Monday, August 4, 2008

Cuban Wants Cubs, but Will Baseball Want Him?

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Mark Cuban, a suitor of the Chicago Cubs, has amassed nearly $1.7 million in fines, mostly for criticizing referees, as owner of the Dallas Mavericks.


Think of it: Mark Cuban as the Chicago Cubs’ owner, bonding with the Bleacher Bums at Wrigley Field, splurging for rounds of Old Style beer and screaming at umpires. The concept is almost Veeckian, as if Bill Veeck, the populist former owner of the Browns, the Indians and the White Sox, had had zillions of dollars.

Buying the Cubs is the latest project for Cuban, the owner of the N.B.A.’s Dallas Mavericks, but he is not alone in the expensive quest. Four other individuals and groups have given the debt-laden Tribune Company nonbinding offers of at least $1 billion for the team, its stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago, and 92-year-old Wrigley Field.

Cuban is reported to be the top bidder, at nearly $1.3 billion, but the auction will begin soon, after the applicants and their bankers delve further into the assets books.

“The Cubs are an amazing franchise and brand,” Cuban wrote in an e-mail message. “I think the owner of any major sports franchise has two jobs: first, it’s to work hard to win a championship year after year, and second, to be the caretaker of the franchise in the community.”

His eight years in basketball as the Mavericks’ owner have shown that there is no one in baseball like him, the closest being George Steinbrenner or Ted Turner as younger men.

Consider the roster of lesser-known buyers of baseball teams in recent years, and it’s obvious that even if Cuban never sits on an important committee, he will stick out, unlike Liberty Media (Braves), Ted Lerner (Nationals), Robert Castellini (Reds), Lew Wolff (Athletics), Mark Attanasio (Brewers), Stuart Sternberg (Rays) and Arte Moreno (Angels).

Cuban is loud, passionate and opinionated. He’s a media creature comfortable on multiple platforms, and he turned the once-comatose Mavericks into a perennial winner (though they have not won it all, just like the Cubbies, at least not since 1908). He has amassed nearly $1.7 million in fines, mostly for criticizing N.B.A. referees. As penance for insulting the chief of referees as incapable of managing a Dairy Queen, he spent a day at the chain serving up a promotional bonanza.

He’s a blogger, a gadfly, a scold and a serial e-mailer. He owns the HDNet channels, one of which employs Dan Rather.

He hosted a short-lived TV series, “The Benefactor,” and got the hook from “Dancing With the Stars” after samba-ing hurt, on a new artificial hip.

All he has done since reviving the Mavericks will inform his baseball dossier, just as baseball will peer into the pasts of his competitors: Thomas Ricketts, chief executive of Incapital, a bond underwriter whose family founded TD Ameritrade; a group that includes Leo Hindery Jr., the former head of the YES Network; Hersch Klaff, a real estate investor; and Michael Tokarz, who runs the MVC Capital investment firm.

Among them, only Hindery has a high profile, but it is nothing like Cuban’s.

And none have had an exchange on radio like the one Cuban had in May on Dan Patrick’s syndicated radio show. Imagine what his rivals or the sitting Major League Baseball owners thought when they heard him respond to Patrick’s line of questioning about whether pursuing the Cubs was like chasing the girl who’s “expensive and you may not have a shot at her.”

Cuban: “If there’s a hooker you want, it all comes down to price, right? And I think that’s a better analogy.”

Patrick: “So the Cubs are your hooker?”

Cuban: “Well, yes, bad choice of words.”

Bob DuPuy, the president of Major League Baseball, would not address the comment but praised Cuban’s Internet and technology expertise. “He’s been outspoken on issues, but we’ve had owners who are outspoken as well,” he said. With his tongue lodged somewhere in his cheek, he said, “I’ve not heard of him referred to as a loudmouth.”

But John Henry, the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox and a Cuban booster, wrote in an e-mail message, “The commissioner’s office abhors owners who speak their minds and fight for the rights of their respective franchises.” He added that he could think “of no one better suited to reverse the fortunes of the Cubs for the long term” than Cuban.

For all his excesses, Cuban, 50, is a successful owner. The Mavericks have averaged 57.3 wins in eight full seasons with him as their courtside benefactor, have reached the playoffs in each of those seasons and lost to Miami in the 2006 finals.

And he has not been fined in two years by N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern.

So it came to pass last week that Stern endorsed Cuban to join M.L.B.’s ranks; the sincere praise for him did not sound anything like a wish for Bud Selig, Stern’s baseball counterpart, to take Cuban off his hands, on a part-time basis.

“He lives in the here and the now,” Stern said. “In every issue we have to deal with, he freely expresses his views to me, some of which I’m happier to hear than others, but all are welcome.” He added, “He would be an effective owner in most businesses.”

In an e-mail message, Cuban wrote that the “biggest surprise to people will be how wrong the press always is in their characterizations of our relationship.”

Stern hesitated when asked if Cuban’s avoidance of fines since 2006 was evidence of a boomer’s mellowing. “His absence of mellow is in some ways his strongest trait,” he said.

The N.B.A. board of governors voted to approve Cuban as an owner in April 2000, but he had been making decisions, and blowing off steam, shortly after announcing his $280 million acquisition from Ross Perot Jr. a few months earlier. Dave Checketts, the president of Madison Square Garden at the time, said Cuban prompted some serious debate.

“Some powerful owners were against him,” said Checketts, the principal owner of the St. Louis Blues, who came to admire Cuban.

“It was the way he presented himself to us in the interview, wearing jeans and sneakers, and turning his nose up and acting like he was the smartest guy in the room. He was a smart-aleck kid.”

Checketts said that Russ Granik, who was then the league’s deputy commissioner, stood in opposition. Jerry Colangelo, who owned the Phoenix Suns, said: “Cuban was very outspoken and very opinionated, and we had information from people close to him. Most of what we gathered about him was not public, although today people are very familiar with him.”

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