Monday, July 22, 2002

RICO Suave

RICO Suave

Commissioner Bud Selig and Expos/Marlins owner Jeff Loria are being sued (link requires registration). Fourteen Canadian companies with an interest in the Montreal Expos have charged Selig and Loria with, among other things, racketeering. According to the New York Times, the complaint alleges that Loria conspired with Selig and MLB’s Chief Operating Officer Bob DuPuy to swindle the Expos’ minority partners out of much of their ownership interest. Allegedly, the aim was to facilitate the contraction of the Montreal franchise and award Loria the ownership of the Florida Marlins.

This is no gentlemanly, contractual dispute. To sue someone under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO") is to go thermonuclear. And while you probably care just about as much as I do (i.e. not at all) about a bunch of obscenely wealthy Québécois getting deked out of their vanity investment, consider that a RICO suit will almost certainly involve gobs of invasive discovery. If nothing else, Selig's and Loria’s dirty laundry is sure to get a good airing. And if the suit isn't settled relatively quickly (which, given Selig’s demonstrated lack of foresight, it probably won't be), we should finally get the inside skinny on some of the league's more titillating misadventures in ownership.

For example, we'll get to see what the supposedly cash-strapped owners of small market teams do with their revenue-sharing money. On Loria’s watch, the Expos received massive amounts of money from the Yankees and Braves of the world, and plowed little if any of it into player salaries. Some have suggested that the money went directly into Loria’s pocket, but until now it seemed possible that the money was lost to bad management. If the suit’s allegations are borne out, it means that Loria kept the money for himself. Given that the owners are demanding vastly increased revenue sharing in the next collective bargaining agreement, this is an issue worth keeping an eye on.

As enticing as all that might sound, Selig-haters might get more entertainment out of seeing the case settled. I’ve not seen the complaint, nor do I know how much money the plaintiffs are demanding, but rough figuring and common sense places the figure well above $200 million. (The plaintiffs claim a dilution from a 76% to a 6% stake in a $120 million asset, and the RICO claims treble any liability.) If Selig and MLB try to settle this thing before it gets embarrassing, each team will likely have to kick in a couple million a piece, and that’s being conservative. The owners have been content to keep Bud Selig employed up until now because, despite their disapproving rhetoric, revenues remain high and Selig has really only managed to humiliate himself. If, however, his foolishness were to cost short-tempered fellows like George Steinbrenner and Rupert Murdoch serious money, I have no doubt that baseball would soon have a new commissioner. And that, as another disgraced mogul likes to say, would be a good thing.

By the way, now that baseball has been served with gnarly lawsuits relating to both Minnesota and Montreal, I think we can safely say that the grand contraction experiment is officially over.

There Goes the Coldest Hitter Who Ever Lived

I’m coming a little late to the whole Ted Williamsicle thing, but in doing some research I came across this fabulous quote from online encryption guru, molecular nanotechnology theorist, and self-proclaimed cryonics expert Ralph Merkle:

"A common misconception is that cryonics freezes the dead. As the definition of "death" is "a permanent cessation of all vital functions" the future ability to revive a patient preserved with today's technology implies the patient wasn't dead."

Clever! Perhaps, for his next project, Merkle will demonstrate that black is actually white.

If a mere redefinition of life and death doesn't hold your interest, read on. According to the website's fine print, Dr. Merkle is not just any old cryonics expert; he sits on the board of Alcor, the company now in possession of the Splendid Splinter’s allegedly undead body. Even better, Merkle is the great grand nephew of one Fred Merkle, the first baseman who cost the 1908 New York Giants the National League championship against the Cubs when he failed to run to second base on what would have been the game-winning hit. His mistake, which came to be known as "Merkle’s Boner," resulted in a general ruckus that prevented the game from continuing, causing it to end in a tie [Is Merkle related to Selig too? -- ed.]. Eventually a one-game playoff was held for the pennant, and the Cubs won.

Four years later, Merkle was involved in yet another boneheaded play. This one cost the Giants the 1912 World Series when, in the bottom of the tenth inning of the final game of the series, Merkle let an extremely catchable pop foul thud to the ground next to him. The batter then drove in the tying run, setting the stage for a winning sacrifice fly two batters later. The opposition: the Boston Red Sox, who would one day feature a splendid left fielder by the name of Ted Williams.

In other words, the son of arguably the greatest baseball player who ever lived has entrusted his father’s immortality to the nephew of the guy whose incompetence cost his team two championship games. Is this a karmic mix-up or what?

Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

The Yankees have made a couple of high-profile moves in the past few weeks. First they acquired Raul Mondesi from the Blue Jays, then traded for Tigers ace Jeff Weaver. Predictably, most fans and writers viewed these moves as further evidence of the Yankees' unfair financial advantage. The experts are saying that because of these deals, the World Series is New York’s to lose, and that baseball is the worse for it.

Don’t believe a word of it. Sure, the Yankees may win the World Series, but if they do, it will be in spite of these trades, not because of them. Let’s take a hard look at the alleged ringers Boss Steinbrenner stole from the poor sisters of the American League. The fabulously overpaid Mondesi is a career underachiever, currently enjoying his worst season in the majors. As we go to press, he’s sporting an execrable .307 On Base Percentage and a shortstop-like OPS of .733. Mondesi was brought in to replace the right-field platoon of Shane Spencer and John Vander Wal who between them have posted an OBP of .328 and an OPS of .722. In other words, the Yankees took on over $12 million in salary obligations in order to get a theoretical .011 bump in production. I say theoretical, because Mondesi has actually been worse than his .733 OPS since joining the Yankees.

The Weaver trade was equally meaningless. Unlike Mondesi, Weaver is a valuable and reasonably-priced commodity who has the potential to anchor a rotation for years to come. The problem, however, is that the Yankees didn’t need a rotation anchor, or even another starting pitcher. After all, they already had six solid guys on the squad. Besides, in order to get Weaver, the Yankees gave up promising starter Ted Lilly. Lilly serves virtually the same function as Weaver, and may be the better pitcher two or three years down the road. If the Yankees had been content to hold on to him they would have saved money. More importantly, they would have been able to keep two prospects -- John-Ford Griffin and Jason Arnold -- who many feel have bright futures. The trade was a three-way affair with the Oakland A’s (Billy Beane once again making out like a bandit, taking Lilly and prospects from both Detroit and New York), and the Tigers did make made out worse than the Yankees. But to suggest that acquiring Weaver makes the Yankees invincible is hooey. Heck, if the Yankees make the playoffs, Weaver won’t even be in the starting rotation.

Cries about "the rich getting richer" go up every time the Yankees issue a press release, but neither the Mondesi nor the Weaver trade constitutes evidence that the system is broken. To the contrary, there are only two conclusions to draw from these trades: first, that the Blue Jays’ new front office continues to do a good job reshaping the pathetic roster they inherited from the previous regime; second, that the Tigers’ new front office should take Billy Beane off its speed dial. Baseball has plenty of problems these days, but George Steinbrenner’s largesse isn’t one of them.

The Man Comes to His Senses

Since I slammed MLB and the Astros last week for trying to shut down, It would be unfair of me if I failed to report that they seem to be sensible business people after all. Much to their credit, the ’Stros have reached a quick and reasonable settlement with Ray Kerbey. It’s good to see that sanity still has a place somewhere at baseball’s kitchen table.

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

The Peril of the Yellow Journalist


In one of my favorite scenes from Citizen Kane, yellow newspaperman Charles Kane explains to one of his editors how to squeeze a juicy story out of the disappearance of one Mrs. Silverstone, whatever the facts may be:



... Right now, I wish you’d send your best man up to see Mr. Silverstone. Have him tell Mr. Silverstone if he doesn’t produce his wife at once, the "Enquirer" will have him arrested. (he gets an idea) Have him tell Mr. Silverstone he’s a detective from the Central Office. If Mr. Silverstone asks to see his badge, your man is to get indignant and call Mr. Silverstone an anarchist. Loudly, so that the neighbors can hear.

I love that glimpse of a bygone era of rough and tumble journalism, the likes of which haven't been seen since Hearst's and Pulitzer’s penny paper wars raged in the streets of Gotham. Of course, yellow journalism is one of those things that's much more amusing in the movies than in real life. I certainly got no pleasure out of the almost identical ambush perpetrated by Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly just last week.

For those of you unaware, Reilly approached Sammy Sosa in the Cubs’ locker room, told him that the only way to for him to clear his name of steroid rumors was to piss in a cup, and then handed him the name and address of a nearby clinic that would test him. Sosa understandably took offense and asked Reilly if he was trying to set him up. Reilly’s response: "I asked how he could get in trouble if he wasn't doing anything wrong."

To his credit, Sosa refrained from pounding Reilly into a thick, pasty goo, but I wouldn’t have blamed him if he did. Who the hell is Rick Reilly? When was he appointed baseball’s drug czar? What civics teacher dropped the ball at little Ricky’s junior high school during "Civil Liberties: Why They Count" week? More to the point, where does Reilly get off using Sosa’s demurral as the basis for a piece of character assassination like the one he wrote in SI, not to mention the post-publication radio interviews Reilly has given stating that Sosa’s reaction was an obvious symptom of "'roid rage?"

