Why John Henry and Tom Werner Won the Sox

Two days after the end of the most exciting World Series in years, Commissioner Bud Selig destroyed all the goodwill the Series had produced by announcing that two of MLB's thirty teams wouldn't live to see the 2002 season. Contraction didn't happen, but the new owners of the Red Sox owe their purchase to Selig's scheme.

When contraction was first proposed, a major obstacle was the shortage of owners willing to get out of baseball. Disney would sell the Angels, but only to someone who would keep the club in Anaheim. Montreal was the most obvious target, but owner Jeffrey Loria was determined to operate a baseball team. So was John Henry in Florida. No one would miss the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but they were locked into a long-term lease and played in a state whose courts were already hostile to MLB's antitrust exemption.

Then Carl Pohlad came to Selig's rescue. Pohlad, MLB's wealthiest non-corporate owner, was frustrated that the taxpayers of Minnesota wouldn't build him a new stadium. If Selig needed another team to contract, he could have the Twins – for a sizable premium over their market value, of course.

But three problems remained. The Twins had to break their stadium lease, Jeffrey Loria needed another team, and the Players' Association had to be steamrollered into allowing MLB to eliminate teams. Only one of those three problems could be solved...and that solution involved rigging the sale of the Red Sox.

The group which ultimately won the Sox was originally headed by Les Otten and TV producer Tom Werner. Werner used to own the San Diego Padres...like Harry Frazee used to own the Red Sox. In the four years after Werner bought the club, Padres' attendance fell 30%. The last straw came in 1993, when Werner slashed the club's payroll more than 50% in midseason by trading Gary Sheffield, Fred McGriff and almost every other veteran not named Tony Gwynn.

By late November Werner's bid had been joined by The New York Times Company, which wanted NESN more than the Sox, and by former Senator George Mitchell. Mitchell, a prominent candidate for Commissioner before Selig staked his lifetime claim to the job, had served on the "Blue Ribbon Economic Panel" which lamented how the dominance of large-market teams was ruining competitive balance. Red Sox fans can be forgiven a bitter chuckle at that thought.

But Mitchell didn't bring enough money to the table. With other bidders including Charles Dolan of Cablevision and syndicates headed by Miles Prentice and Joseph O'Donnell, and John Harrington obligated to sell control of the Sox to the highest bidder, Werner and Otten needed more support.

It was time for Commissioner Selig's game of musical franchises. Enter Florida Marlins owner John Henry.

When Henry bought the Marlins in 1998, he inherited the terrible stadium lease former owner Wayne Huizenga had "negotiated" with himself for the Marlins. Henry vowed to build a new park with his own money if necessary...but within a year or two he was saying, "Well, I'll use my own funds if I must, but if I do there won't be any money left to sign players, so can't the taxpayers spare a few hundred million?" Keep listening for the first notes of that tune drifting over the Common.

Behind the scenes, Selig arranged a three-way franchise swap. Henry would swap the Marlins for the Red Sox; Jeffrey Loria would swap the Expos for the Marlins; and MLB itself would buy and operate the Expos until the club could be contracted or re-sold at a huge profit to Washington, D.C. interests. The scheme still hinged on Henry's group winning the auction for the Red Sox...but with Selig's buddy John Harrington handling the sale, that was easily arranged.

Attorney General Thomas Reilly minced no words in describing what happened. "Major League Baseball was calling the shots here." he declared after a meeting with Harrington. "This was a bag job," he proclaimed after another week of meetings. "It's very clear from this process there were no rules. The rules were changed hour by hour, bidder by bidder."

Harrington held the auction open until the Henry/Werner group had matched the best offer then on the table, then declared it over, refusing to consider bids of $90 million more from Dolan and the Prentice group. Harrington, who by law was required to obtain the best price for the Yawkey Trust, justified his decision by explaining that the Henry/Werner group had the best chance of winning approval from the other owners.

It was a simple but effective scheme. Just decide in advance who was to win the auction, then rush the Designated Winners through MLB's approval process and use their head start as an excuse to reject clearly superior bids. To placate Attorney General Reilly, Harrington and the Henry/Werner group agreed to give the Yawkey Trust another $30 million -- a small price to pay for subverting the auction process and keeping the Sox in hands friendly to Selig.

But what's good for Selig is by no means good for the Sox or their followers. If the revenue sharing formula and luxury tax contained in the owners' current labor proposal had been in effect last year, they would have cost the Sox more than $35 million. That's the difference between having the money for a new stadium and being unable to afford more than a new paint job for Fenway. Is this what New England has to look forward to in the Henry/Werner era?

The battle for the Red Sox raises another issue: why anyone would pay $700 million for a franchise which, according to MLB, lost $13,675,000 last year. Next month I'll discuss MLB's ludicrous "losses."

Copyright © 2002 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the April 2002 issue of Boston Baseball.

Back to Doug's Boston Baseball column index

Back to Doug's Business of Baseball menu

To roadsidephotos.sabr.org main menu