By Diane M. Grassi
Back in 1989, it was but a no-brainer for George W. Bush to inject himself into the proposed purchase of the then flailing Major League Baseball (MLB) Texas Rangers. His goals in mind were to propel himself into the governor’s mansion in Austin, TX and eventually to the presidency of the United States, while even making a little bit of cash along the way. And he succeeded on all fronts.
And just a dozen years after the sale of the Rangers by Bush and his investors in 1998, the Texas Rangers organization is again immersed in financial wheeling and dealing, with an upside down ledger. For its expected imminent sale by owner, Thomas O. Hicks, has been met by a major snag from both his creditors and Major League Baseball (MLB), which has injected itself into the middle, with its purported takeover of the Rangers in the very near future.
Should MLB proceed to seize the club, it could be facing an involuntary bankruptcy by creditors, and tied up in court indefinitely while owners of MLB’s 29 other clubs incur the cost of operations of the Rangers. But that prospect does not seem to deter MLB commissioner, Bud Allen Selig, as he believes that MLB’s taking control of the Rangers will offset any bankruptcy proceedings; but another gamble.
But in order to fully appreciate the present predicament of a franchise that has mightily underachieved since arriving in Texas in 1972, from Washington as the Senators, and reaching the post-season only 3 times since, it is worth retracing some highlights of how the Rangers wound up in such a mess.
George W. Bush, with the help of then-commissioner of MLB, Peter Ueberroth, gathered a group of wealthy Texas investors who had political and business connections to his father, then-president of the U.S., George H.W. Bush. In 1989, George W. Bush initially invested his $106,302.00 for a 1.8% stake in the club and later took out a $500,000.00 loan to up his ante to a total of $606,302.00, increasing his interest to 11.8% in the Rangers. While the club eventually sold in 1998 for $250 million, Bush and his investors’ purchase price was a cool $25 million.
In short order, plans for a new stadium were under way, financed completely by Arlington taxpayers, including a surcharge on game tickets and state tax exemptions, totaling over $200 million. And all profits went directly back to the owners. Of note, however, this model of commandeering stadium construction on the backs of taxpayers has been replicated over and over again both before and since, throughout cities across the U.S., with no greater beneficiary of such corporate profiteering than the New York Yankees.
By the time the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington was opened in 1994, George W. Bush was nearly governor of Texas, as he put his assets into a blind trust, with his interest in the Rangers being the exception.
The upshot being that for his original $606,302.00 investment, George W. Bush got a 25-fold return on his original investment, clearing a $15 million profit. And such got him the capital and gravitas he curried for his run to the White House.
Enter billionaire, Tom Hicks, co-founder and CEO of Hicks, Muse, Tate & First, Inc. from 1989 to 2004, a nationally prominent private equity firm specializing in leveraged acquisitions, including multi-media broadcast entities, banks and real estate. And it was the Hicks Sports Group, LLC of HMTF that purchased the Texas Rangers Baseball Club in 1998 for that $250 million.
Hicks also purchased the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Dallas Stars Hockey Club in 1996, which went on to win a Stanley Cup Championship in 1999. Since then Hicks has been noted for his controversial purchase of a 50% interest in the Liverpool Football Club, an English Premiership League team known as “Britain’s Most Successful Football Club”, purchased in 2007 and much to the dismay of British fans.
Similarly to the Rangers, Hick’s is selling his interest in these other franchises as well. He wants double the price he paid for the Liverpool club and is currently working with NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman, on the sale of the Stars.
But the sale of the Rangers has proven to be far dicier. Bud Selig and MLB have far more to worry about, however, than Tom Hicks at this point, as MLB is now the intermediary in the ongoing negotiations with prospective buyers of as well as the Texas Rangers’ creditors. But a $525 million loan default, threats of court decisions from potential litigation, bankruptcy and the future fiscal health of the team that includes keeping it afloat, will rest with MLB.
What’s next? MLB taking over the Los Angeles Dodgers, while its owners, Frank and Jamie McCourt duke out their divorce decree?
Yet, MLB makes no apology for its policy of sequestering its own books from both the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) and the public-at-large. For MLB to hold itself in higher regard than Tom Hicks, an evident capitalist who pushed the envelope only as far as his creditors would allow, and at the time with the blessings of MLB, is but the height of arrogance.
However, MLB has invoked its “not in the best interests of baseball” rule, by virtue of the commissioner’s charter, as reason to interfere with the proposed sale of the Texas Rangers. And in that effort, it is willing to accept the least lucrative bid made for the club’s purchase. MLB is determined to guarantee that the Greenberg-Ryan Investment Group which includes Rangers’ president, Nolan Ryan, will ultimately become the eventual owner, in spite of two legitimate and higher bids that were made.
But the “not in the best interests of baseball” rule is a reach at best, given the challenges that MLB will embark upon such as with Monarch Alternative Capital, which has a 57% interest in the Rangers’ debt along with 40 other creditors’ liens against the Rangers, that includes the CIT Group, Inc. They want to make good on the sale of the team in order to recoup their losses and have no fear of tying up the sale in court no matter how long it takes.
And it is there that the rub begins for Bud Selig, who himself appropriated more than $25 million in MLB loans to the Rangers in 2009, $16 million of which went to salaries alone, to keep the Rangers going until June 2010. And since 2009, MLB has embedded itself in Rangers’ management decisions. For example, 1st-round 2009 draft pick, starting pitcher Matt Purke, declined the Rangers’ market value offer and opted to attend Texas Christian University instead, as it was reported that MLB would not permit the Rangers to tender an offer to him for more than the minimum ‘slot system’ specifies, in order to sign him.
If there is no resolution by creditors or a closing date set for the sale of the team soon, this June too could put salaries and bonuses for MLB draftees as well as projected trades for the July 31st trade deadline in jeopardy, as well as put the future of the Texas Rangers franchise in peril for years to come.
MLB and Bud Selig calling all of the shots by fiat presents a clear conflict of interest in terms of the free marketplace. And clearly this is but a bailout by MLB with ramifications similar to those of the U.S. federal government in bailing out financial institutions, car manufacturers and insurance companies. Not only does the government incur a financial stake in these companies but is but purchasing the right to dictate corporate policy. And MLB is no different in that regard in this case.
Yet, on its face, the intricacies are more far reaching than MLB’s takeover of the then Montreal Expos in 2004, now the Washington Nationals. In this matter, after the layers are peeled back, we can see that the “not in the best interests of baseball” rule does not necessarily include taking on Wall Street brokerages, the multi-national banking industry and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, all the while showing favoritism towards a specific group that wishes to purchase the team.
Volumes have thus far been written over the past year concerning an over-leveraged Tom Hicks. Yet, the same can be said of the entire U.S. economy and its players from Wall Street to Capitol Hill. While that is no excuse for alleged corporate malfeasance, with respect to MLB, cooler heads should prevail. And sometimes that should actually mean that the integrity of the game stands for something other than its bottom line.
In light of the Rangers’ 87-75 2009 win-loss record, far better than in years past, it would be a shame for the hopes and talents of some of its young players to be squandered by reckless decisions on behalf of Bud Selig and MLB. And hopefully, the remaining MLB owners will weigh in and fall on the side of common sense. Stay tuned.
Copyright ©2010 Diane M. Grassi