Belatedly an Owner Makes a Right Decision

By Murray Chass

January 4, 2009

The New York Times Company is trying to escape a venture it should never have jumped into. It wants to sell its 17.5 percent share of the Boston Red Sox.

The Times company is the team’s largest minority owner. Large or small, the Times’ purchase was a mistake.

I emphasize Times company rather than the newspaper itself because that is how company officials rationalized the acquisition six years ago. It’s not the newspaper that owns 17.5 percent of the Red Sox; it’s the company. As if that made it all right.

The Times has always been careful about conflict of interest or even the appearance of conflict of interest. I know a little about the Times because I worked for the newspaper for 39 years, beginning July 14, 1969, and leaving last May 30. I experienced all of the Times rules, and it just so happens I agreed with many, if not most, of them, including the avoidance of conflict of interest.

The Times, however, did not practice what it preached. To me, there was no bigger conflict I encountered in those 39 years than the Times company’s ownership of 17.5 percent of the Red Sox. Not only was I an employee of the Times company, but I was also a shareholder as a participant in the employee stock plan (stock? What stock? But that’s another sad story).

Therefore, just like John Henry and Tom Werner, I was an owner of the Red Sox. They owned a little more of them than I did, but they didn’t have the conflict that I did.

As first a baseball reporter and then a baseball columnist, I had to write about the Red Sox. During most of my ownership, I was a columnist. The Times company became a 17.5 percent owner of the team Jan. 16, 2002, and I became a columnist two years later.

A few weeks before the Henry group won the bidding, I asked a Times executive if even minority ownership of the Red Sox would represent a conflict.

“This minority investment would present a conflict of interest only if Globe or Times reporters and editors were required or encouraged to give the team favored treatment,” Janet L. Robinson, then a senior vice president of the company, said. “This will not be the case.”

The Times company also owned the Boston Globe, whose $1.1 billion purchase in 1993 turned into a major mistake with the decline of the newspaper industry.

On that day in 2001, ownership of the Globe prompted Robinson to give the newspaper the Times’ exclusive story about the Times company’s involvement in the bidding for the Red Sox.

“They’re part of the family,” she said, rationalizing her grave journalistic sin.

Robinson, now the President and CEO of the Times company, did not return a telephone call last week from a former member of the “family” who was seeking comment about the sale of the Red Sox. The Times, a spokeswoman said, has declined to comment since its search for a buyer was reported last week.

The Times wants to sell its Red Sox share to get money to pay off debts. Facing the double-barreled dilemma of a dying industry and disastrous decisions, the Times is in the position of having to sell off what is probably its strongest, most productive asset.

Henry, Werner and Larry Lucchino have done a great job turning the Red Sox into a highly successful venture. On the playing side, the Red Sox have won two of the past five World Series after having won none for 85 years, and on the business side, they have had a major league record 469 consecutive sellouts despite having baseball’s highest ticket prices, they have the highest television ratings in baseball and they performed an impressive renovation of Fenway Park.

But the Times will leave all of this behind and, because of the depressed economy, get less for its 17.5 percent than it might in a friendlier economic climate. On the positive side, the conflict will no longer exist.

As far as I know, Times reporters and editors were never asked to give the Red Sox favored treatment. Not that Yankees fans believed that. Write a positive word about the Red Sox, and I was accused of being a citizen of Red Sox Nation (both a phrase and a concept with which I have no use).

But it didn’t even require a pro-Red Sox word. The Times owned the Red Sox, and that was a built-in bias.

Most readers did not differentiate between the Times company and the Times. As far as they were concerned, the Times was a part-owner of the Red Sox and those of us who wrote about baseball were biased because of that status, especially where the coverage related to the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. 

It didn’t matter that my biggest and most frequent critics among readers were Red Sox fans. They were certain I was a diehard Yankees fan, and to them every word I wrote demonstrated that.

My favorite Red Sox fan was a New York lawyer, who got so fed up with the nasty stuff I wrote about his team that he told me in one of his many e-mail messages that he would never again read another of my columns. Except the next time I wrote about the Red Sox he sent me an e-mail complaining about the views I expressed in the column.

“I thought you said you were never going to read another of my columns,” I wrote back.

“I can’t help myself,” he replied.

The point is the Times company’s ownership of the Red Sox never influenced my writing about them, pro or con, but it presented the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The Times did not allow its employees to vote for awards of any kind, in sports and every other area, because of the conflict or appearance of a conflict. Before this prohibition was invoked many years ago, I voted for post-season baseball awards and the Hall of Fame without feeling conflicted, but if the Times wanted us to be pure, I had no trouble conforming to the rules.

But the Times company? It didn’t have to conform to the rules. When the Yankees were winning all of those World Series a longer and longer time ago, for some of those Series the Times company sponsored the post-game hospitality parties for media, sponsors and baseball officials.

