There’s something more than a little intriguing about Mark Cuban owning the Chicago Cubs. There is certainly that fact that Cuban has done what seemed nearly impossible in a city dominated by the Cowboys: he’s made the NBA Dallas Mavericks into one of the NBA’s most valuable franchises, while lavishing incredible amounts of revenue on player payroll (Forbes ranks the Mavericks #6 for the 2006-2007 season at $461 million, a 1% decrease in value from the year prior. Forbes shows the Mavericks running at $1.6 million in operating loss due to the high player payroll. The Mavs have ranked as high a 3rd recently, and from 1998 to 2002 alone increased in value more than any other franchise at 155.5%).
And, while he may be running at a loss with the Mavericks, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to his net worth. The former MicroSolutions and Audionet/Broadcast.com owner, he rode the dot-com boom into a personal value of $2.8 billion, ranking him the #133 richest man in the world.
And, there’s the other side of Cuban. The side that fans adore, and as we’ll outline, makes MLB wince.
He’s a cheerleader. An impassioned owner who wears his emotions like his sweat-dripping tee-shirts to Mavericks games. He’s been fined by the NBA more than once, has his own blog where he dispatches opinion unfiltered, and in a case where he was fined $500,000 for his criticism of NBA officials, when he said the league's director of officials Ed Rush "might have been a great ref, but I wouldn't hire him to manage a Dairy Queen", he made good on an apology for anyone that worked for DQ by pulling a shift himself.
Yes, Mark Cuban is colorful, rich, and has an interest in purchasing the Chicago Cubs.
It is this latter item that has fans in The Friendly Confines intrigued. Cuban has said that if he owned the team he would sit in the bleachers with the fans; a champion of the people.
And what may be colorful and intriguing for fans, is exactly what those that run Major League Baseball would like to make sure to avoid.
For what is great for fandom is a distraction for Commissioner Selig and 29 other owners. Bud, and several other owners have been around long enough to see what happened with a wild Ted Turner doing things like actually managing the Braves (he is the last owner to have been allowed to do so), place his TV station number on Andy Messesmith’s jersey, and loudly pronounce that he would spend as much as it would take to get Gary Matthews before his free agency period (Turner threw a "Welcome to Atlanta" party for Matthews, which threw then commissioner Bowie Kuhn into high gear. For his public comments, Kuhn suspended Turner for one year, stripping him of all authority to manage the Braves or negotiate with other major league teams).
And, there is certainly the memory of Charlie Finley, whose bumbling created a feeding frenzy over Jim “Catfish” Hunter when he was deemed to be a free agent before the MLBPA broke the reserve clause. And, one can’t forget – at least if you’re an owner – Finley’s attempt to move three players for $3.5 million: Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox for $2 million and Vida Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million. Deals that Kuhn voided. Both Turner and Finley sued over their matters claiming that Kuhn had overstepped his executive authority as Commissioner.
In other words, it’s easy for the owners to recall the days of chasing their tails while trying to keep certain colorful owners in line, which distracted them from moving management forward and keep the players at bay.
And, one wonders why MLB would not wish to go back to those days? One wonders why MLB would not want Cuban as part of the ownership brethren?
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Back to Cuban, there’s a slight problem for MLB: they don’t own the Cubs, Sam Zell does, and he’s interested in making as much as possible on the deal, and can you blame him?
So, while MLB may not want Cuban as part of their Lodge, what if Cuban decides he really is interested in the Cubs, and does some heavy cash-laden deal? How could Zell refuse? How could MLB stop letting the rabble rouser in?
How about a marriage?
Selig has been known to play match-maker. One need only look to 2006 to see his handy work (although, he said publicly he had nothing to do with the partnership).
The ownership of the Washington Nationals is the perfect template for what MLB will almost certainly do with the Cubs sale. While Cuban, on his own, could make a cash offer that would be challenging for each of the bidders individually to pull off, if Selig were to take front-runner (at least in MLB’s mind), John Canning, Jr. and move another bidder in as a minority owner along with Canning, you could compete with Cuban who most likely will fly solo in his efforts.
This was what happened when Stan Kasten’s group was married up with the Lerner family, which resulted in the sale of the Expos/Nationals. In that instance, it wasn’t an attempt to placate a private owner, but rather MLB working to sooth relationships with DC politicians that wanted to make sure and have a local ownership group, while MLB wanted someone with a solid background in how to run a team, which Kasten had in spades. After all, he is, to date, the only sports executive to simultaneously hold the position of President with three franchises (Atlanta Braves, Hawks, and Thrashers).
So, speaking theoretically (I have not heard any particulars on who might be partnered with Canning, just that the idea of partnering a bidder with Canning is being discussed), you could place the Ricketts family with Canning’s group, and be able to comfortably bid for the Cubs, should Cuban decide to play high-stakes poker.
It’s all part of MLB’s current CEO model, with Selig holding the role of Chairman, and a group of owners all cut pretty much from the same cloth. There is little, if any, distractions, and it is now the players dealing with the distractions (thank you, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds). That has allowed MLB to work in lockstep on issues, and work business matters like a well-oiled machine.
Throwing Cuban into the mix would make for great ink, and fans would trumpet their applause. At the same time, the owners might all play the part of Selig watching the Bonds homerun chase. They might watch the proceedings with Cuban, but instead of applauding, place their hands in the pockets. There's little doubt that while Cuban can bid for the Cubs, MLB will be working to make sure that he bids, but does not own.