminated in a messy fiscal scandal that changed his life. "There was a lot of mudslinging," Baker says, "and I got caught up in it and made some mistakes. I needed cash to counter an attack, and I wrote a check from an account that wasn't mine, knowing I had money coming in the next day. It may have cost me the election, but it taught me a lot about life."
Shortly thereafter Baker and his wife of 13 years, Patty, divorced, though the two have remained on good terms. Their boys became accomplished offensive linemen—Ben, 20, played one year at Duke before leaving school to work at the AFL's headquarters, and Sam, 17, will attend USC on a scholarship this fall—and Baker, even after taking the AFL job, resolved to be at every one of their games.
Though air travel is a dicey proposition for Baker—"For one thing, I don't fit well in those bathrooms," he says. "And I'm afraid of flying, period"—he considers the skies to be fan-friendly. He inevitably bonds with passengers and crew members and invites them to Arena League games; in fact, his greatest asset may be his ability to connect with an audience. "He's a great salesman, and he totally believes in what he's selling," says Colorado Crush president and CEO John Elway, the former NFL great. "He's one of those guys who you can talk to for half an hour and you feel like you've known him for 10 years."
Yet for all his amiable crusading, Baker has been known to play the schoolyard bully. When talks over the formation of a players' union stalled in 2000, Baker threatened to shut down the season. And in his continual efforts to make the league strong from top to bottom he has disbanded or relocated seven franchises since the end of the 2001 season. (At that time there were 19 AFL teams; now there are 16.) After last season the New Jersey franchise was moved to Las Vegas, the Toronto team was folded and the Crush—Baker had recruited Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and Stan Kroenke, owner of the Colorado Avalanche and the Denver Nuggets, to buy a team—joined the league as an expansion club. Despite a 2-14 record in its inaugural season, the Crush sold out all eight home games, averaging 17,434 at the Pepsi Center.
However, while the TV deal with NBC is creative (the network pays no rights fees to broadcast the games, and the two parties split the TV advertising revenue down the middle after production and league expenses are paid), the ratings haven't been as high as either side had hoped. For the regular season the average rating was 1.1, down from 1.6 for games over the first four weeks. "That's a modest start in terms of ratings," Baker says, "but we hope to do the opposite of what the XFL did and increase them over time."
As the Arena League moves into major-market mode—only the Grand Rapids franchise, which had average home attendance of 9,675 in 2003, remains as a link to the league's small-city heritage—the offshoot AFL2 is filling the gap, with 28 mostly lesser-market teams. "There are 148 minor league hockey teams in the U.S.," Baker says, "and we think someday there could be more than 100 Arena2 teams." Baker's also thinking global: Last September the AFL conducted a Pacific Rim tryout camp in Australia, and he envisions franchises in Europe, Mexico and Asia. "We have an opportunity," he says, "to have the first worldwide league."
But will Baker be around to enjoy it? His contract expires in December, and he hints that he may walk away, saying, "My son will be at USC, and I want to see him play every week. New York is a great place to work, but I also think that Southern California is the greatest place to live. I hope this isn't my last job. But what does a guy do after being commissioner?"
Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports president who serves as a broadcasting consultant to the AFL, has an idea. "I don't want to create a groundswell," Pilson says, "but down the road he might have the opportunity to be the commissioner of a larger, more successful American sport." Jones, the Dallas owner, agrees, saying, "Put it this way: He's as qualified an individual as I've seen in sports. He's that good."