To me, that was a conflict of interest. Neither the Times company nor the Times newspaper, I thought, should have been sponsoring a Yankees’ function at Yankee Stadium. But Times officials dismissed the notion of a conflict, saying it was the company, not the newspaper.

A year into the ownership, I raised the issue with the executive editor of the Times, quoting another editor’s memo on the new policy on conflict of interest.

“It is surely intolerable, for instance, for the Pentagon reporter to own defense stocks or for someone writing for Science Times about field tests of new drugs to invest in pharmaceutical companies.”

I suggested that baseball writers covering a baseball team are in no different a position. “This circumstance,” I wrote in a memo, “only reinforces my belief that the Times has no business owning any part of a baseball team or any other team or company or organization we cover.”

The executive editor replied that the point was interesting and should be discussed. But only months later the editor, Howell Raines, became embroiled in a more serious matter, the infamous Jayson Blair scandal, and was soon gone. The Times company ownership of a piece of the Red Sox remained unchallenged.

Rice Ready to Realize Baseball Royalty

Jim Rice will learn next week (Jan. 12) if his 15-year quest has ended in victory. He will find out that day if he has been elected to the Hall of Fame in his 15th and final year on the writers’ ballot. If he has failed, he will have to entrust his chances to the veterans committee, which hasn’t elected anyone in four opportunities.

The guess here is that Rice will make it. No one has ever come as close as he did a year ago, coming up 16 votes shy of election, and not made it. With Rickey Henderson the only certain candidate to be elected, Rice’s chances for election are enhanced.  Rich (Goose) Gossage benefited last year from the absence of an obvious first-timer.

I have written here recently of being uncertain about whether I would resume voting, which I was not permitted to do with The New York Times, and if I did, would I vote for Rice.

Although I don’t think writers should vote for the Hall of Fame, I have lost that fight. As long as writers continue to vote and I believe Jack Morris belongs in the Hall, I decided I would vote because Morris needs all the votes he can get.

I also voted for Henderson and Rice, the first an obvious selection, Rice not so obvious, a borderliner actually. But I marked an X next to his name for two reasons.

Dick Bresciani, a long-time Red Sox executive, made a strong statistical case for Rice, including the fact that the outfielder led American League hitters in home runs and runs batted in during his 16-year career. If I base my support of Morris, in part, on his dominance from 1979 through 1992 in leading all pitchers in victories and complete games, I have to consider Rice’s status in those hitting categories.

Bresciani also noted that Rice, who didn’t have a reputation as a particularly good outfielder, led the American League and was second in the majors in outfield assists 1975-86.

But the clincher was that Rice was at the end of his time on the ballot. I figured the vote on Rice would be close and that if he fell one vote short, I didn’t want to be the voter who deprived him of election.

Revised Payroll for Yankees

This is a revision of a report here the other day about the Yankees’ claim that they will have a lower payroll in 2009 than they had in 2008. Their effort became slightly easier after I recalculated the salaries of their 14 signed players.

I took that step when I was told that the commissioner’s office and the Players Association will treat CC Sabathia’s $9 million signing bonus the same way they do all other signing bonuses.

When payrolls are calculated, signing bonuses are pro-rated over the life of the contract, and each segment is added to each year’s salary. Sabathia has a $9 million signing bonus, but it clearly comes out of his 2009 salary, which is $14 million while each of the other six years has a $23 million salary.

I suggested that the $9 million should all be attributed to this year, but officials of both offices said they would divide the $9 million by 7 years. That would make Sabathia’s 2009 salary $15,285,714 and each succeeding year $24,285,714.. The same treatment is given to Mark Teixeira’s $5 million signing bonus.

As a result, the Yankees’ payroll, with 14 players signed, is $185.39 million, about $7.5 million less than my initial calculation. Last season the opening-day payroll was $209 million, and it grew to $218 million by the end of the season. To claim that their lower-payroll is correct, the Yankees need to come in under $209 million.

NHL Ices Cubs for 100 More Years

The National Hockey League has desecrated one of America’s great cathedrals. It installed an ice rink at Wrigley Field and played a hockey game there last week. Just the thought of it is painful.

Can you believe it? A hockey game in the friendly confines? Ice within the ivy-covered walls? Violating the home of the lovable losers? 

They laid the rink right where Ernie Banks always wanted to play two, where in 1930 Hack Wilson produced 116 (according to Elias Sports Bureau) of the 191 runs he drove in, where Ryne Sandberg played virtually his entire Hall of Fame career, where Leo Durocher blew a division championship in 1969, the first year of division play, and in the process tossed me out of his clubhouse.

Based on available information, the N.H.L, didn’t even pay for the use of the field and thereby lighten the financial load of Wrigley’s bankrupt owners.  

If the Cubs think they have been cursed in their inability to win the World Series for 100 years, wait ‘till they see what happens the next hundred years.  

 

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