Baseball notes

Selig-McCourt battle could get ugly in LA

By Nick Cafardo
April 24, 2011

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Do not expect Dodgers owner Frank McCourt to go quietly into the night, sell the team for about $900 million-$1 billion (as one financial insider with knowledge of the franchise estimates its worth), pay off his debts, and then return to Boston or vacation for the rest of his life.

The McCourt-Bud Selig saga that began to play out last week in Los Angeles shapes up as one of the great sports legal battles of the 21st century.

Before the commissioner pulled the plug on McCourt’s ownership, he and his lawyers spent months assessing the situation and came to the realization that he had to make the boldest possible move and take control of the franchise. He has not yet done that with the Mets, whom many industry experts thought would be the first of the two teams to be taken over.

While Selig does not like the way McCourt has conducted business, he’s letting him know in the most drastic way. Publicly, McCourt has been silent through the process, issuing only a statement Wednesday, the day of the coup, in which he indicated Dodgers ownership had been in compliance with all Major League Baseball rules. Major league sources close to McCourt indicate he is flabbergasted by Selig’s actions, and that he has not been able to speak to the commissioner face-to-face to discuss the issues.

McCourt is as lawyered-up as anyone on the face of the earth, and MLB’s pockets are very deep and can withstand any prolonged legal battle. By the looks of it, and by the tone, this is going to get uglier before it gets better.

A huge legal battle looming? Probably, unless McCourt finds a suitable end game in which he’s allowed to keep his team.

By all accounts, according to sources, McCourt has complied with Major League Baseball rules and has informed the office of the commissioner every step of the way on deals and loans he has made on behalf of the Dodgers. He did negotiate a massive $3 billion, $20-year deal with Fox that would solve his financial problems, and as one person familiar with the Dodgers’ situation indicated last week, “[he made] moves as far back as ’04 and ’05 with the realization that the TV deal was going to get done, which would send the Dodgers heading in the right direction for many years to come. He knew he could pay for the things he wanted to pay for once this deal was in place.’’

McCourt was very careful in structuring the Fox deal to make sure it was no different than NESN’s with the Red Sox, Texas’s new TV deal, or San Diego’s new TV deal, so that it was void of anything precedent-setting that could be deemed unapprovable. But now the very deal that McCourt knew would be his salvation is one he’s not allowed to execute. He needed a $30 million advance from Fox to pay for the first month’s payroll. He needed about $200 million to start paying off debt in a transaction with Fox that Rob Manfred of the commissioner’s office oversaw. McCourt’s side claims the money was never earmarked for the cost of his divorce, but the commissioner’s office feared it would be.

The divorce proceedings between the McCourts brought complete transparency to McCourt’s business interests and dealings. There appear to be no other secrets in McCourt’s closet. Other team owners are able to bury those secrets without anyone finding out, but McCourt’s are a matter of public record. For that reason, there appears to be less hesitancy for McCourt to go all out to save the team he fought hard to purchase.

If everything is in compliance with Major League Baseball rules, then what is the reason for the takeover?

Obviously, Selig does not like the way McCourt has conducted his business. It was within the last year that Selig called the Dodgers a model franchise and said that they had turned the corner from the Fox ownership days. The Dodgers far exceeded projections in attendance and fan interest again. There was a lot of charitable work the organization had done that resonated in the community. The beginning of the end seemed to be the divorce with all of the details of the extravagant McCourt lifestyle that created debt (some estimate it at $600 million) and real concern about the McCourt stewardship.

“When you come into this fraternity,’’ said one baseball official, “there’s a spirit of cooperation and togetherness that has to occur. There’s only 30 of you. If one entity starts going their own way, it doesn’t work and something has to be done.’’

There was the recent beating in the Dodgers’ parking lot of a Giants fan who is in an induced coma, which is being blamed in part on McCourt trying to cut corners by reducing security. The irony is McCourt cleaned up the parking lots around the stadium when he took over the team in January 2004, just months after a Dodgers fan was shot to death by a Giants fan in the parking lot.

Selig is perhaps raising an eyebrow at some of McCourt’s “business entities.’’ The parking lots and the stadium are separate businesses from the Dodgers, and there are seven offshoots of the team’s main business that Selig said he would investigate since Dodgers’ revenues may have been used to pay debts of those entities.

So, what can happen? When owners first buy in they sign a statement that they will not sue Major League Baseball. Both Charlie Finley and George Steinbrenner tried and lost. Selig’s powers are such that he can take any of the 30 franchises over in the best interests of baseball. McCourt can start legal proceedings against Selig and claim that the commissioner acted arbitrarily or capriciously.

