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Palace intrigue surrounds selection of baseball’s czar

Coming up is the spectacle of a baseball contest in a boardroom sure to be more fascinating than anything parenthetically happening on a ballfield. Breathlessly we await the election of a new baseball commissioner to succeed — mercifully and at long last — the outgoing Bud Selig. Gleefully as well we anticipate the circus this curious business just may entail.

The task will be done by the 30 owners of Major League baseball teams, as odd and conflicted a cabal as ever sought to control its own destiny under the pretense of a democratic process. Much about them is about to be revealed. With four days to go before they gather in Baltimore (as this is written) the smart money is still on Lawyer Rob Manfred, Uncle Bud’s long-term prime minister, boon companion, and favored son. Bud wants Rob to get the job, if only because Rob is guaranteed to cement Bud’s legacy as the absolute extension of his dear mentor. A decided majority of the owners is willing to go along if only as a parting gift to good old Bud who has made them all so rich.

Cool, eh! But wait! Here comes the last angry man, Jerry Reinsdorf, wily owner of the White Sox, who plays the role of Richelieu in this motley mob and does so brilliantly, being the utter master of palace intrigue and other such duplicitous art-forms. Jerry has always loved Bud — made him what he is today — but he doesn’t like Rob Manfred, has never liked being told what to do, and as the undisputed king of the money-grubbing owners is determined to crunch the money-grubbing ballplayers before he departs this mortal coil and doesn’t believe Manfred’s either up to the dirty job or has the stomach for it.

Methinks what we have here, friends, is the makings of an epic clash. It’s believed Manfred enters the fray with 20 committed votes. But he needs 23 (three-quarters) and those last three will be achingly difficult. On the other hand, the only other remotely viable candidate thus proffered is Tom Werner, the harmless but relatively pointless third man in the Red Sox ownership troika. Many owners — easily half — regard Werner as a turkey who failed miserably in his only meaningful baseball role as the embarrassingly inept owner of the Padres; and otherwise unqualified too.

Reinsdorf and his conniving pals — who include the flip-flopping John Henry Group that’s apparently forgotten or waved its immense debt to Selig — may succeed in blocking Manfred. But they’ll never be able to get Werner elected and they don’t have anyone else. So where does that leave them? In chaos, one suspects, even hopes. They deserve as much. Baseball politics are as nasty as all the others. The lame-duck Selig may have enough power left to ram his man through. But if it doesn’t happen quick it’s going to get ugly. It’s always steamy in Baltimore in August. It is about to get a lot more so.

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Cock & bull nominee of the mid-summer was the suggestion that David Ortiz has surpassed Carl Yastrzemski as the number two demi-god in the Red Sox pantheon next, of course, to Himself, T.S. Williams Esq. It was Yaz himself who politely endorsed this silly notion. No one else would or should have dared to.

Believe me, Yaz is being gracious. Good for him. But we don’t have to take it seriously nor accord the idea with even the whiff of credibility. Wearied by the controversy he frequently endured during his turbulent era, Carl wants much in his dotage to say the ‘nice’ thing, and let it go at that. He’s scrupulously avoided any other such utterance for 30 years.

I repeat; good for him! But you needn’t take it literally. Ortiz can hit the ball and his strength in the clutch is both indisputable and forever admirable. He has decidedly been ‘a money-player’, however one-dimensional. As a slugger with a fine sense of the dramatic, he might deservedly bow only to Teddy Ballgame, a touch or so over Jim Rice, who seems destined to be underrated in this team’s history, and Jimmie Foxx whose run here, however sparkling, was too short.

But there’s a lot more to this game than slugging; a lesson that’s been painfully learned over the course of Red Sox history although apparently not as well as it ought be. In all other aspects of the game, Ortiz ‑essentially the quintessential designated hitter‑ has been ordinary at best, closer to plodding on defense.

With time running out, Ortiz’s Hall of Fame case obliges still more padding statistically. He’s not there yet — no more than border-line— and the suspicion that he was a PED violator, which he’s disputed but never disproven, is likely to be quite enough to kill his chances. This argument may not fly hereabouts but alas for Mr. Ortiz, not all the HOF electors come from New England. Carl Yastrzemski was a complete player and a deserved runaway first ballot Hall of Famer whose statistics, although beyond dispute, only begin to describe what he brought to the field. It would be easy enough to argue his case more strenuously, but it’s not necessary. And that’s that!

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For the NCAA, so long the intensely aggravating yet somehow untouchable CEO of the vast, rich empire of college sport, this has been the summer of their historic discontent. After operating as a virtual law unto themselves over the last half century, the grand poohbahs of Mission are getting their bloody clocks cleaned.

It will take a while for all the ramifications of last week’s latest blows to NCAA hegemony to shake out. They came within a span of 48 hours. But there’s the notion already sprouting that their days are numbered. Hurrah!

One of the latest thunderbolts was essentially volitional; an acknowledgement by the regulator it can no longer regulate the major super-powers of college sport, their most important responsibility. Amazingly, it was the vote of the NCAA’s own board of directors that released the nation’s five mightiest athletic conferences from NCAA control on all the hot-button issues including recruiting policy, manpower issues, compensation, even scholastic standards. This allows the ACC, Big-10, Big-12, PAC-12, and SEC to essentially police themselves, at least on all the issues that most matter; not a good idea.

If the NCAA no longer has meaningful control over the 65 universities that have all the power, all the bowl games, all the tourneys, all the TV dates, all the all-Americans, and most all the revenue while dominating the entire scene what’s left for the NCAA to control that matters? The Ivy League, the Patriot League, and the Little Three? I don’t think so!

If there are problems demanding regulatory attentions they are more likely to spring from the playing fields of Alabama, Nebraska or USC than Yale, Holy Cross, or Slippery Rock. Even the poohbahs ought to be able to grasp that much.

The second earth-shaking decree was of course judicial, with a west coast federal court ruling in the so-called O’Bannon case that college athletes must be paid for “the commercial use of their names, images and likenesses.” Obviously this has blockbuster potential and greatly enhances the drive to bring about full compensation for college athletes and re-define them as employees of their schools as well as students. To term all this “earth-shaking” is to grossly understate the possibilities. “Revolutionary” would be more like it. But there’s a ways to go before anything like implementation is likely. And all of that messy process is sure to begin with a round of appeals, all the way up to the SJC. And won’t that be interesting.

But in the O’Bannon ruling the judge went well out of her way to scorn the NCAA’s governance of college sport and, by implication, its absurd posturing as the moral compass that calibrates the scene, defines its ethos, and polices its mores. The party’s over, boys. And none too soon!