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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Who Needs Another Out of Town Owner?




        By Ross Newhan

        It would be foolish to accept this as gospel, but contracturally and verbally the new year is expected to be the last of Bud Selig's 20 as commissioner.

       His has been a revolutionary tenure, but fans of the Dodgers care only that he contributes to new and stable ownership with the finances to build a winner.

       In the convuluted process that is driving Frank McCourt out as owner, it should be remembered that McCourt will have a say in the selection.

       McCourt, of course, may be only interested in the final price, hoping it will alleviate his debts, satisfy creditors, contribute to the $131 million divorce settlement with Jamie McCourt and leave him with enough to maintain a measure of the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed.

      He has said that the new owner should have community roots, but was that sincere or simply lip service?

     Prospective bidders can begin submitting offers on Jan. 13.

     The latest name to emerge is that of billionaire Steven Cohen--first revealed in the Wall Street Journal and expanded on in Wednesday's editions of the Los Angeles Times. Cohen, 55, is the founder of SAC Capital Advisors, a Connecticut-based investment firm that controls $14 billion in assets. In September, Forbes estimated Cohen's net worth at $8.l3 billion. According to multiple sources who talked to me only on the bases of anonymity Thursday, Cohen has built his hedge fund operation on the basis of total control and, at times, a volcanic temper. Two of his former managers have pleaded guilty to insider trading. and the SEC, according to a lawyer involved in the federal investigation of suponeanaed records, confided that the government continues to look into those record  but that no charges have been filed against Cohen or his company.

    Since league owners have final say in approving bidders, it isn't clear whether that investigation will or would create discomfort among owners if Cohen comes up for a vote. It certainly has not stopped Cohen from looking into the possible purchase of the Dodgers. According to The Times' story he has met with several owners regarding the challenge of owning a sports team, retained Steve Greenberg, the former deputy commissioner and now a sports broker with Allen & Co. in New York and he has been accompanied in his meetings with the owners by noted player agent Arn Tellem, who is based in Los Angeles and could be a potential executive with the Dodgers if Cohen secures the team. Cohen has also retained Populous, a sports architecture firm, to suggest possible changes to Dodger Stadium that would improve comfort and safety.

    In the Times' story, two well known Los Angeles personalities, Eli Broad and David Geffen, who share a love of art with Cohen, both offered their support, and Geffen said of the Connecticut based Cohen that it didn't matter where he lived.

    "What you really need is an owner who has the resources to win, the drive to win and who cares more about winning than he cares about money," Geffen said.

    However, Dodger fans, having experienced the chaos of Rupert Murdoch's phantom ownership and the turmoil under Boston native McCourt, may want no part of another out of town owner and that could also weigh on Selig and the voting owners--and it probably should.

    There will be two Los Angeles bidders with baseball backgrounds--former Dodger owner Peter O'Malley and Dennis Gilbert, the Westside insurance man who is an assistant to Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, a former player and player agent, and who attends virtually every Dodger game as a season ticket holder.

   Both O'Malley and Gilbert refused comment Thursday, having signed the confidentiality agreement required of potential investors who have received a breakdown of Dodger finances from Blackstone Advisory Partners, the firm handling sale of the club, but the key question is rhetorical anyway. Why go to Connecticut or anywhere else when there are potential and quality owners in the neighborhood?         

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Getting Away With Murder?





        By Ross Newhan

        Barry Bonds did not get away with murder, metaphorically speaking.
   
        It only appears that way because of the seemingly light sentence Bonds has received for giving evasive answers to a federal grand jury eight years ago.

      It's known as obstruction of justice, and under federal guidelines District Court Judge Susan Illston could have sentenced Bonds to 15 months in prison.

        Instead, in a ruling consistent with her other decisions in the long running BALCO drug case, Bonds was sentenced to 30 days of house arrest, two years probation, 250 hours of community service and a $4,000 fine.

       In an effort to avoid a lifetime reputation as a felon, Bonds will appeal, and Illston stayed her sentence Friday until the appeal is heard.

      Putting the lenient sentence aside, no one will ever convince me that Bonds did not use steroids or a form thereof as his body expanded in size as his home runs totals similarly expanded and he became baseball's all-time home runs leader.

     In my mind, he will always carry the reputation of a cheater, felon not withstanding.

