By Murray Chass

November 25, 2009

With the Texas Rangers on the market, their fans have eagerly waited for the team to be liberated from the ownership of Tom Hicks. And then last week Hicks spoiled their lunch. He said he was putting together a group of investors to buy the team over which he would then maintain control.tom-hicks-225

I’m not sure how that would work, Hicks selling his team to himself. But I know it wouldn’t be good for the Rangers if Hicks succeeded in pulling it off. Hicks may be the second worst baseball owner after Vince Naimoli, who made such a farce of his team that Tampa Bay booted the “Devil” out of its name.

The best thing Hicks has done in his 11 ½-year ownership is hire Nolan Ryan as the team president nearly two years ago. One of the many worst things he did was fire Doug Melvin as general manager in 2001. Another was signing Alex Rodriguez to a $252 million contract in 2000.

In fact, one person well acquainted with Hicks financially told me this week that my ranking of Naimoli one and Hicks two for worst-owner honors might be backward. “At least Vince didn’t blow up the payscale,” he said.

In selling the Rangers, Hicks may not have a completely free hand to choose the buyer. The Rangers met their 2009 payroll for at least half the season with a loan through Major League Baseball, and Commissioner Bud Selig may just have a say in the decision.

Selig would likely have a say in any event. It has been clear in some club sales during Selig’s term as commissioner that a group with one or more investors close to or liked by Selig has an edge over others that have no relationship.

In 2001, for example, when John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino joined forces,  they instantly became the leading candidate to purchase the Red Sox because of their strong relationship with Selig. None of the other bidders had a chance.

That John Canning Jr., a long-time Selig friend and minority owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, was unsuccessful in his effort to buy the Cubs was a result of what his group was willing to pay and not his relationship with Selig.

selig4-225Is there such a person in any of the three or four groups seeking to buy the Rangers?

With 99.99 percent certainty, it won’t be Hicks. “The banks and baseball would never accept him,” said the person who knows Hicks. “And he has no money. He hasn’t been paying the players. Major League Baseball has.”

Hicks has not paid interest on his bank loans since March, thus triggering a higher rate of interest. It is estimated that he owes $600 million. “Every day he waits he’s paying interest on $600 million,” said the person who knows Hicks. “He’ll never get any equity out of this. He needs about $700 million to get out of this.”

The three legitimate bidders are Jim Crane, a Houston businessman; a group headed by Dennis Gilbert, a former agent and special assistant to the Chicago White Sox chairman, Jerry Reinsdorf; and another led by Chuck Greenberg, a Pittsburgh lawyer and minor league club owner, and Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher, Texas banker and cattle rancher.

Based on what I am hearing, we can scratch Crane. An unsuccessful bidder for the Cubs, Crane was in line to buy the Houston Astros and had a handshake agreement with the owner, Drayton McLane. However, the deal fell apart, angering McLane enough for him to “poison the well,” as one lawyer put it, for any future Crane endeavors in baseball.

Gilbert doesn’t have the status with Selig that Henry, Werner and Lucchino had when they bought the Red Sox, but he has a different entrée to the commissioner. He has long been a favorite of Reinsdorf, and Reinsdorf has long been close to Selig.

“Jerry is totally behind Gilbert,” another lawyer with close baseball connections said.

It remains to be seen if Greenberg and Ryan can overcome the Reinsdorf influence.

Ryan himself has done impressive things with the Rangers in his two years as president. The team was vastly improved this year, much of the advance coming from the pitching whose culture Ryan changed by telling the pitchers more innings and better performances were expected of them.

The pitching staff knocked a whole run off its earned run average, lowering it from 5.37 to 4.38. That development won’t be a factor in the sale of the team, but it tells fans what they might be able to expect if Ryan is even more than the president.Nolan Ryan6 225

Ryan and Greenberg each own two minor league teams. Greenberg had a third team, in Altoona, Pa., but sold it last December, leaving him with Class A teams in State College, Pa., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. Ryan’s teams are in Texas. In 2006, when Greenberg still owned the Altoona team, it was named the best franchise in the minor leagues.

Greenberg has also been involved with the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League. He represented Mario Lemieux when the Penguins were in bankruptcy and Lemieux became a part-owner by converting his deferred salary into an equity share in the team.

That’s how Greenberg met Ron Burkle, a billionaire entrepreneur and a part-owner of the Penguins, who is said to be a major financial backer of Greenberg’s effort to buy the Rangers. Burkle has been a close friend of President Bill and Hillary Clinton and has been a major fundraiser for Democratic candidates.

I don’t want to predict the outcome of this sale because there are too many unknowns in the mix. What, for example, will each prospective buyer bid? There has been talk that the price could be $500 million or a little higher, somewhere between $500 million and $550 million. Some experts in the sale of sports franchises are skeptical of that level. They think the sale price, at the highest, will be in the high 400s.

I don’t have a favorite in this race, but I would probably like to see Greenberg and Ryan get the Rangers. I have known Ryan for more than 30 years, and he has always been a class guy. I also like his philosophy on pitching.

I also have a reason for wanting to see Greenberg get the team, having nothing to do with baseball. I went to high school with his mother.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.