Introducing MLB’s ‘Billion Dollar Ball’
Not a pitch in anger had yet been thrown; not a game that counts played. Yet firmly, irrevocably, and indisputably, the entire season’s dominant theme and spirit was established the last week of March.
You think you’ve heard all you want or need to hear about “Moneyball”? Let me tell you, Bunky, that was all about chump change played by losers in a fantasy world. May I introduce you to the real deal from the real world: “Billion Dollar Ball.”
And if it’s a certified production of the new American pastime, not everyone can play. Nor is it the game your dear daddy introduced you to when you were freckled, nine, and a deep believer in all the pious ballyhoo that has sugar-coated baseball’s ills and injustices for a century and a half. Hey, we all have to grow up some day.
When the Los Angeles Dodgers were purchased by the House of Guggenheim from the de-frocked Boston parking-lot mogul, Frank McCourt, for the cool, limpid, and stratospheric sum of $2.15 billion, it was the jock-world equivalent of the Storming of the Bastille, only this time the winners are not going to be the peasants. This transaction was more than historic. It was revolutionary. Every game played under the sun was substantially affected and every owner became instantly richer. And when that happens, the inevitable loser, Old Sport, is you!
Certain sentimentalists may want to say this is one of those wonderful capitalist moments that could only happen in America. But it’s actually the ludicrous result of a ridiculous chain of events appropriately rooted in La La Land, next door to Hollywood.
After failing in an intense effort to purchase his dearly beloved home-town team, the Red Sox, McCourt bought the Dodgers for $430 million in 2004. He had the blessings of Commissioner Bud Selig, who seemed to go out of his way to arrange the caper even though McCourt’s financial game-plan was said to be not as solid as is usually demanded. It was an example of the big-footing commissioner’s famed double standard in the orchestrating of his long-standing musical chairs game of franchise shuffles. Was Selig re-paying McCourt for quietly deferring in his pursuit of the Red Sox, whom Selig was determined to award to his dear friend John Henry and his merry band? There are those in the game who’ll always believe that.
If so, it’s a wonderful irony that in a mere eight years of daffy ownership, the dancing McCourts succeeded only in driving Selig nuts. They were dreadful owners who ravaged their team, disgraced its royal colors, played its fans for suckers, sullied the game with scandal, and finally drove the entire mess into bankruptcy and yet managed to walk away laughing, having sold the team for roughly $1.8 billion more than they paid for it, thereby multiplying their investment five-fold in only eight years.
Or, as a certain Jonah Keri writing for Grantland has tartly noted of Frank McCourt: “He ransacked one of baseball’s crown jewels, alienated a fan base, triggered the mother of all divorce cases, ran up more than a billion dollars in debt, and walked away one of the richest men in America.”
There are two ways of looking at this. It is truly a great country! Or, there is no justice! And to think: This epic rags to riches tale actually began in some grubby little parking lots in and around our own town.
Parking lots may be necessary even if they constitute some of the more formidable blight on the pocked and tattered urban landscape of the 21st century. But for McCourt to fashion a fabulous personal fortune from the slabs of macadamized pavement and glorified gravel pits that we’re obliged to dump our cars upon for upwards to $50 a day is hard enough to swallow; for him to parlay such soiled riches into the largest and nuttiest score in the history of sport is beyond repugnant.
But then there is no shame in McCourt’s dubious act. He won’t lose a minute’s sleep over any of this outrage. Moreover, it’s a wheeling and dealing investment house that he’s taking to the cleaners. Rather hard to decide whom to root against, is it not.
The implications are numberless.
Students of Selig were quick to note that it was no coincidence that yet another of his pets has come out a big winner. The leader of the Guggenheim group is financier Mark Walter. Its resident celebrity figurehead is the portly and jolly old basketball wonder, Magic Johnson. But he’s just a PR piece. The big guy in the group and the chap who’ll run this team is veteran baseball mogul Stan Kasten, an old, able and very loyal Selig crony who has done a lot of the czar’s bidding over the years, especially when it comes to beating up on the player’s union.
If you don’t think Selig was influential in steering the Dodgers to the Kasten group, I’ve got some nice swamp land to sell you and it’s not located in Chavez Ravine. Bud sure does take care of his buddies. Once again!
Otherwise, I need confess to only know what I’m reading and hearing, and the reaction from people who better understand the extraordinary legal and financial complications of major corporate machinations has been swift and feverish. This deal is not merely about sports. It’s about multi-national give and take at its most serious. It is stuff that is rather, to be honest, out of my league.
But this much I do understand: Widespread is the agreement that the near incredible price was largely hinged to the purchasing group’s conviction that they’ll make a humongous score when the Dodger’s TV rights go out to bid next year. They’re said to believe cable rights alone may be annually worth $300 million, plus mucho advertising revenue. Or if they make the greater effort of setting up their own television network, as the Yankees and Red Sox have done, they’ll make even more dough in the long run. With such a revenue flow it shouldn’t take long to pay off the purchase price.
On the other hand, any such calculations are predicated on the health of the general economy, which is hardly a given. There’s no such thing as “no risk.” And there’s this further question: When does the fattened media goose die of sheer exhaustion? Every one of the huge and recent franchise flip-flops has been predicated on the gleeful expectation of greatly increased television revenues. Always keep in mind, Old Sports, that sky-rocketing cable fees are essentially a tax on you.
In the short term, it’s the impact that the historic sale has on the minds and hearts of all the other owners that may prove most interesting. Within minutes of the announcement, there were reports of other owners wondering how much more their toys were suddenly worth. Even the beleaguered Mets, who were brinking on bankruptcy before escaping the Madoff lynch mob just two weeks earlier, were positively chortling, which wasn’t very pretty given the Wilpon’s recent antics.
A Yankee official suggested it probably means the jewel in the crown of the Bronx now must be worth more than three billion and probably nearly four. Doubtless he’s right. If Red Sox officials were more discreet, or, if you prefer, less candid, you just know they are of like mind and also doubtless correct.
Obviously it’s the blue-chip franchises like the aforementioned that stand to gain most, and hugely. But every franchise got a bump. It’s safe to guess that the total increase in MLB value sparked in a mere flash was in the several billions. Does this increase the likelihood of more sales, more flip-flops? You better believe it. Could one of them, sooner rather than later, be your Red Sox? I never believed the new boys were in it for the long haul. These aren’t the Yawkeys.
To think: Frank McCourt was so deeply despised by his lodge brothers that they delighted in driving him from the game. And now he is their hero. The ironies are endless!