It also appears the Dodgers are in compliance with MLB’s debt-to-earnings ratio, while, according to Forbes, the Mets are not. Can McCourt prove that Selig’s takeover is based on trumped-up charges? Can Selig prove he didn’t act capriciously but rather in the best interests of baseball to put one of the most storied franchises into different hands? The fight may be better than the outcome.

Good times for the Indians The Indians’ Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner are returning to form after injuries and a downturn in performance made people doubt their future. Sizemore was an exciting player with a rare combination of power and speed, while offering terrific defense in center field. But for the last two-plus seasons he battled injuries, and had microfracture surgery on his left knee June 4, which required a long rehab. As Indians closer Chris Perez pointed out, “You almost have to learn to walk again.’’ Sizemore returned for the first time since May 16 of last year against the Orioles last week and went 2 for 4 with a home run and double in his debut. He’s hitting leadoff again.

“I’ve always dreamed of seeing him at the top of his game,’’ said manager Manny Acta. “We’re excited to have a franchise player back with this team.’’

As for Hafner, he was one of the most powerful hitters in the game. Four times he drove in more than 100 runs. He had an off-the-charts OPS of 1.097 in 2006, and entering yesterday was at 1.004 with a .344 average, four homers, and 10 RBIs. His career OPS is .904. After three wasted years, at age 33 he’s healthy again. The Indians couldn’t have given either player away in the offseason, and now you wonder if they’ll use both as trade bait to keep rebuilding at the deadline.

The Indians have been one of the best teams in baseball to start the season, but how long they can keep up the pace? Their starting pitchers were 10-2 with a 2.35 ERA through 17 games, and former Red Sox righthander Justin Masterson, acquired in the Victor Martinez deal, started 4-0 with a 1.71 ERA after losing 13 games last season. Fausto Carmona, another attractive player for trade purposes, had a 1.25 ERA over his first three starts.

The Indians have been a nice story for the city of Cleveland, which has been through a lot economically, and has taken some hits in sports entertainment, most notably LeBron James leaving for Miami. The Indians were also forced in recent years to trade many of their top stars, among them Jim Thome, Cliff Lee, and CC Sabathia.

If you’re a baseball fan, you should feel good about the Tribe.

Gordon begins to show skills Allard Baird, now Boston’s top talent evaluator, winds up smelling like a rose with his drafting of Alex Gordon.

Baird, the former Royals general manager, took his share of hits when Gordon didn’t live up to expectations as the second overall pick in the 2005 draft. It’s taken Gordon quite a while to develop, but it appears he’s turned the corner. The Royals changed his position from third base to left field to take the pressure off, and little by little Gordon, a lefthanded hitter, is starting to live up to his promise. He was hitting .361 with one homer and 14 RBIs entering yesterday.

Baird always believed in Gordon because of the solid tools he possessed coming out of the University of Nebraska. But Baird remembers, “The expectations were so high. So many kept comparing him to George Brett and it just wasn’t fair. I think the Kansas City Royals organization deserves so much of the credit for having the patience to stick with him and not give up on such a talent.’’

Gordon is now Kansas City’s No. 3 hitter and he seems to fit the spot perfectly. Is he Brett? Of course not, though his mannerisms and the lefthanded swing often give you glimpses of what people were thinking some six years ago when those comparisons were made.

The Royals, like the Indians, have been a surprise. Gordon appears to be leading the way of a new generation of Royals who should present this downtrodden franchise with the chance to become good again. Gordon is a player the Royals couldn’t give away in deals the past couple of years, but this is a clear case of the adage that the deals you don’t make are sometimes the best kind.

Apropos of nothing 1. Fascinating stat by Stats Inc. Scoring has been on a steady decline over the last five seasons, to 4.38 runs per game per team in 2010, the lowest average since 1992. Major league clubs are averaging just 4.31 runs a game (entering the weekend) in 2011. Is it a coincidence or the reduction in use of performance-enhancing drugs?; 2. Expanded playoffs (by one team per league) in 2012 is fine, but I hate to see teams make the playoffs with fewer than 90 wins; 3. Wonder if Scott Boras could put together a group to buy the Dodgers?; 4. Astros president and Framingham native Tal Smith has survived four ownership groups. Will Jim Crane’s possible purchase from Drayton McLane be the fifth?; 5. Nice resurrection of a career, Lance Berkman (.349, 6 homers, 15 RBIs with Cardinals entering yesterday).

