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Inside baseball
The sale of the Red Sox is a closely held game of money, media, and influence. Who loses? Us, of course.


THE TIME WILL come when John Harrington steps up to the microphone and announces the next owner of the Boston Red Sox. It could happen in hours, days, weeks, or months, but it will happen. Everything else — all of it — is mere speculation. "I honest-to-God don’t think John Harrington knows who he’s selling to right now," says one knowledgeable observer.

But if the winner of this high-stakes sweepstakes has yet to be named, it’s already clear who the loser will be. Us. Us as in baseball fans. Us as in taxpaying citizens. Us as in ordinary people who occasionally enjoy the simple pleasure of attending a game at the ballpark or tuning in the Sox on TV without having to pay through the nose.

What’s going on now — the bids, the counter-bids, the leaks, and the whispers — isn’t about baseball at all. Rather, it’s about what really matters in this game: money, media, and influence. Add more than the usual dollop of such locally grown specialties as connections, resentment, and revenge, and you’ve got a classic Boston story that’s almost certain to close with an ugly final chapter.

For the past week, much of the news has been about Charles Dolan, the cable-television mogul reportedly prepared to fork over as much as $650 million for the Red Sox, their 80 percent share in the New England Sports Network (NESN), and Fenway Park. That right there should have served as a wake-up call that this is about many things other than fun and games.

Neil deMause, co-author of Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit (Common Courage Press, 1998), puts it this way: "Nobody buys a sports franchise for $700 million unless they’re going to try and make a whole lot of money from somewhere. When you see that kind of money being thrown around, it’s never good, because they’re going to have to get it back from somebody. That person is you, whether you’re a fan, a cable viewer, or a taxpayer."

With that in mind, here are a few ideas that are certain to come up repeatedly before a grinning Harrington finally brings this seemingly endless process to — yes — an end.

When they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money. Fans are accustomed to greedy players such as Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn leaving the Red Sox — or, for that matter, coming to the Red Sox, as was the case with Manny Ramirez. What’s now clear is that the money paid to star players is just a fraction of the kind of wealth being thrown around by the would-be owners. Unfortunately, none of this money has a whole lot to do with bringing the Red Sox their first world championship since 1918, or with providing fans with a more comfortable, enjoyable experience.

Clearly the crown jewel in the Red Sox sale is the team’s stake in NESN. Last year, NESN succeeded in persuading most cable systems in Greater Boston to add the service to their basic packages for about $1.50 a month — a boon for fans, given that it had previously cost about $10 a month as a premium channel. As it turns out, the move was even more of a boon for Harrington. NESN is now a much more valuable media property because, with the cable channel’s expansion, it has been able to raise advertising rates.

Dolan, who also owns the New York Rangers and the New York Knicks, is willing to lay out $650 million because he wants to add NESN to his New York–based MSG sports network and his ownership share in Fox Sports Net. With a sports network stretching from New England to the mid Atlantic, observers say, Dolan would be in a much stronger position to sell national advertising. NESN, too, is the lure that drew the New York Times Company — owner of the Boston Globe — to sign on with the John Henry–Tom Werner–Les Otten group, since one of Times Company chair Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s stated aims is to boost his organization’s television presence.

Though none of the bidders can be ruled out, consider that only Dolan appears to have enough personal wealth to make the deal happen. Everyone else would presumably have to go to the bank. And this is what the lending officer is likely to consider: the Sox may be about to turn from a team of overpaid underachievers into a team that just plain stinks, thus reducing fan (and cable) appeal; the latest in a long series of wars between the owners and the players union is about to erupt, which could result in the cancellation of all or much of next season; and baseball’s national-television contract is up for renewal — with the smart money betting that the owners will get less money this time than they did the last time. Getting financing in such a dicey situation could be almost impossible — proven earlier this year when Harrington was unable to obtain financing for a new ballpark before putting the team up for sale. That favors the guy who can just write a check. Which brings us back to Dolan.

If you’re thinking none of this has much to do with bolstering the Sox’ sorry pitching staff, well, you’re catching on.

The sale has gotten caught up in Major League Baseball’s dysfunction. Keep your eye on the Henry–Werner–Otten–Times Company–George Mitchell–Larry Lucchino–Whoever group. In terms of public perception, it’s fallen to third place in the past week, behind moneybags Dolan and local favorites Joe O’Donnell and Steve Karp. But baseball commissioner Bud Selig continues to want this group badly, and he may yet find himself in a position to get what he wants.

"I think the problem with baseball on a management level is that it has a bad commissioner and somebody who never should have been put in that position, because he’s also an owner," says Smith College sports economist Andrew Zimbalist of Selig, whose family controls the Milwaukee Brewers. "He doesn’t lead, and when he does lead he makes the wrong decisions. It’s all reverberating now on the Red Sox."

Selig — last seen crying poormouth before a congressional committee — is desperately pushing for such changes as revenue-sharing and salary caps. Now, unless you think the Yankees should be in the World Series every year, you might think such changes are long overdue and would help restore competitive balance. That’s fine, except that the Red Sox — with the second-highest payroll in Major League Baseball — could wind up as a pawn in Selig’s game.

Selig’s admiration for Werner reportedly stems from Werner’s tenure as owner of the San Diego Padres, where he made his bones by stripping the franchise of all its best players. (The creator of Roseanne, Werner was also humiliated by his star’s crotch-grabbing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before a Padres game. He’s now Katie Couric’s main squeeze.) Henry, who’s trying to sell the Florida Marlins, is well-regarded by Selig and his fellow owners, who would like to accommodate him. The Marlins, in turn, would be bought by Montreal Expos owner Jeffrey Loria, another good old boy who needs to be taken care of, since Selig has also targeted the Expos for elimination in his ill-conceived — and possibly dead-for-now — contraction plan. (The third major partner, failed ski mogul Les Otten, is said to be friends with Red Sox manager Dan Duquette. Ugh.)

From Harrington’s point of view, his fiduciary responsibility to sell to the highest qualified bidder may mean the bidder with the most money, which, at the end of the day, is likely to be Dolan. But Harrington’s choice must be ratified by his fellow owners. And that’s where Selig may grab the reins and try to steer this to the Henry-Werner group. Much has been made of the fact that Dolan’s brother Lawrence owns the Cleveland Indians, a possible conflict of interest that Selig could latch on to in order to deny Charles Dolan the Red Sox.

It’s possible that there’s less to that than meets the eye — ESPN’s Peter Gammons reported this week that Larry Dolan actually has a binding, written agreement that MLB will not impede an attempt by his brother to buy a team. Nevertheless, it would be a foolish observer indeed who would rule out the commissioner’s favored buyer.

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Issue Date: December 13 - 20, 2001

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