SELIG, FRIENDS AND DODGERS SALE

By Murray Chass

December 29, 2011

If you have read this story here before, kindly indulge me and read it again because it has a new, current relevance.

When the Boston Red Sox were in the process of being sold in 2001, John Henry, then the owner of the Florida Marlins, joined forces with Tom Werner, former owner of the San Diego Padres, and Larry Lucchino, a veteran, highly regarded executive, who had served as president of the Baltimore Orioles and the Padres.

All interested buyers of the Red Sox, they merged their efforts at the suggestion of Commissioner Bud Selig. As soon as I heard that they were making a joint effort to secure the team, I wrote in The New York Times that their group had become the leading candidate.

The next day a financial columnist for the Boston Herald scoffed at the story. “Who’s Murray Chass?” he wrote. “How does he know who the leading candidate is?”

If the columnist had known anything about Selig’s history and tendency with team purchases, he could have reached the same conclusion. People Selig likes and has had positive experiences with are the people he wants to see buy teams, and his view carries more weight than anyone else’s – and anyone else’s offer.

In the sale of the Red Sox, Charles Dolan submitted a higher bid than the Henry group, but Henry, Werner and Lucchino got the team.

Come forward to the present. The Los Angeles Dodgers are up for sale and among the many groups competing for the $1 billion or more purchase, it says here the Stan Kasten group is the leading contender.Stan Kasten2 225

Circumstances are far more premature and complex than they were when Henry, Werner and Lucchino merged their efforts. Much has to happen before Frank McCourt can sell the Dodgers, and the team’s bankruptcy status makes the process more intricate.

My money, however, is on the money that Kasten and his group will generate for McCourt, who has owned the Dodgers into such a depressed state he deserves worse.

McCourt bought the Dodgers in 2004 for $430 million. He is expected to gain more than twice that sum when the eventual buyer writes a check.

All of the competing groups have probably not been identified, but it’s highly unlikely that any of the others will include anyone as attractive to Selig as Kasten and his group, which also includes Magic Johnson, a name that is magic in Los Angeles.

Selig has had decades of good experience and friendship with Kasten, a strong labor ally for years, who as the long-time president of the Atlanta Braves was as instrumental in that organization’s success as John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox.

In addition, as president of the Washington Nationals, Kasten shepherded their new owners through the shoals of Major League Baseball and, before he left after the 2010 season, helped build a creditable team.

Selig has lamented the demise of the Dodgers as one of the game’s elite franchises. It was that feeling that prompted him to act to force McCourt out. Kasten, Selig would say if he wanted to express a view publicly and appear biased, is the perfect person to restore the Dodgers to their rightful place in the M.L.B. hierarchy.

Adding Johnson to the mix is more than putting icing on the cake. In his post-basketball life, Magic has become a successful entrepreneur and as an African-American would be a highly attractive addition to the major league lineup of owners.

The money man in the group is Mark Walter, chief executive officer of Guggenheim Partners, a global financial services company that is said to manage more than $125 billion in customer assets.

“Guggenheim Baseball Management brings together a team of proven winners with deep ties to the Los Angeles community, an impressive track record of sports excellence and the financial wherewithal to provide long-term financial stability for the Dodgers organization,” Walter said in a statement to Bloomberg News.

Kasten would be the president and chief executive officer of the Dodgers if his group purchased the team. Johnson’s role has yet to be determined, but a person familiar with the group said he would have a significant role.

Magic Johnson2 225“Magic’s presence means a lot,” the person said. “He’s impressive. He is expected to be active. He’s looking forward to being active.” And the group isn’t simply using Magic’s name. “He’s investing real money in this because he has it,” the person said. “He’s made a series of excellent post-career business decisions.”

One of those decisions apparently was his rejection of an offer Kasten made to him about 20 years ago. When Kasten was president of the N.B.A. Atlanta Hawks, he offered the team’s coaching job to Johnson but was rebuffed.

“He’s glad he wasn’t the coach,” a business associate said. “He said he wouldn’t have been good.”

I could be wrong in my assessment of the Kasten group’s being the commissioner’s preferred candidate, but I don’t see anyone else being even a close second, not even Peter O’Malley, the Dodgers’ former owner, who may submit a bid for the team his father snatched out of Brooklyn and transported west, opening the entire country to major league baseball.

Sentiment might favor O’Malley, but Selig wouldn’t. They were never on friendly terms, and Selig would have no reason to tout a return engagement by O’Malley.

Others who have been mentioned as prospective or interested buyers include former Dodgers Steve Garvey and Orel Hershiser, former Dodgers general manager Fred Claire, hedge fund manager Steven Cohen (who unsuccessfully tried to buy a minority share of the Mets), Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle, former hockey owner Tom Golisano and former baseball player agent Dennis Gilbert, who failed in his bid to buy the Texas Rangers last year.

Of all of the prospective buyers of baseball teams in recent years, Gilbert might not have been the most successful, but he was by far the most amusing.

In writing about Gilbert’s Texas foray, I learned something I had never known. But then neither had anyone else.

Gilbert is in the insurance business, and his biography on his firm’s Web site, Gilbert-Krupin.com stated that “prior to co-founding Gilbert-Krupin, Dennis revolutionized the sport of baseball through developing the free agent system.”

“As his insurance business continued to thrive, he took on an additional career as a sports agent,” the bio added. “Within a year, Dennis had developed the free agent system; he ultimately transformed the salary structure of professional baseball forever.”

Who would have thought it? Dennis Gilbert created free agency and forever changed baseball’s salary structure.

I revealed this startling development in a column, and on Tuesday I checked the Web site to see if Gilbert was taking credit for anything else. Maybe by now he had discovered a cure for cancer.Dennis Gilbert2 225

But no, no new fantastical, imaginary exploits, just a change in the wording:

“As his insurance business continued to thrive, he took on an additional career as a sports agent. Within a year, Dennis had developed the free agent system; he ultimately transformed the salary structure of professional baseball forever. As baseball’s leading agent, Dennis set new standards for creating player contracts.”

Nobody in any facet of baseball would call Gilbert a leading agent. Maybe the most lavishly, most expensively dressed agent but not the leading agent. Gilbert gave up his agent business and went to work for Jerry Reinsdorf with the Chicago White Sox. As a sideline, he has tried to buy a baseball team.

He has apparently also continued writing fiction. I am told he has said that in the quest to buy the Dodgers he is the commissioner’s favored candidate. Dream on, Dennis.

Which brings me back to Selig and Kasten. I said this sale is more complex than some of the other sales, including the Red Sox, and that could make it more difficult for Selig to exercise his power of desired selection.

In the settlement of their litigation, M.L.B. gave McCourt the right to select the buyer (it doesn’t necessarily have to be the highest bidder), which could sideline Selig as the sale proceeds. Do not, however, underestimate the Budster. The man has power and knows how and when to wield it.

Just because Selig has agreed not to meddle in the sale doesn’t mean he won’t meddle. First, he has to approve all prospective bidders. Then he and three-quarters of the owners have to approve the new owner.

Somewhere along the way Selig can find a way to let McCourt know who really is running the show.

You’ll get your money whoever buys the Dodgers, the commissioner can tell McCourt, though perhaps more subtly; I’ll choose the buyer.

Initial bids are due by the middle of next month. The sale must be completed by April 30, which is the deadline for McCourt to pay his ex-wife, Jamie, $131 million, as stipulated in their divorce agreement.

The Mets are interested observers in the Dodgers’ sale. One or more of the losing bidders could be interested in buying a minority share of the Mets, who seek buyers of minority shares.

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