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Ross Newhan ON BASEBALL

Is Selig Playing by Mob Rules?

July 21, 2002|Ross Newhan

No matter how many embarrassing situations Bud Selig has found himself in, no matter how many blows to his and his industry's image, it can be said with certainty that the baseball commissioner has now attained an unprecedented low--sued by 14 former minority partners of the Montreal Expos under a federal fraud and racketeering statute more often used to prosecute the Mafia and others of that obviously criminal ilk.

Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer, has called the suit frivolous and without merit.

A court will determine guilt or innocence, if this goes that far, but make no mistake:

The suit threatens to further besmirch Selig and his office, delay any resolution regarding the Expos' future, possibly impair the already impaired labor negotiations, and could force Selig to turn over thousands of potentially damaging internal documents related to contraction and the Expos' ownership.

Some business.

Only a week after his All-Star embarrassment, Selig--along with DuPuy and Jeffrey Loria, the Florida Marlin owner and former Expo managing partner--is accused by the former Montreal partners of mail and wire fraud under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970.

The suit accuses Selig of a duplicitous relationship with Loria in much the same way he was (and remains) suspected of having a duplicitous relationship with Minnesota Twin owner Carl Pohlad that started even before the ill-fated contraction scenario. Then again, who's the official scorer when it comes to duplicity?

Certainly not Selig's constituents, who seem satisfied with his leadership, convinced his doomsday message is the right one, and remain supportive of his attempt to overhaul the economic system, even if a ninth work stoppage (and Selig spans them all) is first on the agenda.

Oh, New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner isn't happy about the idea of sharing any more of his revenue with owners he is convinced will only put it in their pockets rather than improving their teams (if they even knew how to improve their teams). And he may occasionally chat with friends about how great a commissioner Rudy Giuliani would make if and when Selig steps down, but there have been no signs of an organized movement to revoke the commissioner's recent three-year extension.

Asked if there are any undercurrents of dissent regarding Selig, San Diego Padre owner John Moores, a staunch ally, said: "I can almost guarantee there will be none. I'm pretty aggressive in believing the next bargaining agreement has to fix the game, and I'd be shocked if there was any even half-hearted effort to ask Bud to resign. It's just unthinkable. He's so strong that if he wanted to outlaw Sunday baseball, he'd probably have our support."

So, here's Selig, in court again with baseball's umpires, possibly headed to court with some of the top families in Canada, in a revenue-sharing headlock with the players' union and, apparently, still loved by the owners, although it remains uncertain how the labor situation will play out, just as it is unclear how the suit by the former Montreal partners will play out--or play into the labor dispute.

The suit charges that Selig, Loria and other high-ranking baseball officials conspired to eliminate baseball in Montreal, reducing the minority partners' holdings from 76% to about 7%, violating the RICO Act. It seeks $100 million in punitive damages (which would be tripled under RICO), unspecified compensatory damages and asks that the club be placed in trust.

The group has said it will seek an injunction if baseball tries to move or fold the team, a major impediment to contraction or relocation, and James Quinn, a partner in the law firm that has filed the suit, said by phone that the group would also take "immediate steps to correct" any attempt by baseball to devalue the Expos, currently operated by the commissioner's office, by dismantling the roster.

Given the courts' generally slow pace, the Expo suit--unless dismissed--could be a problem for two or three years.

Mark Routtenberg, one of the 14 minority partners, told the Montreal Gazette that it is strictly about justice and doubted that it "has much relevance to the future of baseball in Montreal, other than maybe acting as a stopgap. We still need a new stadium, a revenue-sharing deal and a local owner with deep pockets to step up to the plate."

If it's uncertain what the minority partners would demand in a settlement, it is suspected that baseball will go to any length to avoid releasing its internal information.

A similar document quest in the suit brought by the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission to keep the Twins in Minneapolis recently weighed into the decision by management lawyers to reach an out-of-court settlement that guaranteed the Twins will remain in Minnesota through 2003.

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