From The Dugout To The Owners Box?

A bunch of millionaire ballplayers are swinging for a piece of the team

Mickey Mantle was once asked what he would do if he were he playing in these days of stratospheric salaries. "Well," said the Mick, "I'd go knock on the owner's door and say, `Howdy, partner."' The story may be apocryphal, but the prospect of sports stars joining the clubby world of team owners is authentic.

And why not? Albert Belle's deal with the Chicago White Sox pays him a hefty $10 million this season. San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds will pull in more than $11 million annually. With so much money on the table, it's no surprise that some players are eyeing second careers old-timers only dreamed about: owning a piece of a franchise.

A few ex-players are already on the hunt. Kansas City legend George Brett, now a front-office official, leads a group seeking to buy his old club. Kirby Puckett--in the front office of the Minnesota Twins--is eager for a piece of the team. "He'd like to have ownership in a franchise--Minnesota if the opportunity presents itself," says his agent, Ron Shapiro.

"GIANTS FOREVER." Under league rules, active players can't own Major League Baseball franchises. "It sets up a staggering series of conflicts of interests," says Milwaukee Brewers owner and acting Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. That hasn't stopped a number of players from kicking around the idea. Iron man Cal Ripken Jr. briefly discussed buying into the Baltimore Orioles during contract talks five years ago, and he's still interested. "I have an acquired expertise in baseball," says Ripken, taking a break from spring training in Fort Lauderdale. "I'd like to put it to use, and you can only do that fully if you're the owner."

Other wealthy players are also looking ahead. "I could seriously think about that," says Bonds, when asked about investing in his team. "I love San Francisco--and the idea of being with the Giants forever." San Diego's Tony Gwynn, a seven-time National League batting champion, isn't much interested in putting his pesos in the money-losing Padres. But he believes Charlotte, N.C., is ripe for an expansion club. "If there's a place primed for baseball right now, that's it," says Gwynn, sounding very much like a budding entrepreneur.

In the old days, most ex-players lacked the serious money needed for franchise investment. That was then. In 1996, 108 major leaguers earned at least $3 million, USA Today reported. Players making a mere million--247--are getting as common as hot dog vendors.

There's a history, though limited, of athlete-owners. In the 1950s, Hall of Fame slugger Hank Greenberg was a part-owner of the Cleveland Indians and, later, the Chicago White Sox. Tennis great Pam Shriver is an Orioles investor, and in the National Basketball Assn., former hoops star Isiah Thomas has about 9% of the Toronto Raptors and is part of a group negotiating for a bigger ownership role. With the price tag on top-rung baseball franchises soaring above $200 million, "players won't be able to own [controlling] shares. But many have a lot of money and know the game. It makes sense for them" to be investors, says baseball economist and author Andrew Zimbalist.

PEACE? Owners have their own reasons to welcome players as partners. Topping the list: image. A hometown hero could reclaim fans alienated by strikes and lockouts. "Family owners often don't have a background in baseball. With a former superstar, you have immediate cachet with fans," says Zimbalist. Padres President Larry Lucchino, agrees: "Tony Gwynn and Kirby Puckett have what might take an owner with a different background years to build up."

Bringing ex-players into the fold would also likely mean more Hispanic and African-American investors--a development considered overdue by many. And don't forget the profit motive. "The larger the pool of potential investors, the better for those of us with ownership stakes," says Lucchino.

Less certain would be the affect on often-bitter player-management relations. "The more people you have on both sides with shared experiences, the less likely you will have discord," says players' union chief Donald M. Fehr. Says Selig: "It could be an extremely healthy situation." Gwynn disagrees. "It wouldn't matter one bit," he says. "It sounds like it should. But ownership is going to be ownership."

Perhaps. But maybe more players among the owners might quell some of the internecine warfare. You've got to believe Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner would have thought twice about breaking ranks to cut his own $10 million-a-year sponsorship deal with Adidas if he had to lean across the table and explain himself to Albert Belle.

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