How can Selig deal with owner chaos?

BY Ken Rosenthal • February 2, 2011

The Mets’ Fred Wilpon and Dodgers’ Frank McCourt would seem to have little in common, other than the fact that they own major-league teams.

Right now, though, the two are linked. Baseball needs them to go away — or, somehow, emerge from their respective crises stronger than before.

Wilpon would appear to have a better chance of enduring than McCourt, but good luck figuring out what actually is happening with either of them. Both the Mets and Dodgers are in turmoil. Suffice it to say, baseball would benefit from stronger ownership in New York and Los Angeles, the nation’s two largest markets.

The sport never will have 30 brilliant, dynamic, solvent owners, just as it will never have 30 shrewd GMs or 30 sharp managers. But look at the Texas Rangers. While it’s too soon to predict success for their new owners, the group is without question an improvement over the final years of Tom Hicks’ reign.

The Houston Astros — who, unlike the Mets and Dodgers, already are for sale in their entirety — could get the same type of kick from a fresh start. Astros owner Drayton McLane is not under financial duress, but he spent too little on the draft and waited too long to rebuild. Next, please.

As for the Mets and Dodgers, their troubles are so presently compelling, hardly anyone is looking at the big picture. The Dodgers should be the Dodgers, exerting financial muscle, lording over the National League West. The Mets might never be the Yankees, but for heaven’s sake, they should at least challenge the Phillies in the NL East.

Competitive balance is great and all, but these are not the suggested ways to achieve it.

The exact damage from the Mets’ involvement with Bernie Madoff is not yet known. Ownership’s decision to sell 20 to 25 percent of the franchise, however, is directly related to a lawsuit by the trustee of the victims of Madoff’s multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme — a lawsuit that seeks as much as $1 billion from the Mets’ owners, claiming they knew or should have known that Madoff was operating a fraud, the New York Times reported.

The Mets’ baseball problems stem more from poor decisions than financial restrictions — they’ve chosen the wrong players and paid them too much. The team again figures to carry one of the five highest payrolls this season. The question comes after the season ends and a number of inflated contracts expire. Mets fans had been pointing to that moment as a sort of independence day. But now the possibility of spending anew is in doubt.

Maybe the Mets’ owners will find minority investors, settle the lawsuit and regain their financial footing. Or maybe the team’s increasingly bleak outlook — the looming damage from Madoff, plus the New York Post’s report that the franchise is $700 million in debt — will force Wilpon and Co. to sell the entire team.

Either way, the Mets would end up in a better place. But when?

Dodgers fans might ask the same question. In fact, many have been asking it for some time now. McCourt, even before entering into divorce proceedings with his wife, Jamie, has always operated the team on a tight budget. His purchase of the club was highly leveraged, raising some to wonder why it was even approved. Since then, he has driven the franchise deeper into debt, according to court documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

The extent of the team’s debt — $433 million as of 2009, according to the Times — makes it difficult to imagine how Frank or Jamie McCourt could remain owner, no matter who ended up with the club after their divorce.

The Dodgers could tap a variety of revenue streams, including a new local television contract with FOX. But would that money go toward paying the divorce settlement — the McCourts, as courts documents show, maintain lavish lifestyles — or toward operating the club?

Commissioner Bud Selig would want to know, and one source said he is “totally fed up” with both McCourts. Selig could make life difficult for whichever one gains control, setting up financial roadblocks, effectively squeezing out the “winning” McCourt.

In theory, Selig also could do the same with the Mets’ owners. The relationship between Selig and Fred Wilpon, though, is strong and deeply rooted. The Mets also might be worthier of Selig’s support, particularly if the lawsuit against Wilpon and his partners proves unfounded. The team, in Selig’s view, might not have broken its covenant with its fans in the same way that the Dodgers have.

The commissioner is not an omnipotent force in such matters. He cannot settle the McCourts’ divorce. He cannot settle the lawsuit against the Mets’ owners. Both matters need to play out, and for baseball, the sooner it happens, the better.

Franchises in New York and Los Angeles are supposed to be jewels, not fiascos.

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