Friday, May 18, 2007

Famous First Words?

Because I'm an Atlanta fan, every morning I get emailed the latest Braves headlines from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This morning's email had this item, linking to an interview with the CEO of new Braves owner, Liberty Media.

No Steinbrenners in Liberty Media crowd

To be fair, the headline of the article that link actually took you to had been changed to Liberty CEO: We'll leave baseball to Braves. The interview went on to confirm the "No Steinbrenners" meme from the email, with the CEO saying that Liberty is content to stay out of the day-to-day operations of the Bravos.

While there's no reason to disbelieve that at the moment, we should remember that when Steinbrenner took over the Yankees in 1973, he promised to take a back seat too, leaving the running of the team to others. That, of course, lasted for about ten minutes.

It strains credulity to suggest that anyone could micromanage the way Steinbrenner did when he still had his fastball, and I personally doubt that Liberty will meddle in such a fashion. But Liberty -- led by its alpha-shareholder John Malone -- has a well-documented history of, well, being complicated:

Over the past 30 years, cable pioneer Malone has built, sold, and dismantled several empires. In doing so, the engineer has always favored complexity over simplicity.

Since founding Liberty in 1990, he's presided over a bewildering succession of recapitalizations and stock splits, mergers and spin-offs and distributions that seem to have amounted to a somewhat dubious feat of engineering—devising a structure that the market values at less than the sum of its parts. It is taken as a given that Malone's deals are shrewd and brilliant. But most investors have had a tough time puzzling out his logic.

What does this mean for Braves fans? Hard to say. The team's previous owner -- Time Warner -- certainly wasn't complicated in that it allowed the Braves to do anything it wanted as long as it didn't involve spending any money whatsoever. Ted Turner was batshit crazy, but that tended to work to the Braves benefit.

Based on two comments in the interview -- that the Braves deal was primarily motivated by tax considerations and that Liberty is making no assurances that they're going to hold on to the Braves for more than 4 1/2 years -- I'm inclined to believe that the hands-off promise is genuine. If anything, I can see Liberty upping the Braves payroll in an effort to lure the types of stars that would make them an attractive product that can be flipped come 2011 (c.f. the Cubs 2006-2007 offseason moves).

Whether that makes them a championship caliber team again is anyone's guess.