    Bonds becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame with next December's ballot. Some voting members of the Baseball Writers Assn. of America may feel Bonds was already a Hall of Fame caliber player before the steroids questions arose and will vote for him on that basis. I don't buy it. A career is a career. How do you simply erase the suspicions that accompanied the latter half of his career? In fact, Bonds has admitted using a susbstance known as the cream, claiming he was unaware it was a steroids derivative.

    Bonds was convicted April 13 by a San Francisco jury that heard three weeks of testimony about his suspected use of performance-enhancing drugs. He was found guilty on one of the four counts in the case,the jury agreeing he had obstructed justice by giving evasive answers to a grand jury in 2003 when asked if Greg Anderson, his former personal trainer, had ever injected him

    The jury came within one vote of convicting him on a second count, voting by 11 to 1 that he had committed perjury when he told the same grand jury in 2003 that he was never injected by anyone other than his doctor. Depending on the outcome of his appeal, if community service stands, he should begin by doing the gardening for that one jury member who voted against perjury.

   Of course, that would be after he finishes 30 days of house arrest in his Beverly Hills mansion..

   Illston explained her sentence by saying Bond's obstruction behavior was not as serious as his conviction might suggest, and that the prison guidelines "apply to us when the obstruction are things like threats of force and intimidation of jurors--significant criminal behavior. What was convicted here was of a different nature"

 Prosecutor Matthew Parrella disputed her reasoning and termed the sentence "almost laughable."

 Almost?              

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Missing Prince



       By Ross Newhan

       Now that the Angels have signed Albert Pujols to a 10 year, 254 million contract and almost all of the principal free agents have been accounted for, the question is, "has a baseball Prince been left to go a-begging?"

       Renowned agent Scott Boras insists not.

       "The Prince Fielder slugger train has a lot of passengers," Boras said by telephone Thursday. "A lot of teams are involved."

       Boras has been known to inflate the interest in his clients, but there have been few rumors regarding the Milwaukee first baseman. If there are a lot of passengers on the Fielder train, they may be traveling incognito.

      Seattle, still? Maybe Washington, Miami, the Cubs,

     Perhaps, the Brewers could still find a seat on the train, particularly since they may lose their left fielder and National League MVP Ryan Braun for the first 50 games of the 2012 season because of a drug suspension.      

    "We're at the point of discussions (because of price and length of contract) where the owners are involved," Boras said. "They can fly into Orange County for a day and fly out without getting much attention."

    With Boras's home and corporation based in Newport, John Wayne Airport is in the Fielder flight pattern. Has the Pujols contract scared off potential bidders?

    Two different things, Boras said, pointing out that Pujols will be 32 in January. Fielder won't be 28 until May.

    Over the last three years, while drawing acclaim as baseball's greatest hitter, Pujols has hit only 10 more homers than Fielder and driven in only eight more runs.

   "Normally," Boras said, "a player with Fielder's slugging credentials would be approaching (a long term contract situation) at a later stage of his career. When I did the Alex Rodriguez contract (with the New York Yankees for 10 years and $275 million in 2007), Alex was 32. You were looking at only so many premium years. Fielder is 27. All of his (potential contract) years are premium years."

   Boras would not say if he was looking to match or exceed the Pujols contract because of Fielder's age advantage.

   "The A-Rod contract (baseball's highest) is about $300 million," Boras said. "I sense the Angels wanted to slide in under that umbrella.

   "I give Arte (Moreno) credit for stepping up as he did with Pujols and the pitcher (C.J. Wilson)."

   At the same time, some in the Boras camp think the smarter move would have been for the Angels to sign the younger (and probably cheaper) Fielder for fewer years, giving them the left-handed power hitter they lack unless Kendrys Morales returns after missing 1 1/2 years with a broken left leg.

   Boras reiterated that the Pujols' contract and the eventual Fielder contract are two different things and that a Fielder deal should be done soon.

   "The interest level has become more defined," he said, and that no owner or general manager has brought up concern to him that the 5-foot-ll, 255 pound Fielder could have a tough time controlling his weight over a long term contract, eventually ballooning like his father, Cecil Fielder, did.

    "Prince understands what he needs to do and has a regimented work schedule," Boras said. "He's 40 pounds lighter than when he was 16."

    Fielder has averaged 39 home runs and 114 RBI over the last three years. Hefty numbers. It will be interesting to find out who emerges from that train, and how heavy the contract is.

