Baseball 2011: Too Many Sideshows

Unless your name is Jimmer, in light of a potential NBA lockout and the threat of a canceled season, Thursday's NBA draft is about as attention-grabbing as wearing white at Wimbledon. There's little movement in NFL labor talks. U.S. Open hero Rory McIlroy is taking the next few weeks off. And an octet of octopi vying to succeed the late Paul, who correctly predicted all of Germany's games during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, is getting more attention than the American squad preparing to contend in the upcoming Women's World Cup.

That leaves baseball, which should be top of mind for U.S. sports fans this time of year. Yet a controversial realignment proposal, a handful of errant MLB owners, and a cranky octogenarian manager are currently garnering more attention than double plays and strikeouts.

Interleague Intrigue

Over the past 15 years, baseball has grown from roughly a $2 billion industry into a $9 billion one. Nearly 1.65 million fans at ballparks across the U.S. just turned out for a weekend of interleague play—the league's biggest attendance weekend since September 2008, "and September is when everybody is playing for keeps," notes the Baltimore Sun's Peter Schmuck.

"Fans coming out in these remarkable numbers demonstrate the popularity of interleague play," said MLB Commissioner Bud Selig in a news release on Monday. "I remain optimistic that our attendance numbers will continue to climb, with summer beginning tomorrow and five of the six divisions separated by 1 1/2 games or less."

If baseball's 30 owners get behind new realignment proposals being discussed by Selig and his staff, interleague games will become more commonplace. MLB is looking at diving into two 15-team leagues in which the top five teams in each league make the playoffs—a format that is much closer to the NBA and NHL than to baseball's current postseason design. That realignment would also correct MLB's current schedule imbalance, culminating in six divisional races and a wild card slot. The National League comprises 16 teams, the American League only 14—meaning a team from the NL Central division now has a one in six shot at making the playoffs, while a team from the AL West has 25 percent chance.

In order to even out the National League and the American League, more interleague games would have to be incorporated into the season-long schedule (a move that's bound to be popular with baseball fans), and one team would obviously have to move from the NL to the AL. The two teams in the NL believed to be the most likely to change leagues are the Houston Astros, currently in the middle of a sales transaction, and the Arizona Diamondbacks. But Diamondbacks President and Chief Executive Derrick Hall told the Arizona Republic last week that he "doubts his club would have to make the move."

"Naturally, we would look into it if asked about it," Hall said. "But I'm not sure we'd ever get to that point, because I think other teams make more sense geographically than we do." For the moment, Hall is more concerned about his team's own divisional race—and the prospect of playing host to MLB's All-Star Game in July.

Onus on the Owners

While it appears that baseball's steroids era is all but over—Barry Bonds' trial earlier this year was barely a blip on the radar, and there's little buzz about Roger Clemens' upcoming days in court next month—MLB Commissioner Bud Selig's biggest headache today is not errant players but errant owners.

In New York, Mets owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz continue to fight a $1 billion lawsuit filed against them by Bernie Madoff trustee Irving Picard. On Monday, Katz and Wilpon filed a 68-page memorandum of law in support of their motion to dismiss, citing false allegations and unsupported claims in Picard's assertions that the Mets owners had turned a blind eye to Madoff's Ponzi scheme. Jeff Wilpon, the Mets' chief operating officer, also contradicted claims that the Mets, due to the Madoff imbroglio, will not be able to add players to their current roster ahead of baseball's trade deadline.

On Tuesday, two Nebraska women filed a lawsuit against Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts and his Opportunity Education Foundation in Omaha on grounds of harassment retaliation. The suit alleges that the foundation's chief operating officer made inappropriate remarks to both women and was fired after they filed a complaint with HR, but was rehired by Ricketts days later, and at least one of the women lost her job in the process.

The biggest ownership thorn in Selig's side, illuminated by Hollywood-style klieg lights, is clearly the ugly saga of Frank and Jamie McCourt and the Los Angeles Dodgers. On Monday, Selig rejected a proposed TV deal between the Dodgers and Fox Sports, valued by MLB at close to $1.7 billion, setting up a likely courtroom showdown between the unpopular Dodgers owner and the league. A divorce settlement reached last Friday between owner Frank McCourt and ex-wife Jamie would have diverted about $150 million out of $385 million in upfront rights-fee payments from the team to cover the couple's divorce-related expenses, a continuation of a spending pattern—unpalatable to Selig—that saw Dodger money going toward twin beach houses in Malibu and another pair in Holmby Hills, and dragged one of baseball's marquee franchises into a financial La Brea tar pit.

"Given the magnitude of the transaction," Selig said in a statement, "such a diversion of assets would have the effect of mortgaging the future of the franchise to the long-term detriment of the club and its fans."

Selig's actions nullified the McCourt's divorce settlement and left up in the air, among other things, whether or not Jamie McCourt is a co-owner of the team. Frank McCourt is now expected to sue the commissioner—a direct violation of the contract he signed when he bought the team—and might end up in bankruptcy court as well as divorce court. Another question mark is whether MLB could seize the team and put it up for sale if McCourt fails to make its June 30 payroll. Lawyers for McCourt claim that because of the way all the assets were structured, L.A.'s least popular sports owner could retain ownership of Dodger Stadium and related assets.

The Dodgers financial situation is so convoluted that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, long interested in adding an MLB franchise to his sports portfolio, told TMZ that he "isn't sure he would be interested in purchasing the Dodgers" because of what McCourt "might have done to the franchise."

An Octogenarian Manager

Choosing Paul the octopus's successor isn't the only octo-news of the week: Following the resignation of manager Edwin Rodriguez, the NL cellar-dwelling Florida Marlins hired 80-year-old Jack McKeon as the team's interim manager. McKeon is now the oldest man to manage in the major leagues since 87-year-old Connie Mack spent his last season with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1950.

McKeon isn't just old; he's old school. MLB is trying to reduce tobacco use; McKeon is seldom without a cigar. He admits he's "not hip with the Twitter or the Facebook" but claims he won't have any problem disciplining the players. "The first thing I did was tell them to leave their egos at the door," McKeon said. "Start changing your work ethic," he told the last-place team. "Be more dedicated to being the best at your profession."

"At 80, he's frankly sharper than half the other people we have working with us," added Marlins President David Samson.

It remains to be seen if McKeon will hang on to manage the team in its $515 million new ballpark, slated to open Mar. 31, 2012. Besides the stadium's signature tropical fish tanks, front and center behind home plate, construction is 72 percent complete and could beat the target opening date. The state-of-the-art building features an 8,300-ton retractable roof, open concourses, 60x40-ft. glass panels revealing the dramatic Miami skyline, and an outside pavilion, as big as three-and-a-half football fields, that will have live music and entertainment and a giant HD video screen.

Samson told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that "more full-season tickets have been sold for next season than in franchise history." All 379 Diamond Club seats "have sold, as have all but 10 of the 39 suites on annual contracts." Whether or not McKeon is able to turn the product on the field around, for Marlins fans, home games next year will have a completely different feel than they now do in 75,192-seat Sun Life Stadium.

Trailing the pack and playing to a mostly empty stadium are two things the Dodgers and the Marlins now have in common.

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