Contrary to Reilly’s ugly innuendo, there were several excellent reasons for Sosa to decline a starring role in Reilly’s witch trial -- reasons that have nothing to do with any juicing he may or may not be doing. For example, he may have refused because he has an obligation to the player's union (which is opposed to testing) not to break ranks until it devises a policy on steroids. Or maybe he was just trying to find a way out of serving on student council.

Or as fellow baseball junkie David Jones noted in a recent thread over at, maybe he said no because Reilly’s proposal was simply preposterous from the start: "Here, Sammy, stop what you’re doing. Get in your car and drive 45 minutes to this address and see this guy that you've never seen before in your life. Pee into a cup once, and then whatever the guy tells me about the results I'll print in a nationwide publication." Who in their right mind would do that, and how on Earth can Reilly claim that he was surprised at Sosa’s reaction?

The truth, I suppose, is that Reilly wasn’t surprised. Reilly is a grandstanding hack who doesn’t care whether Sammy Sosa or any other ballplayer is taking steroids. He cares only about his own celebrity and the thrill of gotcha journalism. If Reilly is taking his cue from the "Mr. Silverstone" scene in Citizen Kane, I must applaud him on his good taste in film. Nevertheless, it would probably be a good idea for him to watch the rest of the movie as well. Set-ups, cheap shots and other forms of manipulation may have made Charles Foster Kane famous, but they also caused him to die a sad and lonely death.

The Man Comes Down on

People ask me why I spend my free time writing about baseball when I could be busting my hump to try and make partner at my law firm. I think this sort of thing has something to do with it (scroll to the bottom of the linked page to see the attorney’s letter). Note the soul-killing paradox of a threatening letter written in the passive voice. Note how the letter was sent the day before a federal holiday, thereby increasing the likelihood of cutting the recipients’ response time down by a day or so. Note the cc’s to no fewer than three other attorneys, demonstrating the corporate lawyer’s tendency to hunt in packs. Indeed, apart from the law firm’s way-cool domain name ( there appears to be absolutely nothing fun or life-affirming about the letter itself or the place from whence it came.

My thinly-veiled career ennui notwithstanding, isn’t that one of the dumber things you’ve seen in a while? Sure, the Astros are legally justified in worrying about the unauthorized use of their trademarks, but the zealousness with which they appear to be pursuing this matter seems a bit much. Ray Kerby, the operator of obviously puts a lot of time and effort into promoting his favorite team (probably more time than the Astros do themselves, given MLB’s notorious record of poor-mouthing its own product), but rather than pick up the phone or drop an email in an attempt to work out some mutually beneficial deal over the use of their intellectual property, the Astros and Major League Baseball have their legal gladiators launch mindless cease-and-desist letters. How creative.

Looks like one of my favorite websites is about to get a new addition.

Goodbye, Teddy Ballgame

As we established last week, I’m not the person to come to for deep reflection when a ballplayer dies. Of course, if there were ever an appropriate time for a lengthy ballplayer obituary, the passing of Ted Williams is it. Williams was the best player of what, rightly or wrongly, is known as baseball’s golden age, bridging the gap between Gehrig and Mantle (outhitting them both) while still finding time to fly combat missions in two wars. If he had played tenor sax, he’d be three Ken Burns documentaries in one.

But to me, Williams’s battles with the reporters who covered him were every bit as interesting as those fought against opposing pitchers, the Empire of Japan, and North Korea. Why? Because they show that even in a sport that prides itself on the unassailable superiority of its alleged golden age, some things have always been pretty much the same. Williams was robbed of at least three MVP awards -- coming in second in two seasons in which he hit for the Triple Crown and one in which he hit .400 -- primarily because sportswriters hated him. Compare this to Barry Bonds, who was robbed of an MVP in 1991 because the baseball writers held his much-publicized confrontation with manager Jim Leyland that spring against him, or Albert Belle, who lost the 1995 MVP to Mo Vaughn simply because Johnny Sportswriter didn’t like the cut of Belle’s jib.

The animosity of the press towards Williams was even worse. As noted in ESPN’s excellent obituary, the sportswriters seemed to have it in personally for the Splendid Splinter, "always fishing for an exclusive or scrambling for a fresh angle . . .seiz[ing] on any scrap of gossip or conjecture and blow[ing] it up into a headline . . . and they had no qualms about investigating an athlete's private life if it sold newspapers. Turn this crew loose on a guy like Williams, who stubbornly insisted on his right to privacy, and you had all the elements of a political battle."

