Monday, July 22, 2002

RICO Suave

RICO Suave

Commissioner Bud Selig and Expos/Marlins owner Jeff Loria are being sued (link requires registration). Fourteen Canadian companies with an interest in the Montreal Expos have charged Selig and Loria with, among other things, racketeering. According to the New York Times, the complaint alleges that Loria conspired with Selig and MLB’s Chief Operating Officer Bob DuPuy to swindle the Expos’ minority partners out of much of their ownership interest. Allegedly, the aim was to facilitate the contraction of the Montreal franchise and award Loria the ownership of the Florida Marlins.

This is no gentlemanly, contractual dispute. To sue someone under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO") is to go thermonuclear. And while you probably care just about as much as I do (i.e. not at all) about a bunch of obscenely wealthy Québécois getting deked out of their vanity investment, consider that a RICO suit will almost certainly involve gobs of invasive discovery. If nothing else, Selig's and Loria’s dirty laundry is sure to get a good airing. And if the suit isn't settled relatively quickly (which, given Selig’s demonstrated lack of foresight, it probably won't be), we should finally get the inside skinny on some of the league's more titillating misadventures in ownership.

For example, we'll get to see what the supposedly cash-strapped owners of small market teams do with their revenue-sharing money. On Loria’s watch, the Expos received massive amounts of money from the Yankees and Braves of the world, and plowed little if any of it into player salaries. Some have suggested that the money went directly into Loria’s pocket, but until now it seemed possible that the money was lost to bad management. If the suit’s allegations are borne out, it means that Loria kept the money for himself. Given that the owners are demanding vastly increased revenue sharing in the next collective bargaining agreement, this is an issue worth keeping an eye on.

As enticing as all that might sound, Selig-haters might get more entertainment out of seeing the case settled. I’ve not seen the complaint, nor do I know how much money the plaintiffs are demanding, but rough figuring and common sense places the figure well above $200 million. (The plaintiffs claim a dilution from a 76% to a 6% stake in a $120 million asset, and the RICO claims treble any liability.) If Selig and MLB try to settle this thing before it gets embarrassing, each team will likely have to kick in a couple million a piece, and that’s being conservative. The owners have been content to keep Bud Selig employed up until now because, despite their disapproving rhetoric, revenues remain high and Selig has really only managed to humiliate himself. If, however, his foolishness were to cost short-tempered fellows like George Steinbrenner and Rupert Murdoch serious money, I have no doubt that baseball would soon have a new commissioner. And that, as another disgraced mogul likes to say, would be a good thing.

By the way, now that baseball has been served with gnarly lawsuits relating to both Minnesota and Montreal, I think we can safely say that the grand contraction experiment is officially over.

There Goes the Coldest Hitter Who Ever Lived

I’m coming a little late to the whole Ted Williamsicle thing, but in doing some research I came across this fabulous quote from online encryption guru, molecular nanotechnology theorist, and self-proclaimed cryonics expert Ralph Merkle:

"A common misconception is that cryonics freezes the dead. As the definition of "death" is "a permanent cessation of all vital functions" the future ability to revive a patient preserved with today's technology implies the patient wasn't dead."

Clever! Perhaps, for his next project, Merkle will demonstrate that black is actually white.

If a mere redefinition of life and death doesn't hold your interest, read on. According to the website's fine print, Dr. Merkle is not just any old cryonics expert; he sits on the board of Alcor, the company now in possession of the Splendid Splinter’s allegedly undead body. Even better, Merkle is the great grand nephew of one Fred Merkle, the first baseman who cost the 1908 New York Giants the National League championship against the Cubs when he failed to run to second base on what would have been the game-winning hit. His mistake, which came to be known as "Merkle’s Boner," resulted in a general ruckus that prevented the game from continuing, causing it to end in a tie [Is Merkle related to Selig too? -- ed.]. Eventually a one-game playoff was held for the pennant, and the Cubs won.

Four years later, Merkle was involved in yet another boneheaded play. This one cost the Giants the 1912 World Series when, in the bottom of the tenth inning of the final game of the series, Merkle let an extremely catchable pop foul thud to the ground next to him. The batter then drove in the tying run, setting the stage for a winning sacrifice fly two batters later. The opposition: the Boston Red Sox, who would one day feature a splendid left fielder by the name of Ted Williams.

In other words, the son of arguably the greatest baseball player who ever lived has entrusted his father’s immortality to the nephew of the guy whose incompetence cost his team two championship games. Is this a karmic mix-up or what?

Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

The Yankees have made a couple of high-profile moves in the past few weeks. First they acquired Raul Mondesi from the Blue Jays, then traded for Tigers ace Jeff Weaver. Predictably, most fans and writers viewed these moves as further evidence of the Yankees' unfair financial advantage. The experts are saying that because of these deals, the World Series is New York’s to lose, and that baseball is the worse for it.

Don’t believe a word of it. Sure, the Yankees may win the World Series, but if they do, it will be in spite of these trades, not because of them. Let’s take a hard look at the alleged ringers Boss Steinbrenner stole from the poor sisters of the American League. The fabulously overpaid Mondesi is a career underachiever, currently enjoying his worst season in the majors. As we go to press, he’s sporting an execrable .307 On Base Percentage and a shortstop-like OPS of .733. Mondesi was brought in to replace the right-field platoon of Shane Spencer and John Vander Wal who between them have posted an OBP of .328 and an OPS of .722. In other words, the Yankees took on over $12 million in salary obligations in order to get a theoretical .011 bump in production. I say theoretical, because Mondesi has actually been worse than his .733 OPS since joining the Yankees.

The Weaver trade was equally meaningless. Unlike Mondesi, Weaver is a valuable and reasonably-priced commodity who has the potential to anchor a rotation for years to come. The problem, however, is that the Yankees didn’t need a rotation anchor, or even another starting pitcher. After all, they already had six solid guys on the squad. Besides, in order to get Weaver, the Yankees gave up promising starter Ted Lilly. Lilly serves virtually the same function as Weaver, and may be the better pitcher two or three years down the road. If the Yankees had been content to hold on to him they would have saved money. More importantly, they would have been able to keep two prospects -- John-Ford Griffin and Jason Arnold -- who many feel have bright futures. The trade was a three-way affair with the Oakland A’s (Billy Beane once again making out like a bandit, taking Lilly and prospects from both Detroit and New York), and the Tigers did make made out worse than the Yankees. But to suggest that acquiring Weaver makes the Yankees invincible is hooey. Heck, if the Yankees make the playoffs, Weaver won’t even be in the starting rotation.

Cries about "the rich getting richer" go up every time the Yankees issue a press release, but neither the Mondesi nor the Weaver trade constitutes evidence that the system is broken. To the contrary, there are only two conclusions to draw from these trades: first, that the Blue Jays’ new front office continues to do a good job reshaping the pathetic roster they inherited from the previous regime; second, that the Tigers’ new front office should take Billy Beane off its speed dial. Baseball has plenty of problems these days, but George Steinbrenner’s largesse isn’t one of them.

The Man Comes to His Senses

Since I slammed MLB and the Astros last week for trying to shut down, It would be unfair of me if I failed to report that they seem to be sensible business people after all. Much to their credit, the ’Stros have reached a quick and reasonable settlement with Ray Kerbey. It’s good to see that sanity still has a place somewhere at baseball’s kitchen table.