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October 13, 2000

The Imbalance Sheet

Sox and Other Things That Stink

by Keith Law

The Red Sox, a symbol of frustration, ineptitude and the cynicism of New England's finest, are for sale. The Jean R. Yawkey Trust has controlled 53% of the team since Jean Yawkey died in 1992, and the team has been in the Yawkey family since 1933.

John Harrington, a Yawkey family advisor and the closest thing the Sox have to an owner, announced this week that the Trust will divest its interest in the club to the highest bidder, preferably "a die-hard Red Sox fan from New England who knows how important the team is to this town and the fabric of this community". Rumor has it that Harrington tried to sell the team on eBay, but determined that the $500 million bid from dshaughnessy was phony.

As with any deal in which insanely large numbers get bandied about, it's easy to lose track of what exactly is being sold here. In the case of the Red Sox, it's quite possible that the new owners will be expected to shell out a second large pile of cash after the purchase to help finance a new stadium (or a "New Fenway", as the popular misnomer goes).

The new owners of the Red Sox will inherit a team with a rabid fan base that has packed Fenway in record numbers the past two seasons, and a set of TV contracts that will earn the team $15-$20 million per year through 2003. But they're also stepping into one of the worst stadium situations in baseball: namely, the political football that is the plan for a new baseball stadium for the Sox.

Fenway Park, as many of you already know, is now the oldest (88 years) and smallest (about 33,500 seats) stadium left in the major leagues. While it is still standing, concerns about the Sox's profitability (a dubious complaint) and parking and neighborhood issues (more valid ones) have led to a government/team squabble over a replacement stadium. The current agreement, which involves $312 million in public financing, is under fire from the City Council and numerous neighborhood and libertarian groups for its use of public funds and for its plan to take private property for the construction of the park. The deal is in even deeper doubt now that it appears that the Sox will no longer be owned by a nonprofit entity. And even that agreement had the Red Sox paying at least $350 million themselves.

So the members of the group that purchases the Red Sox has to expect to receive a less favorable stadium deal, and perhaps even finance most of a new stadium themselves. Comparisons to the purchase of the Dodgers, which included Dodger Stadium and an adjacent parcel of land ideal for a football stadium, or the Indians, whose stadium is new and always full, are really not appropriate. If the Sox are actually sold for the $300 million or more that some expect--which is much less the $600 to $800 million projected by an analyst on the local National Public Radio affiliate--the new owners will take a very cold bath.

Another big "duh" hit the sports press this week with the release of a report estimating that a high percentage of baseball players are using steroids or similar performance-enhancing substances. There's really no story here: it's not a question of whether anyone is using the stuff, because it's pretty obvious to the naked eye that they are. The question is whether anyone in baseball will take it seriously.

The problem for players is simple: In a race of nine cheaters and one honest man, the honest man will usually finish last or close to it. If the choices available to a player are "cheat" or "retire", most players will cheat, given the lack of alternative careers and the fact that minor leaguers earn pittances and get no pensions for their time.

It would be simple to stamp out the problem if the owners and the Players' Association agreed on how to do so, but the fact is that neither side has any interest in stopping steroid use. The owners believe, with some small justification, that the increased offense produced by players hepped up on goofballs puts more fannies in the seats and more money in their pockets. The MLBPA, like any labor union, fights any attempt to test players for illegal substances as an invasion of players' privacy; in other words, something they'll accept only if they can extract another pound of flesh from the owners.

Will we ever see a change? Perhaps, but something will have to change the economics of the situation before the owners decide to make it a priority. The bad publicity caused by a player's death due to steroid abuse might be enough.

Keith Law can be reached at klaw@baseballprospectus.com.

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