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January 3, 2003

Breaking Balls

Three Cheers for New Ownership

by Derek Zumsteg

Baseball ownership groups have for too long resembled Dark Age European royalty--closely related and weak. Hand-picked for convenience and agreeability rather than on any objective basis, they've given us undercapitalized owners like Steve Schott, lapdog owners like Jeff Loria, evil owners like Carl Pohlad.

Since the players have rolled over and exposed their vulnerable belly and throat in surrender this year, things may have changed. John Henry, the Red Sox owner, told our own Jonah Keri that agreeing with the hard-line owners was not a screening criterion:

"The owners' first concern is whether or not an incoming owner has the financial wherewithal to operate and backstop a major league franchise. Once that concern is satisfied, owners are researched to find out what their history of community involvement has been, what abilities they have organizationally, what their business plan for the franchise is, how the purchase is structured, who are the partners - all of this in addition to serious inquiry into the ethical, legal, media, credit, related-party backgrounds etc. Many factors are looked at over a period of many months and more often than you might imagine, people are turned down as prospective owners even after they have a deal to purchase a team."

This directly contradicts what we've seen in the last couple years. Reports consistently suggest that the make-or-break question for prospective ownership groups was whether they were "team players." That was consistent with the strange treatment of people who were not team players, like the whole Donald Watkins saga (and if anyone out there can ­ seriously ­ show whether or not he had the scratch, drop me a line). Now, I don't doubt that the rest of those things are looked into in great depth. But there's no way Selig would have let a Mark Cuban-style firebrand/nutbar buy in as they headed into the last CBA negotiations.

The newest and coolest rumor is that Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television ("It's Bootylicious") wants in. Johnson is the newest NBA owner, paying $300 million to plunk a franchise in just-vacated Charlotte. He's teaming up with Dan Snyder, who built his own communications empire--coincidentally named Snyder Communications--and who at 35 paid $800 million for the NFL's Washington Redskins, to bid on the Montreal Expos.

We know they have the money: Johnson sold BET to Viacom for a number reported as being between $1.3 and $2 billion in stock (side note: the sorry state of mainstream financial reporting in this country is partly to blame for Enron, WorldCom, et al). Snyder sold Snyder Communications for over $2 billion in cash (side note: it must be easy to get a job with a company that shares your name, since a lot of these really rich guys made their money in namesake companies).

This ownership team is great news for me and everyone who writes about baseball.

Dan Snyder is an awful, awful NFL owner, and I would like nothing more than to see him bring his routine to baseball. Snyder is early Steinbrenner with poorer impulse control and more money. ESPN.com's Tuesday Morning Quarterback ("Official Football Column of Breaking Balls") has dubbed him Lord Voldemort. Miss a field goal? You're fired. Miss a pass? Gone. To quote Gregg Easterbrook, "in the four years of Voldemort's evil reign, in addition to nine kickers the Persons have had six starting quarterbacks, four head coaches, four defensive coordinators and four general managers." Oh man. I see Don Baylor as Billy Martin.

We'd get to see all the worst attributes of BET--maybe get some Russell Simmons Def Comedy Jam clips between innings ("The problem with white people, and it's okay for me to say this as a black comic, is that they are soooo white!" [riotous laughter]). When games run late into extra innings, the scoreboard goes to paid programming ("Wow, there's something called the Invention Channel? I hope it has something I can buy!"). Ja Rule throwing out the first pitch every game, because he needs the extra exposure.

We'll see Snyder firing players who don't run out ground balls; firing peanut vendors who miss throws; firing PA announcers who fail to correctly announce the Twins lineup every time ("Now batting for Doug Mientkiewicz, A.J. Pierzynski") (side note: the Mariners this year had a kid PA announcer during a Twins game. We all winced but she was awesome, didn't make a mistake in three innings, and should immediately have been hired to replace the usual guy). Snyder lowering beer prices, installing pay urinals, and hiring off-duty cops to issue public urination citations wouldn't be a surprise.

These are two guys who can afford to take Angelos to arbitration if they want to move the Expos into D.C., and write a check for whatever figure comes out. I'd argue it's pretty hard to devalue the Orioles any further than what Peter Angelos has done himself, but hey, if a panel says putting the Expos in D.C. will cost him $500 million, that's no big deal for these two media titans.

Plus, Snyder's proven that he doesn't care about cap restraints. He spent insane amounts of money on the Redskins around the cap, bringing in goofs like Deion Sanders and paying them tens of millions in signing bonuses alone. And with the new CBA, that kind of spending gets taxed, and that money goes to create more competitive balance by lining Carl Pohlad's pockets.

The best part though might be that baseball finally gets some new blood. Any new blood will do. When the owners sit down to figure out how best to grow the sport, they need 30 ideas, not Reinsdorf and a chorus of 'yays' around the room. If Johnson and Snyder can get into baseball, I have great hopes that we may see the unhappy owners finally sell out to better financed, more intelligent ownership teams, and that, in turn, will be good for the sport.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article The Daily Prospectus: ... (01/02)
<< Previous Column
Breaking Balls: The Re... (12/12)
Next Column >>
Breaking Balls: The La... (01/09)
Next Article >>
2003 Internet Hall ... (01/06)

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