NOW MCCOURT, LATER WILPON?

By Murray Chass

April 21, 2011

Now that Commissioner Bud Selig has snatched daily operational control of the Los Angeles Dodgers from owner Frank McCourt with his powerful right hand, can his left hand be far from the head of Fred Wilpon of the New York Mets?

Whether you agree or disagree with Selig’s unusual but understandable action against the Dodgers, you have to wonder how the commissioner can exclude the Mets from his oversight.McCourts3 225

If Selig were talking publicly about the matter, he would explain that the two owners/teams present different circumstances. McCourt, he would say if he were speaking candidly, has run the Dodgers poorly, if not destructively, in his seven-year tenure as owner of this once model franchise.

He has plunged the Dodgers into serious debt and imperiled their future stability. If he didn’t step in now and install a trustee to oversee daily operations, he would explain, the team might plummet into an area of irreparable economic damage.

The Mets, Selig would explain, have not operated themselves into impending economic peril. Wilpon, he would tell you, has been a fine, upstanding and responsible steward of the Mets franchise. While they might have economic problems at the moment, they are Bernie Madoff’s doing, the commissioner would explain.

The Mets have problems nevertheless, and they have shown no signs of being able to extricate themselves from those problems. The Wilpons, Fred and son Jeff, fired general manager Omar Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel after last season, and the results have been disastrous.

The new front office platoon, which includes two assistants who were fired elsewhere as general managers, did nothing during the winter to improve the team, whether or not their hands were tied by the absence of Madoff money, and the Mets are showing the results, much to the horror of their fans, who are avoiding Citi Field in droves.

The bleak picture resembles the one that appeared when Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday bought the team three decades ago.

Wilpon is trying to sell a minority portion of the Mets to raise enough money to keep him afloat, but his debt apparently is far greater than that influx of cash could cover. Debt killed Tom Hicks’ chances of retaining ownership of the Texas Rangers last year, and debt is undermining McCourt’s hold on the Dodgers.

Wilpon faces a $1 billion lawsuit from the trustee for victims of Madoff’s massive Ponzi scheme, and if he loses that suit, he’s out of the game. Selig may be forced to terminate Wilpon’s ownership before it reaches that juncture.

That is the last thing Selig wants to do. He and Wilpon are as close as two baseball people have ever been. From Selig’s days as owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, he and Wilpon have been the proverbial two peas in a pod. Taking any kind of action against Wilpon, including installing a McCourt-type trustee, would cause Selig as much pain as he would have if he cut off his right arm.

But now that he has taken the first step toward forcing McCourt to sell the Dodgers, Selig has created the need to deal with Wilpon. Selig certainly considered the Wilpon issue before he initiated serious action against McCourt so you know he is prepared to defend doing nothing with Wilpon. But he also knows that he will face pressure to exhibit fair and equal treatment.

bud-selig-finger-225Selig has never faced pressure from owners in his nearly two decades as commissioner, but as likeable as Wilpon might be, other owners might see it as an issue of fairness and demand equal treatment under the Selig law.

When Marge Schott was forced to step down as managing partner of the Cincinnati Reds in 1999, it was easy for Selig because she was widely disliked. Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox once asked how do you know when George Steinbrenner is lying and answered when his lips move. With Schott, she offended somebody just about every time her lips moved.

I don’t have a reading on the relative personality standing Wilpon and McCourt have among other owners. Wilpon (1980) has been in the club far longer than McCourt (2004), but there has been a huge turnover in owners the past decade so Wilpon might not have as much uncritical support as he might have in a group of owners as veteran as he.

In announcing his unusual step against McCourt, Selig said in a statement:

“Pursuant to my authority as Commissioner, I informed Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt today that I will appoint a representative to oversee all aspects of the business and the day-to-day operations of the Club. I have taken this action because of my deep concerns regarding the finances and operations of the Dodgers and to protect the best interests of the Club, its great fans and all of Major League Baseball. My office will continue its thorough investigation into the operations and finances of the Dodgers and related entities during the period of Mr. McCourt’s ownership. I will announce the name of my representative in the next several days.

“The Dodgers have been one of the most prestigious franchises in all of sports, and we owe it to their legion of loyal fans to ensure that this club is being operated properly now and will be guided appropriately in the future.”

Substitute Wilpon for McCourt and Mets for Dodgers and see how that works.

McCourt had a fairly low-key response to Selig’s statement:

“Major League Baseball sets strict financial guidelines which all 30 teams must follow. The Dodgers are in compliance with these guidelines. On this basis, it is hard to understand the Commissioner’s action today.”

Jamie McCourt, on the other hand, issued a statement of her own, saying:

“As the 50% owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, I welcome and support the commissioner’s actions to provide the necessary transparency, guidance and direction for the franchise and for Dodgers fans everywhere.”

It comes as no surprise that the McCourts have different views on the matter. They waged a vicious divorce battle and disagree on ownership of the Dodgers. Frank McCourt claims to be the sole owner; Jamie McCourt maintains that she owns half of the team.

Their public dispute is one of the problems Selig has had with them. Their personal use of club revenue is another. In fact, Selig would say their use of club revenue for personal expenses and expenditures is one major difference that separates McCourt and the Dodgers from Wilpon and the Mets.Fred Wilpon3 225

McCourt and the Dodgers, however, don’t face a $1 billion lawsuit from a bankruptcy court trustee who seems determined to make them the poster child of his effort to retrieve $100 billion in Madoff money for the swindler’s victims.

McCourt, meanwhile, is virtually certain to take legal action to try to retain the Dodgers. He has no choice, unlike other incidents in which he opted to wimp out and not fight.

In 2006, J.D. Drew opted out of the last three years and $33 million of his five-year, $55 million contract with the Dodgers and signed a five-year, $70 million contract with the Boston Red Sox. Members of the Dodgers’ front office were certain that the Red Sox had tampered with Drew to induce him to exercise the opt-out clause in his contract.

The Dodgers, however, didn’t file a complaint with the commissioner’s office because McCourt opted not to fight.

He didn’t fight a year earlier either when Arte Moreno, the aggressive Angels’ owner, hijacked McCourt’s city for his own team’s marketing and sponsorship purposes, changing the team’s name to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, leaving in Anaheim only because the team’s stadium lease required the city’s name to be part of the team’s name.

At breakfast before an owners’ meeting in New York, I asked McCourt why he didn’t fight Moreno’s usurping his city’s name.

“I have more important fights,” he said. He didn’t say what they were, and I don’t recall any fights involving McCourt developing around that time. Now, though, McCourt faces the biggest fight of his baseball life.

UPDATE:

Demonstrating precisely what I have written here, Selig did comment publicly on the McCourt-Wilpon comparison after this column was posted Thursday. The commissioner bristled, it was reported, when he was asked if he saw any similarities between the Dodgers and the Mets.

Are you stupid, he replied in effect. In actual words, he said, “The only thing I’m going to say is that there are a lot of differences. The situations are clearly not similar, and that’s in a myriad of ways. So if you ask me is the analogy a proper one, I say no. Anyone who portrays that as the case is incorrect, very incorrect. That’s based on the facts, as I know them.”

Just call me stupid, I guess. You can certainly call me skeptical. In rejecting the analogy, of course, Selig offered no details of those “myriad of ways” in which the analogy fails and none of the facts as he knows them.

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