Knowing that Williams had to put up with that kind of abuse makes his accomplishments seem even more amazing. Knowing that Sammy Sosa has to put up with the same damn thing does the same for his.

Tuesday, July 2, 2002

The Collective Wisdom of Individual Ignorance

Mencken’s All-Stars

H.L. Mencken once said that democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the starting lineups of the 2002 All-Star teams, as voted by the unwashed masses:

National League: 1B Todd Helton; 2B Jose Vidro; 3B Scott Rolen; SS Jimmy
Rollins; C
Mike Piazza; OF Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Vladimir Guerrero

American League: 1B Jason Giambi; 2B Alfonso Soriano; 3B Shea Hillenbrand; SS Alex Rodriguez; C Jorge Posada; OF, Ichiro, Manny Ramirez, Torii Hunter

Mencken might have been surprised. The fans did a pretty good job, picking the best player at just about every position. Ok, they probably blew it at third base -- Shea Hillenbrand and Rolen are maybe the fourth-best third basemen in their respective leagues this season -- but overall, those appear to be the only dud choices in the democratic portion of the All-Star roster.

How did the so-called experts do? Not so good. All-Star managers Joe Torre and Bob Brenly each used their dictatorial powers to fill out the roster with their cronies. In addition to the three Yankees voted in by the fans, Torre took shortstop Derek Jeter, third baseman Robin Ventura, and closer Mariano Rivera. No Diamondbacks were voted in, but Brenly selected six pitchers and reserves from his own team: Catcher Damian Miller, second baseman Junior Spivey, outfielder Luis Gonzalez, and pitchers Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, and Byung-Hyun Kim.

Rivera, Johnson, Schilling, Spivey and Kim all deserve to be there, but the other choices are less compelling. Adding Derek Jeter means that the AL will have five shortstops on the thirty-man roster. If Torre took only four shortstops (which is still probably one too many), he could have selected Toronto’s deserving rookie third baseman Eric Hinske, the guy who should have gotten Hillenbrand’s slot. But instead of using his individual wisdom to correct the lone error of collective ignorance, Torre chose to play politics and mollify the big star with whom he has to share a clubhouse all season. Cowardly move, Joe.

Brenly’s roster choices are even worse than Torre’s. Luis Gonzalez (OPS .916) over Larry Walker (1.050) Jim Edmonds (1.045) and Brian Giles (1.031)? Benito Santiago (.776) over Michael Barrett (.824) and Paul Lo Duca (.823)? Sure, the managers’ hands are tied somewhat on account of the stupid rule that requires them to take at least one player from every team (What is this, tee ball? Does everyone get a trophy too?), but that consideration didn’t come into play with either Gonzalez (teammate of Randy Johnson) or Santiago (teammate of Barry Bonds). Brenly actually thought those guys were deserving on merit. Yikes.

So, as always, there are errors and omissions on the All-Star rosters. This time, however, it isn’t the fault of the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. Unless of course we’re talking about Bob Brenly’s individual ignorance.

M. Colon est un Expo!

Up is down. Black is white. Israelis and Palestinians are walking arm in arm singing a peace ballad by Limp Bizkit. Impossible you say? Well, no more unlikely than last week’s trade that sent Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos.

It was a deal riddled with seeming impossibilities. For starters, it marked the first time in, well, ever, that the sad-sack Expos acquired a star player in midseason to assist them in a playoff run. Usually its Montreal that gives up its good players in exchange for prospects, not vice-versa. The other improbable -- and far more shocking -- aspect to all of this is that it means that (gasp!) I was wrong about something.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: "But Craig, didn’t you say that the Indians would start selling off their big names a mere two weeks ago?" Well, yes and no. I did predict that the Indians would start shedding payroll and stars fairly soon, which they are certainly doing. On the other hand, I characterized the predicted purge as a fire sale, and no matter how loudly Indians’ players and fans bitch and moan about losing Colon, this trade was anything but a mere salary dump.

A fire sale is when a team gets rid of productive but expensive players for no real competitive reason and receives little more than reduced salary obligations in return. The Indians, however, have established by now that they’re going nowhere this year (though, admittedly, this was partly because they consciously avoided acquiring decent players to replace the ones they lost in the off-season). More importantly, as ESPN’s Peter Gammons correctly notes (another impossibility, I know), the players Cleveland received in return from Montreal -- Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore -- are all legitimate prospects who have an excellent chance of making the Indians competitive again fairly soon. This is especially true of Phillips, who could find himself Cleveland’s starting shortstop as early as next year.

Or later this year, if Indians’ GM Mark Shapiro is smart. Now that he has raised the white flag on the 2002 and 2003 seasons, Shapiro has to follow through on the rebuilding program, which means getting rid of any other high-priced veterans that (a) will still bring value in a trade and (b) will likely not be worth their paychecks come 2004. That means shopping current shortstop Omar Vizquel, who is both aging and having an unusually late career year, and attempting to move Ellis Burks, Jim Thome, and Chuck Finley. If they can get anything close to the talent for those players that they got for Colon (a tall order, I know), the Tribe should be sitting pretty in a couple of years.

Would I have preferred that the Indians have kept Colon? Absolutely. But after five years in which the Tribe got rooked on trade after trade involving their prospects (they have virtually nothing to show for trading away then-future stars like Jeremy Burnitz, Brian Giles, Richie Sexson and Sean Casey), it’s probably for the best that the Indians have started seriously rebuilding now rather than waiting until next year to bottom out.

Now, having said all that, allow me to raise a more cynical point about the Colon trade.

As a result of Major League Baseball’s seemingly doomed contraction gambit, MLB now owns the Montreal Expos. The conspiracy theorist in me suspects that the owners originally decided to contract the Expos rather than move them to, say, Washington D.C., so that in a few years a brand spankin’ new expansion team could be started in the nation’s capital. Expansion, you see, is a cash cow. Anyone who wants to start a new team must first pay a gigantic fee to the existing owners.

But now that real and potential legal problems have made contraction (and hence later expansion) unlikely, the Expos have become an albatross around the owners' necks. Consequently, the owners have gone to Plan B, which involves selling the Expos to an investment group in the Washington area. Selling the Expos in their current state would likely bring the owners far less money than an expansion team would, but it would be better than keeping the team in Montreal.

So here's the paranoid scenario: the owners realize they have to sell the team, and likewise realize that they've diminished the value of their asset by poor-mouthing the Expos over the past five years. They know that if this D.C. plan is going to work, they need to boost the value of the Expos, and fast. One way to do that would be to create the illusion of a winning ball club in Montreal -- say, by getting a star like Colon on the team pronto. (I say "illusion" because I still don't think that Colon’s presence will be enough to put Montreal into serious contention this year.) In other words, the owners may be trying to drive the selling price of the Expos up by buying Colon's services -- even if it means buying them at a ludicrous price. If that is indeed the case, it would raise some obvious ethical questions, sticky wickets, and dilemmas of various sorts.

But no matter where the truth of the matter lies, it will be good for the game to have the Expos at least somewhat competitive this season. Baseball has always seemed to do the wrong things for the wrong reasons. If it now ends up doing the right things for the wrong reasons, well, that's a kind of step up.

Darryl Kile

As everybody knows by now, Cardinal pitcher Darryl Kile died last Saturday. Kile’s death was both tragic and unexpected, and his passing has no doubt had a major impact on his Cardinal teammates. (They’re 2-5 since Kile’s death, and in the three games of theirs I’ve watched, they’ve all understandably looked like they’d rather be someplace else than on a baseball field.) Unlike most columnists, however, I am having trouble thinking of anything poignant to say.

I suppose I could haul out 400 trusty words to the effect of, "This sure is sad, my thoughts and prayers go out to his wife and kids," but it seems pointless. Kile’s wife and kids probably don’t care a lick about what some obscure columnist in Ohio has to say about the most devastating loss they’ve ever had and likely will ever have to contend with. Saying something like "Wow, this puts things in perspective," is a similarly hollow cliché. Kile’s death didn’t put anything in perspective. People have been dying young since the dawn of time without causing anyone to seriously take stock or lead more fulfilling lives. On the whole, we still work too much and see too little of our families. We still eat poorly. We still seem to have a collective hard-on for violence and negativity of every stripe.

When we wax philosophical or sentimental about the passing of a stranger -- even a celebrity -- we are really only doing it out of a sense of propriety and habit. In reality, we think for a few minutes, "Wow, that was surprising," and then go have a beer, and watch a movie, and generally get on with our lives, as I did when I heard that Kile had died. Maybe that makes us heartless and selfish. Maybe it means that we have serious denial issues for which we should all seek professional help. Then again, maybe it just means that for those of us who aren’t Darryl Kile’s family members, friends or teammates, his death is nothing more than a news item. An unexpected news item that brings fleeting sadness, to be sure, but still just a news item all the same.