A group led by L.A. businessman Raj Bhathal has "emerged as a top candidate to purchase" the Hornets, according to sources cited by Jimmy Smith of the New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE. The group includes Saints Owner Tom Benson's brother Larry and former NBA coach Mike Dunleavy. Former Hornets minority Owner Gary Chouest is "heading another group interested in buying the team." Bhathal and Benson each "once owned franchises in the now defunct World League of American Football." Dunleavy has been the California group’s "front man in the initial negotiations," and sources said Thursday that the L.A.-based consortium has been "given exclusive rights to negotiate a purchase." Bhathal, along with his wife Marta, "founded Raj Manufacturing in the late 1960s in Tustin, Calif." Bhathal and Larry Benson are "longtime friends, but it’s unclear whether they have any current business ties." A source said Thursday that Tom Benson, "who sources said also put in a bid for the Hornets, has walked away from the process." Larry Benson has "no involvement with brother Tom’s NFL franchise," and sources said that his bid for the Hornets "was separate from Tom’s." Smith notes it is "possible the California group could eventually include local investors." New Orleans attorney Morris Bart has said that he would "be willing to acquire a" 10% share in the team (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 2/24).
L.A. developer Rick Caruso and former Dodgers manager Joe Torre “have withdrawn a joint bid to buy the Dodgers,” according to Bill Shaikin of the L.A. TIMES. Caruso and Torre in a letter to MLB last Friday cited outgoing Owner Frank McCourt's “refusal to include the Dodger Stadium parking lots in the sale.” Sources said that Caruso and Torre “would reenter the bidding if McCourt would agree to sell the parking lots.” McCourt has told people that he has “at least one bid in which the buyer would let him retain ownership of the parking lots.” Caruso and other bidders “thought the purchase of the lots would be negotiable.” But sources said that McCourt in a recent meeting with Caruso said that he “intends to keep the lots and develop them.” McCourt and his advisors “think the Dodgers can sell for at least $1.5 billion, even without the land.” But a source said that “at least one bid group discounted its offer by more than $300 million to account for the exclusion of the land.” Nine bidders “are thought to still be involved” (L.A. TIMES, 2/24). ESPN L.A. wrote the Caruso-Torre bid “has been considered one of the favorites, pairing a real estate developer with a former Dodgers manager who quit his job with MLB to join the chase for the team.” The refined bids “were due Thursday, after the groups had submitted documentation” to the league. McCourt's financial adviser, Blackstone Group, “must decide whether to drop any additional bidders before interviews are scheduled with baseball's ownership committee” (ESPNLA.com, 2/23).
NO CLEAN BREAK: ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne wrote Caruso and Torre “just reminded everyone of how dangerous it is to underestimate McCourt's avarice.” The “specter of a new ownership group that is in any way beholden or in business with McCourt is chilling.” With his “penchant for litigation and troublesome history with major league baseball and the city's fanbase, McCourt isn't a guy any good businessman would want to be in business with.” It has “always been assumed that the parking lots were negotiable,” and that is “still the assumption among many of the remaining groups.” A source said that there “haven't been serious negotiations for the parking lots yet.” Even if Caruso and Torre’s bid “wasn't going to be competitive,” the issue raised by Caruso's letter to MLB “is valid and no less troubling: There might not be a clean break from McCourt after all” (ESPN.com, 2/23).
Pirates President Frank Coonelly "issued an apology Thursday for his arrest in December for drunken driving," according to Bill Brink of the PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE. Allegheny County court records revealed that Coonelly was arrested Dec. 22 and "charged with driving under the influence, driving with a suspended or revoked license, driving the wrong way and careless driving." Coonelly said in a statement, "My actions that evening were irresponsible and wrong." Robert Del Greco, Coonelly's attorney, said that his client "plans to enter the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, which allows first-time offenders to avoid a trial and have their charges dismissed if they complete certain requirements." Del Greco added that Coonelly's license "will be suspended and he will attend alcohol educations classes in addition to working with a counselor" (PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, 2/24). Pirates Owner Bob Nutting said that he "was thankful that nobody was injured and expressed support for Coonelly." Nutting: "Frank called me immediately to apologize for the mistake he had made. I expressed my extreme disappointment in his actions" (PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW, 2/24). In Pittsburgh, Dejan Kovacevic notes, "No punishment for Coonelly is forthcoming from Major League Baseball, and it doesn't sound like any will come from Nutting, either" (PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW, 2/24).
COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION: In Pittsburgh, Bob Smizik writes, "If Frank Coonelly has not been fired for gross incompetence, it’s not likely he will be fired for drunk driving and embarrassing the organization that employs him." Coonelly "gives new meaning to Teflon," as "nothing sticks" to him. Smizik: "Not incomprehensibly bad business decisions. Not publicly lying about personnel issues. Not a long series of embarrassing public gaffes/blunders." But "no organization is immune from the court of public opinion" (POST-GAZETTE.com, 2/24).
Massachusetts Inspector General Gregory Sullivan in a letter last week said that the city of Boston “should demand significantly more money from the Red Sox on game days, when the team closes a public street, Yawkey Way, and turns it over to beer vendors and sausage sellers.” Sullivan also said that the city “should seek a better deal with the ball club for the lucrative seats atop the Green Monster.” He “urged city officials to determine how much money the Red Sox have made using public property since 2003, when the team signed a relatively low-cost lease for the streets.” He added that the city “should negotiate a better deal” (BOSTON GLOBE, 2/24).
TO BE CONTINUED: In N.Y., Richard Sandomir reported U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff on Thursday said that he “would rule by March 5 on motions that could alter the face of the lawsuit against the owners of the Mets filed by the trustee" for Bernard Madoff’s victims. Rakoff heard “more than two hours of oral arguments by both sides before deferring his decision.” His only ruling was “to toss out the trustee’s two expert witnesses and the one offered by the Mets’ owners, John Maine.” A jury trial “is scheduled to begin on March 19” (NYTIMES.com, 2/23). ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian said, “The Mets are kind of stuck in neutral until the whole Bernie Madoff mess is resolved” ("Baseball Tonight," ESPN, 2/23).
FOR THE GOOD OF ALL: Baseball writer Murray Chass wrote commissioners “often talk about and make decisions based on the best interests of baseball,” and allowing the A’s to move to San Jose “would clearly be in the best interests of baseball.” The team is “dying in Oakland.” The A’s last season had “the smallest attendance in the majors, failing to reach 1.5 million.” The team also has “the most meager revenue in the majors; the Giants rank fifth.” Chass: “Would taking San Jose and its entire county, Santa Clara, from the Giants undermine those numbers? That’s what the Giants claim, but it’s an empty argument” (MURRAYCHASS.com, 2/23).
MAN ALIVE: With Angels 1B Albert Pujols saying he was not consulted on the team's use of the term "El Hombre" in conjunction with a billboard marketing campaign centered around him, ESPN's Dan Le Batard said, “This is not a good start to the business relationship." Le Batard: "You’re going to need this guy in the future to do things for you that he may not want to do. You want to start on the right foot here. You want to consult with him in his marketing. I understand, you pay him that way, you can market with him the way that you want. But you ought to, out of deference to him (in) a 10-year relationship you’ve started, start better than this” (“Dan Le Batard Is Highly Questionable,” ESPN2, 2/23). But L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke said the team is “paying him $240 million, and they have the right to try to recoup their investment anyway they can" ("Around The Horn," ESPN, 2/23).
NOT NORMAL: In Dallas, Evan Grant notes Rangers P Yu Darvish’s first full day of workouts started with “a 30-minute news conference attended by nearly 200 members of the media who had tracked his every move from the moment he arrived at the Surprise Stadium on Thursday.” Darvish said through an interpreter, “This definitely is not normal. Even now, I’m not really used to it and I’m not sure I get it.” Grant: “What’s the Japanese phrase for three-ring circus?” (DALLAS MORNING NEWS, 2/24).