Wednesday December 26th, 2007

It's that time in sports when Santa gives away superlatives. The best this of the year, the greatest that. However, my favorite award is presented by The Observer, a London newspaper that chooses the World's Oddest Owner in soccer.

The Observer doesn't lack for outstanding choices. This year's winner, for instance, is one Gigi Becali, who owns a team in Romania. Becali has, among other things, already been cited by one group as the single most homophobic person in his country, and he was reported to have commissioned a new copy of da Vinci's Last Supper, with himself as Christ and his players portraying the disciples.

Becali continues a long line of weirdos who have bought soccer teams. The owner of Nuremberg announced flat out that he wanted to blow all of his players' brains out. An owner in Sicily threatened to cut off his players' testicles and place them in his salad. The owner of the Perugian team signed Muammar al-Khadafi's son to a contract, took the team into bankrupcy, and then fled the country.

As deserving as all these strange men are, it is a shame that The Observer hasn't extended its net to capture American sports owners. Surely George Steinbrenner qualified to be honored in his heyday. Charles O. Finley would have earned the award merely for introducing a mule to baseball, and Al Davis deserves recognition just for his haircut and clothes ---- never mind his legion of ornery disputes. But maybe the method was in their madness. An owner can be odd and a winner. That trio all won championships. Then there was someone like Ted Stepien, who owned the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was such a disaster that the NBA had to institute a league-wide rule; its sole purpose, in reality, to save Stepien from himself. Or save his dreadful team from Stepien.

Owners tend to be a very eclectic lot, although most are usually self-made men, who built up a fortune in some other enterprise and then assumed that it's just as easy to be successful in sport. A few do wisely realize they have no aptitude for this new business and, as Milton had it, "only stand and wait" as they put up the cash. Famously, one asked his general manager what he might do for the franchise.

"You're an owner, Ed," the GM replied. "Own."

Some owners do become intimately involved, but are shrewd enough to know their limits. Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks is such a model. Others simply ruin everything with their meddling. Exhibit A: Peter Angelos, a lawyer with no executive ability who has single-handedly destroyed the Orioles, once a gem of a franchise.

A few teams are still family businesses, but since the value of franchises only goes up, nepotism never pays a price. The football Cardinals may move from Chicago to St. Louis to Phoenix, but they have been owned by the same woeful Bidwell family since 1933, and no matter what the generation or the team's address, they are forever doomed to failure as the Bidwell Cardinals.

Clearly, though, the owner who takes the 2007 cake is James Dolan, who was simply handed the keys to Madison Square Garden and the Knicks and the Rangers by his wealthy daddy, Charles. The kid Dolan's stewardship of the Knicks has set a new standard for clueless and classless ownership. The Observer's tributes notwithstanding, we can take pride, as Americans, that both the worst and oddest sport owner in the world is now James Dolan.

Yes, we're number one!

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