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Kill the Empire

The most dangerous slugger in the major leagues is not Ken Griffey Jr., Larry Walker or Mark McGwire. He is a wrinkled, 67-year-old non-fan named Rupert Murdoch. And it's painfully clear that the ruthless Australian media magnate means to swing the huge bat just put into his hands more like Al Capone than Al Kaline.

Last Thursday, baseball's benighted team owners, never known for a collective backbone in the face of a dilemma, voted 27-2, with one abstention, to approve Murdoch's purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers from the O'Malley family. Nominally, it was the Fox Group, a subsidiary of Murdoch's giant News Corporation, that drove the last nail into the coffin of family ownership. Make no mistake. Murdoch is the Fox Group, and he is the News Corporation. The other owners may not know it yet, but this was a transaction akin to Neville Chamberlain's deal in Munich with you-know-who. Unless Murdoch undergoes a radical and lasting change of heart, he will likely ruin baseball, if not all of pro sports.

Consider. Murdoch has already barged into NFL football, big-league baseball and NHL hockey. He controls the local TV rights to 22 of baseball's 30 teams, including your Colorado Rockies. He also has the local broadcasts of dozens of NBA and NHL teams. Always a free spender, Murdoch now means to turn the Dodgers into a dynasty--that is, a TV audience-builder--through another major escalation of free-agent salaries. That could drive the small-market teams (and even contenders like the Rockies) to noncompetitive despair. And when Murdoch inevitably takes the Dodgers to international broadcast markets, he could be reluctant to play fair and share the revenues with his fellow owners, no matter how greedy they are to get their hands on new millions.

In five years, some sports business and media experts say, Dodgers baseball (maybe all baseball) will vanish from free TV. Wanna watch? Pull up your peanuts and Cracker Jack, pay your ten bucks and tune in. With the Dodgers in his talons and his media empire (scores of newspapers, a movie studio, a publishing house, the Fox network and 22 local TV stations) running amok, Rupert Murdoch will soon be able to decide exactly what sports events Americans watch on television--and how much they pay.

Why feel so sure of this? Why prepare for the demise of the national pastime when it has already withstood crises like the Black Sox scandal, the chicaneries of George Steinbrenner and Wayne Huizenga, and the near-fatal players' strike of 1994?

Because Rupert Murdoch is a villain of a much higher order. Already the most powerful man in American sports, he has the clout of a Third World dictator and, by all accounts, the conscience of a sewer rat--qualities unmitigated by any affection for baseball itself. Fox executives believe he's never even been to a Dodgers game. "He's not a fan of anything but business," one of them concludes.

For Murdoch, baseball is a commodity. It is programming. It is the means to even more power. Ol' Rupe himself calls pro sports the "battering ram" with which he means to drive his entire pay-TV operation. He also has designs (and makes no secret of it) on the Lakers and the Kings, and no one will be surprised if he emerges as a major player in a new Los Angeles NFL franchise.

"He is one mean hombre," the savvy media critic Ken Auletta said on the boob tube the other night. "If [the baseball owners] tangle with that guy, he may kill them. Because he won't play by their rules."

If the owners had taken the trouble to examine Murdoch's bloody track record--the hostile takeovers, the casual betrayals, the taste for destructive mischief, his plan, first revealed last summer, to install Michael Milken (yes, that Michael Milken, the convicted Wall Street swindler) as president of the Dodgers, they might have set aside all their cherished ideals of free-market capitalism. Instead of handing Ol' Rupe the Dodgers, they simply would have burned him at the stake.

That's what the unlikely hero of this tragedy, Murdoch arch-rival Ted Turner, tried to do. The volatile owner of the Atlanta Braves is not the first guy who comes to mind when you think of knights on white horses. But his failed attempt to block Murdoch's purchase of the Dodgers (for $311 million? $350 million? What does it matter?) was more than a spitting match between billionaires. Turner might be a detestable egotist, but in the business world, Murdoch is akin to a mass murderer. Just ask his former friends the Carrs, whom he ousted from a partnership soon after snaking away their London tabloid News of the World. Or check in with Murdoch's old pal Clay Felker, the founder of New York magazine. When Felker went to Murdoch to help solve publishing problems, Rupe stabbed him in the back and grabbed the magazine for himself.