                       

Monday, December 12, 2011

Pujols Is Pujols, But Morales is Key




        By Ross Newhan

        Only a manager with a roster including Albert Pujols wouldn't mind holding a cell phone to his ear as he took his daily walk amid a Westlake rainstorm Monday.

        Now that Angel owner Arte Moreno, blessed with the financial foundation of a $3 billion television contract with Fox Sports, has guaranteed $254 million to baseball's greatest hitter of the last 11 years, it is up to Mike Scioscia to contemplate a lineup in which the key is a player who hasn't been in a game since early 2010 and may not be ready for 2012.

       "If it just came down to Albert, the Cardinals would have won every year he was (in St. Louis)," Scioscia said of the task of building a lineup that offers protection behind him and table setters in front of him.

      A dilemma?

     "That's not what I would call it," Scioscia said. "A dilemma is what we went through the last two years when we had to fill nine spots and had three or four guys who weren't swinging well on a daily  basis. When you have Albert Pujols in the middle of the lineup....well, you can choose the words to describe it."

     It may not be until late in spring training before anyone knows how best to describe it and how the pieces fit together.

    The "key piece of the puzzle," said Scioscia, is Kendrys Morales, the switch hitting first baseman who hasn't played since breaking his lower left leg in 2010. Morales is currently hitting off a tee in Arizona and running on a treadmill, but he has still not put full weight on the leg.

   A physically fit  Morales, who hit 34 homers and drove in 108 runs in 2009, would provide left handed protection behind Pujols as the designated hitter in a lineup that otherwise could be all right handed with no certainty behind Pujols.

   "There's two ways to protect a hitter of Albert's stature," Scioscia said, getting wetter every second. "You have enough of a threat behind him that he isn't consistently pitched around or you create a situation that makes it difficult to pitch around him by putting the right two or three players in front of him so that he has a chance to drive them in.

   "In our situation, Kendrys is extremely important and probably the most important thing we'll look at in spring training. If he's healthy, it makes it much easier for us as far as creating a lineup."

   Given Morales' physical uncertainty, many teams might not have tendered him a contract before Monday's deadline. The Angels, however, tendered a contract, maintaining control and illustrating his importance.

   If he is not ready when the Angels open the season, the lineup is a mystery.

   Assuming Pujols hits third (he batted third in 1,383 games with St. Louis compared to 242 batting fourth, according to the Elias Sports Bureau), either Mark Trumbo or Vernon Wells would probably hit behind him. Trumbo hit 29 homers as a rookie and will be moving to third base ("he showed his athleticism in moving to first base and he has a strong enough arm to play third," Scioscia said) while the Angels simply believe Wells, with a proven record, should bounce back from his shockingly disappointing debut with the club last year..

   That leaves Torri Hunter, Chris Ianetta and Peter Bourgeos behind them and Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick possibly at the top of the lineup again despite very poor on-base percentages, a critical stat to the computer gurus in general manager Jerry DiPoto's new front office.

  Aybar has a .319 career on-base percentage while Kendrick is .329.

  All of this will take on a different complexion if Morales can fill the DH role behind Pujols. In the meantime, on a wet Monday, Scioscia was still soaking up the positive vibes created by the acquistion of a three time MVP.              

Friday, December 9, 2011

Send Those Thank You Notes to Fox Sports





       By Ross Newhan

       Talk about exasperation.

       On the most newsworthy day in Angel history I was burdened with a crashed hard drive

       So, here I am, blogging a day late and a dollar short--or is it $331.5 million short, Arte Moreno's stunning guarantee to Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, and are Angel fans writing thank you notes to Fox Sports for agreeing to a new television deal with the team that is expected to cover 20 years and provide Arte more than $3 billion?

      This new TV deal was first reported in the Los Angeles Times and confirmed by this reporter in conversations with two sources who can not be identified because they are not authorized to speak on the record and some aspects of the TV deal have not been finalized.

     The bottom line is the bottom line.

     Fox has again emerged as baseball's primary underwriter, and money almost always talks.

     Yes, Jered Weaver could have possibly made millions more by eventually testing the market rather than signing an extension with the Angels, and his new rotation colleague, Wilson, could have made more in years and dollars by signing with the Miami Marlins.

    However, both Weaver and Wilson are Southern California products and opted for home.

