MICKEY RAT

Baseball's problems have grown bigger than Babe Ruth, what with the possibility that the clubs may not step to the plate next year, either. Do you sense a little corporate fright out there? In Kansas City, the Royals have cut general-admission ticket prices by a dollar in an attempt to mollify alienated fans, and they've mailed actual chunks of their old AstroTurf field to prospective season-ticket buyers.

In Oakland, the A's are distributing hundreds of baseballs autographed by manager Tony LaRussa, and the Chicago Cubs are passing out scrip good for $10 worth of merchandise at Wrigley Field. These days, of course, ten bucks will get you two beers at the ballpark--or half a T-shirt. Even the mighty Toronto Blue Jays, winners of the last two World Series (remember the World Series?) are treading lightly amid outrage in the bleachers: The Jays are delaying any effort to sell 1995 tickets until owners and players show some sign of progress.

Yes, baseball still has a major-league crisis on its hands. But at least it no longer has the Mick.

If Mickey Monus, the accused Youngstown, Ohio, scam-meister who was once a primary investor in the Colorado Rockies, were still around the club, you might have to strap your wallet to your leg while using the restroom at Coors Field. And nail down your car in the parking lot.

Public television's Frontline series recently profiled Monus and the notorious Phar-Mor discount-chain scandal, detailing how the company's former president built a 300-store empire on rock-bottom pricing, then, with a group of young accountants in tow, allegedly cooked the books while losses mounted. The game was up after five years, when a wayward travel voucher revealed that Phar-Mor was illegally siphoning funds to the World Basketball League, a tottering Monus plaything.

In the end, Phar-Mor bilked banks, vendors, stockholders and a major New York investment house out of--let's see here--$500 million. Thousands of jobs went up in smoke. Some estimate the fraud and embezzlement scheme actually drained off $1.1 billion, but what's a couple of hundred million here and there when you're playing in this league?

At least two of the Mick's right-hand men got immunity for singing their lungs out. Another, former Phar-Mor chief financial officer Pat Finn, is doing 33 months in federal prison. The PBS show, which aired here November 29, billed itself as a "modern morality play" and focused on Monus's high-rolling caroms between Palm Beach and Las Vegas, the physical fear he sometimes struck into underlings and creditors and his gambler's mentality: "Whenever he loses, he doubles up," one associate says. Even while allegedly blackmailing purveyors to the Phar-Mor stores, he was driven by the belief that he could pull out a big win in the late innings of any crisis.

Maybe he can. In sunny Cleveland last June, Monus's federal fraud trial ended in a hung jury (11-1 in favor of conviction), which promptly stirred an investigation into possible jury tampering. The retrial is scheduled to begin February 27.

In the meantime, Monus hasn't exactly been sitting around watching SportsCenter on the tube. Frontline made no mention of it (or of his connection with the Rockies), but this fall the big fella hauled the Rockies into U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Youngstown, claiming that he was jobbed by the ball club when, in the midst of the Phar-Mor mess, he sold his original 10 percent share in the team back to its new owners in 1992. While the Rockies, the most successful expansion franchise in baseball history, poor-mouthed themselves in court, Monus demanded "fair value" on his original investment--meaning one helluva profit from all those fannies in the seats.

Judge William Bohon is still sifting through the evidence. His decision may not be handed down for a month or more.

During the month-long Youngstown proceedings, Monus argued that he was technically bankrupt when he sold out to Jerry McMorris and company. Bizarre details about Monus's use of disabling prescription drugs came into evidence, along with the startling revelation that when Monus and former partner John Antonucci had to pull out, the Rockies franchise nearly collapsed in the summer of 1992, long before the first rookie ever laced up his spikes in Tucson.

Apparently, baseball fans in places like Buffalo and St. Pete never knew how close they came to inheriting Denver's National League dream.

Will Monus be reinstated as a Rockies owner? Pretty unlikely. Will Judge Bohon decide that the club owes him money? Maybe. But the Mick is unlikely to see a dime of it. He's charged with 123 counts of fraud and embezzlement, and if convicted on all of them could be sentenced to more than 1,700 years in jail and fined $36 million.

The Frontline piece--produced by Jim Gilmore, Paul Judge and Paul Solman--contains all kinds of jaw-slackening revelations about one of the biggest corporate frauds in American history. But absurdity can sometimes be the capstone of drama. My favorite moment in the hour came when the scantily clad Phar-Mor Girls, the traveling cheerleader squad Mickey Monus dreamed up in his heyday, hailed the conquering hero in his hometown with this jaunty rock lyric:

"Mickey, Mickey, you're so fine...Your success just blows our mind!"
Right. Ours, too.

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