Thrusday, December 24, 1998

Get in the spirit, Marge; sell the team




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

schott
Marge Schott
        Jon Ledecky must mean business. He is offering cash money for Marge Schott's stake in the Cincinnati Reds, and enough of it to make heads turn like Linda Blair's in The Exorcist.

        Fifty-five million dollars won't buy a premium pitcher in the madness that is modern baseball, but it ought to be enough to make Marvelous Marge more serious about selling.

        Her purported asking price ($78 million) is substantially higher, and covers only 5.5 of her 6.5 shares instead of the whole package, but Schott's window of opportunity is not all that wide. If she does not start haggling soon, she will lose the leverage of negotiating as the Reds' controlling interest.

        With the Reds partnership agreement due to expire at the end of 2000, Schott's power is petering out. Whether she sells some of her shares or stands pat, she is destined to eventually regain the obscurity she so richly deserves, and become a minority owner with more investment than influence.

Clinging to team
        Yet rather than make a dignified exit on her own terms, Marge Schott continues to cling to her ballclub as baseball seeks to script her farewell scene. Despite her modified suspension and continuing pressure from Major League Baseball, sources close to the situation suggest she is no nearer surrender than is the shameless occupant of the Oval Office. Marge Schott has nothing to lose that means more to her than losing the Reds.

        So long as she owns the home team, Schott will be somebody in this town. She will continue to get her picture in the paper, face time on local television, and cloying questions from Norma Rashid. Without the ballclub, she drops from the A-list to irrelevance.

        Marge Schott has reveled in her role with the Reds, even after the attention it brought exposed her unenlightened views and mean-spirited management style. She likes being courted as a person of power, and she continues to love the limelight, though the glare has grown progressively harsh.

        Her holdout, clearly, is more about ego than economics. Schott already has more money than she will ever spend, and no obvious heirs to inherit her fortune. In most business transactions, it is the profit motive that prevails. Marge is a more complicated customer.

        Hence Ledecky's offer will likely be rejected rather than realistically countered, and baseball will probably continue to extend both Schott's exile and her sale deadline. So long as the feeble Commissioner Bud Selig fails to force the issue, Schott can be counted on to exploit baseball's indecision.

Waiting for stadium
        “I think she'll drag this out as long as she can,” one Reds source said Wednesday. “She thinks once they break ground on the stadium, her shares are worth more.”

        Absent a tangible offer for Schott's interests, Selig was poorly positioned to demand a sale. Ledecky's bid, if nothing else, puts the process in a clearer context. If should serve to smoke out other potential buyers and help establish a market price for the ballclub. If Schott continues to drag her feet after competitive bidding, Selig might then have recourse to put her feet to the fire.

        Whether Selig is prepared to use his power under the best-interests-of-baseball umbrella, though, is doubtful. Much as Selig might want to move Marge out, he is terminally timid and ordering owners about remains a delicate and dangerous matter. (See Davis, Al).

        “Baseball,” the Reds source said, “is stark, raving afraid of litigation.”

        So we are left with this agonizing impasse, with Schott having agreed to sell but demonstrating no desire to get a deal done, with Selig rattling sabres he has shown no willingness to wield, with the Reds aching for a progressive owner who could add fun and funding to a franchise in prologed atrophy. Someone, perhaps, like Jon Ledecky.

        When Marge Schott gained control of the Reds, during the Orwellian December of 1984, she called it her “Christmas present” to Cincinnati. If her holiday spirit can be rekindled, “goodbye” would make a nice gift.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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