   How many times did Puajols, whose baseball and community roots were in St, Louis, tell reporters from that city that he wanted to start and finish his career there and couldn't see leaving for $3 million or $4 million more a year?

   The Cardinals offered 10 years and about $210 million to their greatest hitter since Stan Musial, and he left for about $4 million more a year, confirming again that just about any time a player says it is not about the money, it is definitely about the money. And any time an owner complains about a team overpaying for a free agent, as Moreno did when he was outbid for free agent Carl Crawford last winter as the Boston Red Sox gave Crawford $142 milllion for seven years, that same owner will eventually open his own wallet in a manner likely to create head shaking in the industry.

   In this case, having pursued and lost Crawford, Adrian Beltre and Mark Texeira, among others, in the last two off-seasons, and watching the Angels fail to reach the playoffs in the last two years, Moreno was determined to change the club's direction. He cleaned out the front office, brought in Jerry DiPoto as general manager, opted out of his former television deal with Fox Sports to take advantage of a robust TV marketplace, and emerged Wednesday with the premier free agent hitter and pitcher, spending about $150 million more than he did when purchasing the team in 2003.

    In the process, Moreno turned his Angels into the talk of the town, whether it's Los Angeles, Anaheim or any other town in Southern California.

   And does it really matter who buys the Dodgers?

   Margic Johnson?

  Now it's the Showtime Angels.

  They have the best rotation in baseball, with the addition of Wilson also stripping division rival Texas of their ace, and what more needs to be said about Pujols?

  He is the only hitter in baseball history to slug more than 30 homers, drive in more than 100 runs and bat higher than .300 in each of his first 10 years, and he would have made it 11 if he hadn't missed by one percentage point, batting .299 in 2011. He will  be 32 in January, and his statistics in each of those three categories have declined in each of the last three years, a measure of concern, perhaps, but then the Angels, if truthful, aren't really counting on Pujols being Pujols for all 10 years.

  What the Angels would love to count on is Kendrys Morales, who has missed most of the last two years, providing Pujols with left handed protection, but his return remains uncertain. The future of Mark Trumbo, yielding first base to Pujols, is also uncertain after finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting. He could go to third base, the outfield or another team, netting a closer such as Oakland's Andrew Bailey, perhaps.

   For now, with the help of that new TV contract, Arte Moreno has landed a knockout blow, underscoring, as my friend Rich Yamaguchi put it,  that the top 1% should definitely pay more in taxes.

  Rich might have have meant it in a different way and not realized that the Angels just might have to do that as their payroll moves closer to baseball's luxury tax neighborhood.          
  

   

   

      

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Showtime Dodgers? Magic May Want to Cool That Aspect



        By Ross Newhan

        First, a couple assumptions:

        --Assuming, in contrast to my most recent blog and the conspiracy theories of some potential investors, that Frank McCourt does intend to sell the Dodgers rather than making a legal run around his agreement with Commissioner Bud Selig to sell by April 30, 2012

     --Assuming that McCourt is sincere with his stated hope to sell to community based ownership that will restore community pride in his currently half-masted flagship franchise.

     There are more than a half dozen potential investors based in Los Angeles and/or with former connections to the Dodgers--from former owner Peter O'Malley to former general manager Fred Claire to former players Steve Garvey and Orel Hershiser--and yet here comes Magic Johnson at the head of a small group that seems to have everything in place.

    Money? Principally, there's Mark Walter, chief executive of Guggenheim Partners, a financial services firm that controls more than $125 billion in assets and has an office in Santa Monica.

    Baseball Connections? There's Stan Kasten, former chief executive of the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals and a possible successor to Selig, whose current term expires in 2012. The new owner of the Dodgers is not expected to be in place until long after opening day, which could eliminate Kasten as a Selig successor or as president of the Dodgers if asked to succeed Selig, depending on the timing.

   Local Ties? There's Johnson, of course, who brings wide popularity and charisma and proven business acumen, along with a stated committment to make the necessary renovations at Dodger Stadium and occupy a stadium office on a daily basis.

   Perhaps, no one has done more for economy in the inner city or invested more and been more of a living, breathing leader in sparking interest in the fight against HIV, the disease that prompted him to retire from the NBA in 1991. In the type of personal touch that characterizes Johnson's magic, he made a call to McCourt's office to leave a message for the beleaguered owner that he wanted to congratulate him on the club's four playoff appearances during his tenure and his charitable contributions to the community, probably the kindest words McCourt will have heard in several caustic and expensive months.

