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Red Sox' Werner is new surprise contender in MLB commissioner race

Red Sox' Werner is new surprise contender in MLB commissioner race Photo: Getty Images

The identity of the next Major League Baseball commissioner could be revealed as soon as next Thursday. That is when the 30 team owners are scheduled to vote on the three finalists offered up by the succession committee formed by outgoing commissioner Bud Selig in May. Those finalists, as reported by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale on Tuesday, are MLB’s Chief Operating Officer Rob Manfred, MLB’s Executive Vice President of Business Tim Brosnan, and Red Sox chairman Tom Werner. To be elected, a candidate must receive 75 percent of the vote; that is, the support of at least 23 teams. If no candidate is elected on August 14, subsequent votes will be held until a candidate reaches the 23-vote threshold.

Conforming to my expectations from May, all three candidates are veteran baseball executives under the age of 65. When I compiled a list of five likely candidates then, both Manfred and Brosnan were on my list. Werner’s presence among the three finalists, however, comes as a surprise to many, though he fits a very similar profile to the other two candidates. Beyond the fact that all three are white males between the ages of 55 and 65, both Manfred and Brosnan have law degrees (Manfred from Harvard, Brosnan from Fordham), both Manfred and Werner graduated from Harvard (Werner with a B.A. in English), and all three initiated their careers in MLB in the early 1990s.

Manfred, the youngest of the bunch at 55, was outside counsel to the owners during the 1994 strike. Brosnan joined the commissioner’s office as vice president of international business affairs in 1991 and has worked for MLB continuously since. Werner, the oldest at 64, made his fortune producing television sitcoms in the 1980s, including Mork & Mindy, The Cosby Show and Roseanne, then headed up a group of investors that bought the San Diego Padres from Joan Kroc in June 1990.

Werner’s time as the Padres’ majority owner was brief and disappointing. The team’s attendance decreased in each of his four seasons at the helm as the team delivered middling third-place finishes in 1991 and ’92. After the 1992 season, claiming they had lost money that year, the Padres began to pare down their roster. In 1993, with attendance down again and the team languishing in sixth place, Werner and his group completed their still-notorious firesale by trading Gary Sheffield in June and Fred McGriff in July (though the Sheffield trade did bring Trevor Hoffman to San Diego). After another attendance drop in 1994 and in the midst of the longest strike in the game’s history, Werner sold the bulk of his share in the team to John Moores that December.

Werner retained a 10-percent share of the Padres after selling to Moore, but was effectively out of baseball for seven years. During that time, Werner’s television production company, with partner Marcy Carsey, continued to churn out hits with 3rd Rock from the Sun and That ‘70s Show, Werner made gossip columns as a result of his friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton and romance with Katie Couric, and in 1996, he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.

Werner returned to baseball in February 2002 as part of the John Henry-led group that purchased the Boston Red Sox, though he kept a lower profile than his two primary partners, principal owner Henry and team president and CEO Larry Lucchino, the latter of whom had been president of the Padres under Moores. The group, dubbed New England Sports Ventures (now Fenway Sports Group), purchased the Premier League’s Liverpool F.C. in 2010. Werner has served as the chairman of both teams since. He did not sell his remaining 10 percent of the Padres until 2007.

Werner’s presence among the three finalists comes a surprise given his relatively low profile in his time with the Red Sox. According to CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, Werner "was said to have made a surprisingly strong presentation before the committee, moving him from extreme long shot to become the main competitor to Manfred." According to The New York Times' Michael Schmidt, Werner was one of three owners to get an interview with the succession committee; Brewers boss Mark Attanasio and the Rays' Stuart Sternberg were also considered.

It doesn’t take much effort to see Werner’s selling points. He has spent more than 15 years as an active executive in MLB, has seen both sides of the game’s have/have-not divide with the Padres and Red Sox, and has had great success in his parallel careers in television and baseball. The Red Sox have won three championships since Werner and Henry bought the team, more than any other team during that span. Beyond besting them on the field, the Red Sox have also established a brand to rival the Yankees’ with reach and recognition beyond baseball fans and outside of the United States. To that success, Werner adds a decades-long career in television, MLB’s primary source of revenue, from which Werner can boast some of the most successful shows of ‘80s and ‘90s, as well as a significant reach and influence within that industry.

All of that has gotten Werner to this stage, but there’s still a general belief that Manfred, Selig’s right-hand man, will ascend to the commissionership. Selig has been careful not to state explicitly that Manfred is his preferred successor, but it’s clear that is the case. According to Heyman, it is believed that as many as 15 teams, half of the league, are already prepared to vote for Manfred, and while there are some known dissenters, led by White Sox owner and long-time Selig pal Jerry Reinsdorf, it remains to be seen if Reinsdorf can convince enough of his colleagues to break ranks to force this process to continue beyond next Thursday.

One curious possibility mentioned by Heyman is that Werner and Brosnan could join forces, pooling their support in opposition to Manfred. Doing so would likely require one of the two to withdraw from the pursuit of the commissionership, perhaps with the understanding that he would then assume a significant role in the new administration, which will take office in January, possibly even as Manfred’s successor as COO. That points to the possibility that Werner may not actually be interested in anything more than an advisory role.

For his part, Werner told the Boston Globe he had no interest in the commissionership just last month and did not say whether or not he would accept the position if elected in a brief conversation with the Globe’s Peter Abraham on Tuesday night, dodging the question with, “I’m not going to answer a hypothetical.”

"A number of owners asked me to consider the position," Werner told Abraham, adding that he was looking forward to making a presentation to all 30 owners next week. “I am not running against Rob Manfred, but to be able to articulate my vision for the future. I have ideas that I believe the owners should hear. That’s why I’m involved in the process."

Another wild card here is the fact that the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Biogenesis investigation entered a new stage on Tuesday with the arrests of 10 people, including Anthony Bosch and Alex Rodriguez’s cousin Yuri Sucart. Manfred was deeply involved with MLB’s own investigation into Biogenesis, and while that’s a feather in his cap to some, it’s a strike against him to others, given some of the questionable tactics MLB used to get the information and cooperation they needed from Bosch. ESPN’s T.J. Quinn reported on Tuesday that the DEA investigation has turned up the names of additional major leaguers who were clients of Bosch, suggesting that there are more revelations to come in the case.

Those things may not come to light in the next eight days, and they may not shed any new light on Manfred’s involvement, but given the twists this scandal has taken over the last 20 months, having it flare back up now doesn’t seem like great timing for Manfred, who otherwise appears to be a shoe-in for the commissionership.

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