Updates on nine 1. Fenway Park — Remember that weird right field foul pole/yellow line incident April 15 when a Blue Jays home run was reversed after replay because the ball was shown landing to the right of the pole even though it was within the yellow line on the railing? MLB and the Red Sox have been working on making sure the pole and line of the railing are lined up. A view from home plate to the pole is aligned — an optical illusion — but once you get to the spot, there’s an obvious gap between the yellow line and pole. That this was never noticed before and that it never came into play was amazing to team and league officials, but by the time the Red Sox return home from their current trip, the lines should line up.

2. Ryan Doumit, C, Pirates — Would Doumit solve Boston’s catching problems? According to one talent evaluator, “He’s not a good receiver. I think he would frustrate that pitching staff if they brought him in and said, ‘OK, the job is yours.’ They’re better off trying to get [Jarrod Saltalamacchia] going than taking that chance.’’ Pittsburgh’s Chris Snyder, who is off to a good start offensively and runs a good game, could also be available.

3. Bobby Jenks, RHP, Red Sox — The White Sox lead the majors with six blown saves and can’t seem to find a closer. Obviously, thoughts come back to Jenks, who was the White Sox’ closer and was let go after he faltered last season. But as one White Sox executive pointed out, “It hasn’t been good and we always had faith in Bobby, but last year our on-field staff didn’t feel he could be relied upon and we made the decision we made. Bobby may do very well again because we understand relievers lose it and find themselves. But for us, it was the right decision even though it doesn’t look like it right now.’’

4. B.J. Upton, OF, Rays — Word from a couple of major league evaluators is to keep an eye on the Rays exploring a deal for Upton if they should fall out of contention, or even if they’re in contention. They’d like to make a deal similar to the one they made involving Matt Garza, in which they received good talent, including Sam Fuld.

5. Mike Rizzo, GM, Nationals — Rizzo is thought to be shopping for a center fielder and/or someone who can add some zest to the Nationals’ anemic offense, which was hitting .218 entering the weekend. The one salvation has been a pitching rotation of Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann, Jason Marquis, and Tom Gorzelanny, which allowed three or fewer runs in 15 of their first 18 games.

6. Tom Glavine, former pitcher — Glavine is exploring the possibility of joining a group that could make a bid to purchase the NHL’s Thrashers to keep them in Atlanta. It’s still in the preliminary stages, but Glavine would lend his name to the cause and likely come away with some small ownership stake and possible front office role.

7. Peter Bourjos, OF, Angels — One longtime National League scout had this to say about the young center fielder: “I’ve seen a lot of the great center fielders in the game and I’m telling you, this kid is one of the greatest. He’s not a good center fielder, he’s a great one.’’ As a righthanded hitter he gets down the first base line in 3.9 seconds, which makes you wonder if it’s too bad he wasn’t a switch-hitter. Bourjos, whose dad, Chris, played left field for Rochester in the longest game in professional history against Pawtucket, also has some power, but the Angels would love to see him develop as a higher OBP guy who can create havoc on the basepaths.

8. Dennis Gilbert, special adviser to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf — It was fascinating sitting with Gilbert, the potential new owner of the Dodgers, for seven innings Friday night at Angels Stadium. Gilbert, a former roommate of Tony Conigliaro in the Red Sox organization, would put together a group of LA investors if Frank McCourt has to sell. Gilbert, a former player agent, may be the fastest Red Sox farmhand in their history. “How would you have compared to Carl Crawford?’’ I asked. “I was faster,’’ Gilbert said. Gilbert has also been in the insurance business for years, working with some of the top stars in entertainment and sports, and started the Scouts Foundation, which aids scouts in need of financial support. Gilbert is an extremely charitable man with a great passion for baseball. Bud Selig could not go wrong if Gilbert emerges as the Dodgers’ new owner.

9. Tom Werner, chairman, Red Sox — Werner eliminated himself from the Dodgers sweepstakes last week when he issued a statement that he wasn’t interested in pursuing ownership. This was somewhat surprising considering Werner’s Los Angeles roots and that he once was the owner of the Padres, but as he pointed out, his business and personal relationships with John Henry are too good to walk away from. Werner wouldn’t say whether he had actually spoken to Selig about the Dodgers, but said, “I think it’s important that all 30 teams have a strong financial footing.’’

Short hops From the Bill Chuck Files: “Life’s unfair department: The Diamondbacks’ Armando Galarraga is 3-0 with a 6.00 ERA while the Padres’ Dustin Moseley has a 1.40 ERA and a 0-3 record.’’ . . . Wish Ken Tatum a happy 67th birthday tomorrow.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and teams sources was used in this report.

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