    In announcing his intention to bid for the Dodgers with usual flair and enthusiasm, Johnson said he would try to build the Dodgers in the Showtime mold of his star-driven Laker teams, recruiting prominent players and paying the price for free agents.

  This is an area that Kasten and others may want to advise Johnson that it would be better to low key. Many of the 29 other owners who will eventually vote on the McCourt successor may not be happy to hear that Magic intends to pay any cost to restore Dodger prominence, driving up salaries in the process.

   It may be remembered that when McCourt was still going through the vetting process he asked Selig if the other owners would react negatively if he consummated a high priced deal with free agent Vladimir Guerrero. Selig told him there would definitely be negative blowback, prompting McCourt to bow out of a deal that was nearly consummated and prompting Angel owner Arte Moreno to jump on Guerrero at the 11th hour.

  Johnson's exuberance will be applauded by the public, but he may want to proceed cautiously with the Showtime angle.

  In the meantime, Blackstone Advisory Partners, overseeing the sale for McCourt, is expected to distribute the "book" detailing the Dodgers financial structure to potential investors this week or next, and a mediator may announce a settlement in the dispute between McCourt and Fox this week, a key step in the overall financial picture since it could either tie the Dodgers to the final two years of their TV contract with Fox (the club will receive $38.8 million in 2013), produce a new contract with Fox or give McCourt the right to negotiate with other media outlets at once--his goal in seeking to take advantage of what has become a very hot marketplace.      

       

             

Friday, December 2, 2011

Does McCourt Really Intend to Sell?



     By Ross Newhan

     The sale of the Dodgers by Frank McCourt--via an agreement with Commissioner Bud Selig and under the auspices of Blackstone Advisory Partners--is proceeding at a deliberate pace--very deliberate.

     According to multiple sources who can not be identified because they are not authorized to speak for any of the involved parties, potential investors, of which there are about 20, have received and been asked to sign non-disclosure agreements, and Blackstone is expected to have the "book" documenting the Dodgers financial structure ready for distribution next week or the week after.

    "This has been going on more than a month and no one has seen a book, including the top league officials who, I presume, would have to approve it," one of the sources said. "It makes you wonder."

    What he and others are wondering would provide Oliver Stone with a conspiracy script that would shock Dodger fans. 

    The question he and othes are asking is this:

     "Does McCourt really intend to sell or is he still seeking a way to retain ownership?"

    This is the way these theorists are starting to see it:

    --Although McCourt has a year to go under his current television contract with Fox, he has been seeking permission to negotiate with other media outlets. Fox has opposed that procedure, figuring it would ultimately negotiate a new contract wiith a new owner. The dispute has gone to mediation, a process that was supposed to end last week but was extended through the current week, suggesting that some form of progress is being made. Suppose McCourt emerges with an extension with Fox or the right to pursue a multi year, multi million dollar deal with another media outlet.

   --Suppose, at that point, McCourt figures he has or will have enough to pay creditors, his $130 million divorce from Jamie and retain operation of the Dodgers. All of these suppositions fall under the authority of the bankruptcy court, and the biggest challenge then for McCourt would have to be suing Selig for coercion in forcing him to sign his sale agreement with MLB.

   Before director Stone starts to salivate and distraught Dodger fans begin to Occupy Chavez Ravine, this is strictly the theory of several people involved in the process and a longshot at best, although as one person who is closely involved in the process said of McCourt:, "I wouldn't put anything past him or attempt to speculate about what he might or might not do. It is only in the last few weeks that I have come to realize how unpredictable he is."

   One thing seems beyond speculation or theory: If the Dodgers are going to have a new owner it will not happen by opening day.

   "Taking into consideration the current pace, the complex finances and the eventual background checks, I think the All-Star break is more likely," said one of the sources.

   In the meantime, McCourt has continued to feed the conspiracy theorists by suddenly agreeing to a $160 million contract with Matt Kemp (though it is largely back-loaded), lowering the price on some tickets and magnanimously contributing to the building of a new inner city diamond, as if these acts alone can rebuild his community image.

  In the general manager's office, however, it is unlikely that over-paying for catcher Matt Treanor, second baseman Mark Ellis, infielder Adam Kennedy, pitcher Chris Capuano and outfielder Juan Rivera will rebuild much of anything