Selig controversies ill-timed, not illicit

ON BASEBALL

Baseball

January 13, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

It must be great to be Bud Selig right now.

Baseball's embattled commissioner has been catching flak from all directions for his controversial plan to eliminate two franchises. Now, it seems, he can't sneeze without raising questions about the propriety of some aspect of baseball's busy off-season agenda.

Michigan congressman John Conyers, the newest champion of baseball antitrust reform, recently called for Selig's resignation after it was revealed that his Milwaukee Brewers (who technically are operated by his daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb) once accepted a large loan from a company controlled by Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad, who stands to get a generous buyout if the Twins are contracted.

Meanwhile, officials in Massachusetts are challenging the validity of the sale of the Boston Red Sox to an ownership group that did not make the highest bid. That ownership group includes several investors - including former Orioles president Larry Lucchino - who have close ties to the commissioner.

Somehow, baseball always seems to put its worst foot forward at the worst possible time.

Selig had hoped that his Nov. 6 contraction announcement would be a wake-up call for anyone who doubted the economic crisis facing the sport. He continued to campaign for drastic economic reform when he told a Congressional committee that the sport lost more than $500 million last year.

Though baseball officials have been predicting financial doom for decades, Selig appeared to be making his case until the industry got bogged down in the appearance of impropriety.

Now, it must appear to an understandably cynical fan base that baseball owners are just a group of unscrupulous rich guys looking out for themselves at the expense of the national pastime and the communities that support it.

It's not that simple, of course. Nobody is going to nominate Selig for sainthood, but the twin controversies that have sprung up over the past couple of weeks are much ado about nothing.

The loan taken out by the Brewers in 1995 might have raised the eyebrows of several former commissioners. It might even have violated baseball's internal rules. But it doesn't register as a legitimate scandal because baseball's antitrust exemption allows competing franchises to enter into business arrangements that benefit the group.

The Brewers got a 90-day loan from a federally regulated lender at a market interest rate. Selig, who was still operating the club at that point, should have steered away from a company affiliated with the owner of another franchise, but the loan didn't raise any red flags at the time.

The inflated price that Pohlad reportedly would receive to fold the Twins franchise certainly is curious, but drawing a logical connection between the 1995 loan and the 2001 contraction announcement borders on the impossible.

Does anyone really think Selig was so grateful for that $3 million loan (at a semi-competitive 10.5 percent rate of interest) that he decided to make his fellow owners overpay Pohlad for the Twins by $50 million to $100 million?

Conyers simply used it to advance his antitrust agenda, which is what opportunistic politicians do.

The Boston ownership situation is more complicated, because there was a fiduciary responsibility on the part of the administrators of the Yawkey Trust to get the best possible price for its share of the Red Sox franchise.

Still, the owners of the other 29 clubs have the power under the major-league agreement to approve or reject prospective ownership groups, which gives Selig the ability to manipulate the situation without much fear of serious legal consequences.

In other words, it might look bad and it might even smell bad to some, but the sale will go through.

Selig has bigger fish to fry. He told members of the players union and management officials that he hopes to push through a 50 percent luxury tax on excess payroll and a dramatic increase in revenue sharing when the players and owners hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement.

The luxury tax would heavily penalize teams with payrolls that exceed $98 million. The revenue-sharing plan would require teams to pool 50 percent of local revenues (minus some expenses), a 150 percent increase in the current level of revenue sharing.

Both proposals would create a significant drag on rising salaries, so they figure to be resisted by the union, but union officials have to be relieved that the owners apparently will not seek to implement an NFL-style salary cap during the new set of contract negotiations.

Orioles might be vindicated

Slugger Juan Gonzalez would have looked pretty good at the heart of the Orioles' lineup, but it's too early to criticize the club for failing in its bid to sign him to a two-year contract.

Gonzalez posed a significant health risk to a team that still is paying off Albert Belle, albeit with the help of a large insurance policy. Gonzalez had a great season for the Cleveland Indians last year, but was no lock to replicate his 140-RBI performance in a less-potent Orioles lineup.

If he stays healthy and helps lead the Texas Rangers back into contention, some second-guessing is inevitable, but the Orioles still can make a decent case for holding onto the $30 million or so it would have taken to sell him on Baltimore. They aren't going far this year, so why buy a first-class ticket to get there?

Tony was no tiger

No tears for former Anaheim Angels president Tony Tavares, who resigned last week after engineering the amazing transformation of the Angels from long-suffering, large-market franchise into longer-suffering, middle-market franchise, despite a remodeled stadium, a metropolitan population of about 15 million and a huge corporate foundation.

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