Sunday, March 07, 1999

Look for 'limiteds' to block Dolan




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        This is not a trusting town. Outsiders are automatically suspect. Insiders are invariably tight-knit and tighter-fisted.

        If Professor Harold Hill had happened on this river city, he would have been hard-pressed to sell a brass doorknob, much less a brass band. He'd have trouble, my friend.

        Larry Dolan can't say he wasn't warned.

        The Cleveland attorney who is attempting to buy controlling interest in the Cincinnati Reds comes to town a presumed carpetbagger. No matter how sincere his interest and how cold and hard his cash, Dolan is likely to be grilled as if he were a biker who dared ask your daughter to a dance.

        Maybe he and his sons pass muster. But the color of your money is only one consideration for those who covet baseball's oldest professional ballclub. Dolan's prospective partners will want to know if his intentions are honorable — whether he's committed to keeping the team in town and staunchly opposed to the designated hitter. Even if he answers correctly, they might still say no.

        Only in Cincinnati. Everywhere else in the sports world, franchises change hands through traditional business practices. A team is put up for sale, and the highest bidder gets the ballclub.

        Here, there are additional hoops. The same limited partners who agreed to grant Marge Schott absolute autonomy in 1984 have been chafing under her leadership now for 14 years. Yet the same document that rendered them powerless to influence policy empowers them to veto any transfer of power. They retain the right to match any outside offer for shares in the ballclub, a right they have already invoked. Thus the $65 million question surrounding Monday's partnership meeting: to pounce or to pass.

Don't mess with Lindner
        Money would not seem the main concern here. The limiteds have more than enough means to match Dolan's bid. Carl Lindner could probably pay for the Reds out of petty cash. Louise Nippert, whose family fortune can be traced to both the Procters and the Gambles, may be worth as much as a billion dollars. The Gannett Company, which owns The Enquirer and a share of the Reds, reported net income of $257 million in its last quarter.

        “You don't want to play poker with Carl Lindner and Mrs. Nippert,” one Reds source said. “Not unless you have a limit on raises.”

        True to form, the Lindner-led limiteds are maintaining a poker face through these proceedings. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig confessed last week that he didn't know what the limiteds were going to do.

        One source says Lindner is tight with the Dolans and has embraced their bid for the ballclub. Another source says Lindner's heirs have shown renewed interest in owning the ballclub. Another source paints a scenario involving Bill DeWitt, the Cincinnati-based owner of the St. Louis Cardinals. DeWitt says he has been asked about his interest in selling the Cardinals to buy the Reds “a hundred times,” and his answer has always been no.

It's a Cleveland thing
        “I would expect the limiteds will find a way to maintain control,” one baseball owner observed.

        Same here. Just as Romans are rankled that the Mona Lisa hangs in the Louvre, native Cincinnatians are leery of letting their civic treasures be owned by Cleveland interests. (If it weren't for Cleveland interests, the Cincinnati Bengals would not exist. But perhaps that's a poor selling point).

        When Washington entrepreneur Jon Ledecky attempted to buy the share of the Reds that belonged to Frisch's Restaurants, and expressed interest in acquiring a larger stake, he sought suggestions on how best to proceed. He was told the first thing to do was to come to town and kiss Lindner's ring. Ledecky did so, but the limiteds still elected to exclude him.

        Ultimately, the group is going to have to admit some new blood. Lindner turns 80 next month. Some thought should be given to succession.

        Larry Dolan and sons have a plan. The limiteds, however, have all the leverage.

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

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE