These Guys Should Know How to Communicate

Peter O'Malley was packing, preparing for a return flight to Vero Beach. Preparing to return as chairman of the board and former owner of the Dodgers.

The family's tenure was over after 48 years.

Major league owners had approved the sale of his Dodgers to Rupert Murdoch's Fox Group, and now O'Malley was pausing to say that he wouldn't have chosen Fox as his successor if he didn't think they would maintain the image and tradition of the Dodgers and didn't think they would be valuable partners in baseball.

How valuable? What impact can the Murdoch conglomerate make on the national scene?

Considerable, O'Malley said.

"National and international, baseball should and must take advantage of what they bring to the table.

"Not just Fox, but Disney [which owns the Angels] and Time Warner [which owns the Atlanta Braves].

"Those are three extraordinary media companies.

"If I was baseball, I'd sit them down all day to discuss it--ask them, encourage them. What needs to be done?

"Communications. Kids' programs. International telecasts. It would be high on my list."

If only he were baseball. . . .

Walter O'Malley was, but Peter O'Malley wasn't and isn't.

Who is?

Acting commissioner Bud Selig agreed that Fox brings a level of TV and marketing expertise that shouldn't be ignored, but baseball has found ways. It has a void in the New York marketing department, and O'Malley would say a leadership void in Milwaukee.

Fox just negotiated a minefield getting approved.

Executives Chase Carey and Peter Chernin aren't about to express any substantive opinions about the direction baseball should take regarding a commissioner or marketing or TV except to say that there is plenty of room for growth--in ratings, attendance and revenue.

Much of it needs to start at the local level, where they are said to privately believe that the Dodgers, for all of the organization's renown, have never been marketed properly--nor has the revenue potential of Dodger Stadium been fully tapped.

Increased signage, luxury boxes, expanded concession areas and interactive zones are all possibilities and probabilities.

Balancing, they have said, the nostalgic and traditional with the innovative.

Clearly bringing a lot to the table, but also only one vote in league meetings.

How would they use it on the commissioner issue?

Some believe that Selig's motivation in strongly supporting the Fox purchase was to get rid of O'Malley. Their relationship was tenuous at best, but Fox might feel obligated to vote for Selig as commissioner, if it comes to that, because of the lobbying he did on Fox's behalf.

Does O'Malley have a promise that Fox won't support Selig? Does Selig have a promise that Fox will?

It might be the first major question confronting the new owners since Jerry McMorris, owner of the Colorado Rockies, says he expects to be ready with a recommendation by the June meeting and insists his search isn't a charade that will simply lead back to Milwaukee.

That is not to say, of course, that he doesn't believe Selig is the only candidate who could get enough votes.

In the meantime, despite the verbal and written assurances from Chernin and Carey regarding the responsible, rule-abiding manner in which they will operate the Dodgers and despite the overwhelming approval of the sale, there are very few owners who aren't a bit nervous at having another maverick like Murdoch on the inside, very few who aren't concerned that he will compound the salary escalation and use his local cable contracts with 22 teams to control the revenue streams of his competitors.

At the same time, this is all about dollars and sense.

The $250 million that Tom Hicks is paying for the Texas Rangers and the estimated $311 million that Murdoch is paying for the Dodgers--a record for a sports franchise--only enhances the franchise values of the other clubs.

And having Murdoch on the inside, of course, means he is certain to remain a bidder for the national TV rights, driving up the take for the teams he's competing against on the field.

If the lines of ownership are insidiously blurred, as they are through Murdoch's cable connections to the 22 teams, so be it.

The rules of ownership are a bit hazy too.

Suppose these rumors about Charles Dolan buying the New York Yankees are valid. Dolan owns Cablevision, the umbrella for Rainbow Media Holdings, which owns the New York Knicks and Rangers, along with Madison Square Garden and MSG cable. Fox/Liberty Network owns 40% of Rainbow Media Holdings, and Murdoch owns 50% of Fox/Liberty, meaning he could own 100% of the Dodgers and 20% of the Yankees.

"You have to use common sense," Selig said of where to draw the line.

But in an era in which O'Malley represented the last of a family breed, and in which only conglomerates and corporations can afford the soaring costs, baseball is taking its money where it can get it. Of the 30 clubs represented at the spring meetings here, more than half came under new ownership in the last 10 years. The portfolios include Disney, Wal-Mart, Safeway, Blockbuster, Little Caesar's and the Chicago Tribune.

No popcorn and Cracker Jack.

"This is a very expensive enterprise and it's ever changing, as all segments of our economy and our society are," American League President Gene Budig said. "Baseball fans demand a competitive product and major league baseball has to compete with the other sports and entertainment activities. Owners are under increased pressure to produce a competitive product."

No one knows that better than Peter Angelos, who bought the Baltimore Orioles for a then-record $173 million in 1993, and will surpass George Steinbrenner and the Yankees for the top payroll this year as he tries to reward Camden Yards fans with a winner.

A maverick himself, Angelos said, "All I know about Rupert Murdoch is what I've read and been told, and he seems to be very controversial, indeed. He's also a strong, dynamic businessman, and baseball can certainly benefit from that. I hate to see Peter O'Malley leave, that's really a loss, but hopefully Murdoch will be as committed to the advancement and preservation of baseball as Peter has been.

"Fox is certainly a vibrant and vigorous company, and Murdoch is making the kind of investment that would seem to obligate him to maintaining a first-class operation.

"He's in a position [through his media connections] to spur marketing and help keep baseball at the forefront of the entertainment industry."

Said Bill Giles, general partner of the Philadelphia Phillies:

"Conceptually, another big media giant owning a team doesn't bother me. If they start paying players more than they should be, that's a negative, but I think that [Ted] Turner [owner of the Braves] and the [Tribune, which owns the Cubs] have been good partners, and Disney certainly looks to be."

Time will tell about Fox--and whether baseball accepts chairman of the board O'Malley's initial recommendation and takes advantage of what the new Dodger owner brings to the table.

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