What chance did ex-Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, baseball's last courtly traditionalist, have in the face of Murdoch's lethal charm?

Inevitably, Ted Turner's coup also failed miserably. Opposition to Murdoch was expected from the Dodgers' National League rivals in San Diego and San Francisco and was rumored to be brewing in the Cincinnati Reds and Houston Astros camps. In the end, only Turner's Braves and the Chicago White Sox, owned by loose cannon Jerry Reinsdorf, voted against the sale. For reasons known only to them, the New York Mets abstained.

Meanwhile, baseball's laughable "acting commissioner," Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, made what might turn out to be the most naive speech in the game's history. "This [the Fox Group] is a company that already has a huge investment in major-league baseball," Selig began, "in terms of both its national contract with us as well as the local contracts. So clearly, we all have the same thing in mind--that is, to do what is in the best interests of the game."

Best interests of the game?
Does Selig know that Rupert Murdoch has never seen the Dodgers play? Has he spaced out the burned Carrs, the scammed Felker and--oh, yes--those unhappy pieces of business involving rugby and golf? Does our man Bud know that in 1994 Murdoch became so incensed by his inability to gobble up the TV rights to Australian rugby that he staged a buying raid on major players, started his own rival league and ignited a brutal civil war in the sport? Does Selig know that Murdoch was the power behind pro golf's failed World Tour, which he tried to launch only because CBS and NBC had a broadcasting lock on the PGA?

Do Bud Selig and the other owners recognize that Rupert Murdoch may also have a partner in Dodgers ownership? That would be TCI chieftain John Malone, the man Al Gore once called "the Darth Vader of cable." In 1995, Murdoch and Malone hooked up in a joint venture called Fox/Liberty Sports, and it remains to be seen whether Malone's Liberty end of the partnership will emerge as a 50/50 claimant in the Dodgers deal.

He hasn't been vetted by the owners. Not that it matters.
In any event, Murdoch now has his $300 million trophy. Just like the FYhrer had Poland. The Walt Disney Company has the Angels and the Mighty Ducks, the Tribune Corporation's got the beleaguered Chicago Cubs, and Time Warner, under Turner's oversight, has the Atlanta Braves and Hawks. Peter O'Malley, a family man who's hung up his spikes, has 300 mil and a lot of nice memories.

When will the aggression subside? How will the ingestion of the country's major sports teams by huge corporate and media conglomerates finally play out on the fields and in the arenas? No one knows. But not even the crowning of Rupert Murdoch, a man almost no one trusts, as the czar of professional sport signals the end. The ink wasn't even dry on the Dodgers sale last week when rumormongers started talking about another blockbuster possibility. George Steinbrenner is now said to be contemplating the sale of the New York Yankees--the only franchise in sports more bejeweled than the Dodgers--to Charles Dolan's Cablevision Systems Corporation, another vertically integrated giant in the incestuous world of media/sports monopolies. The alleged price for Babe Ruth's old club? Five hundred million, give or take a couple of pinstripes.

It's March 26. Do you know where your pitching is?
If you're the Colorado Rockies, better call the cops, hire a private eye and send out a search party. Donny's Kids haven't even gotten out of Tucson yet, and their rarest, most valuable commodity--real, live arm power--is already deep in the hurt locker.

Roger Bailey, who last season became the first Colorado pitcher ever to throw consecutive complete games (he did it twice!), has been placed on the disabled list in the hope that he can work out his mysterious control problems. So far this year, he hasn't been able to find the plate with a fork.

He'll have plenty of company in limbo.
Kevin Ritz, the former number-one starter who suffered a season-ending arm injury last year, remains on the DL, and young John Burke's inflamed ulnar nerve has landed him there, too.

Now it looks like Bruce Ruffin won't make the opening-day roster, either. Like Bailey did this spring, Ruffin suffered through a case of Steve Blass Disease last year, then went down with a sore elbow. Now he's got gout, of all things. His left big toe was the size of a baseball last weekend--larger than the 34-year-old reliever's career prospects at this point.

Can the Rox score thirteen runs per game once they come north? They may have to.