NEW YORK -- The Mets and Dodgers were said not to have been discussed in the general sessions at baseball's owners meeting here this week, but commissioner Bud Selig acknowledged he met with embattled Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and both of baseball's uncertain ownership situations surely hung over the entire proceedings. By the time it was over, two things became clear: MLB's powers are comfortable with how what's happening with the Mets-owning Wilpons and as uncomfortable as ever with McCourt's Dodgers stewardship.
The Wilpons -- CEO Fred and his COO son, Jeff -- are said by people familiar with the situation to be close to settling on a limited partner that will infuse enough cash to keep them afloat, at least until the Madoff situation is settled. "I'm very confident we're moving ahead to a very satisfactory conclusion,'' Selig said of the Mets' Madoff-caused trouble.
There also seems to be a growing confidence that the Wilpons may survive, with recent revelations suggesting Irving Picard, the Madoff trustee, is, as one securities lawyer put it, "reaching'' quite a bit in seeking $1 billion in clawback monies from them. People who talk to baseball's powers say there is optimistic talk about finally being able to cease worrying about the Mets' situation, leaving only one troubled team with which to concern themselves.
Meanwhile, McCourt by all appearances is on an island by himself, with support that is either minute or nonexistent. He also has decreasing cash reserves that are believed likely to run out by June -- if not this month -- without intervention of a new loan. His only plan is for more borrowing, which Selig seems unlikely to approve. Fellow owners described a scene on Wednesday where McCourt sat alone, seemingly forlorn, without an answer that will fly with baseball's powers. McCourt, who had complained that Selig wouldn't return his phone calls, finally had a sit down with the commissioner but apparently was unconvincing.
When McCourt was approached after Thursday's session, he responded, "I've got nothing for you.''
While the Dodgers' situation seems to be deteriorating, the Wilpons' three-decade ownership appears now to have a reasonable shot to be spared -- "the Mets are doing, wherever possible, what you have to do,'' Selig said, drawing an obvious distinction without mentioning the name of the National League's storied West Coast franchise. McCourt, meanwhile, seems to be hanging on by his fingernails. He sent a stream of negative to threatening letters to MLB and is trying to cultivate business writers who he hopes will see the positive side of a man who along with soon-to-be-ex-wife Jamie used the NL's most marquee franchise as his personal piggy bank.
It's a tough sell. And it's doubtful Selig will be buying.
Selig's emissary, Tom Schieffer, is in Los Angeles to oversee the Dodgers day-to-day operations against McCourt's wishes in what would appear to be a likely prelude to new ownership. One of McCourt's big complaints is that MLB already has a "predetermined outcome'' to remove him, and it's fair to say he does appear to be losing a blowout game here. But Selig said, "The outcome is not predetermined. We have a monitoring and investigative approach to this, and when I have all the information then I'll make decisions.''
Perhaps there is some small chance McCourt stays in power. But after seven embarrassing years as owner, which were clearly illuminated in the McCourts' hideous public divorce trial, it is hard to blame Selig if he is strongly leaning against it.
Schieffer and the law form Proskauer Rose are poring over Dodgers paperwork. There are strong hints now that McCourt's serial borrowing may have left him in noncompliance with MLB's debt service rules. In McCourt's very first brief public statement after learning about Schieffer's appointment, he claimed he was in compliance, but other sources suggested some serious doubt about that. "I'm not going to get into that,'' said Selig, who added, "The sport has very definitive debt rules, and it's my job to make sure these rules are being enforced.''
Unlike Wilpon, McCourt hasn't suggested taking on a partner -- if he could get one. McCourt has lost the support of his fan base and his region as revelations about his steep spending on himself have come to light (while the big-market team payroll fell below that of even the mid-market Twins last year), and it might be hard to find someone to invest with him now, anyway. With funds running low and faith even lower, it may be too late for him to start looking. This appears to be at least the eighth inning of his stewardship, if not the ninth. A lawsuit may be his only final play, and McCourt has been a litigious fellow; he is currently involved in a suit against his former lawyer in addition to the troubles with Jamie.
The Wilpons' difficult decision to sell at least 25 percent of their stake showed Selig they are trying to pay down their enormous debt, and several people say the Wilpons are close to choosing a partner. That person isn't publicly known yet, though it is believed not to be early frontrunner Stevie Cohen, the chairman of hedge fund SAE Capital, who is said to be running behind with his bid. In any case, one other owner, referring to the insider trading investigation that's nabbed a couple traders at SAE but has not ensnared Cohen said, "He's a nice guy. But they can't pick him (at this time).''
McCourt's latest scheme involves more borrowing from his willing TV partner Fox on a television deal that wouldn't even start for another two years. But baseball seems reticent to approve any deal to put McCourt in greater hock. The immediate threat to McCourt is that he will run out of money, if not in the next pay period then the one after it, according to people with knowledge of the situation. McCourt has suggested Selig is trying to stall him. But Selig countered Thursday that MLB also has every reason to hope the matter is settled in an "expeditious'' matter. "Nobody is using the four-corner (stall)," Selig said.
Of course, the longer baseball takes, the lower McCourt's bank account gets. If MLB is in position where it has to make payroll, it will have cause to move in, a major step toward a change in ownership. The commissioner was asked specifically about ex-Dodgers star Steve Garvey's viability as a potential new owner, and Selig said, "We're not there yet.'' That may be, but the clock is clearly ticking on McCourt.
• Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols' very public hug with Cubs GM Jim Hendry triggered some Cubs-Pujols speculation. But it may be unfounded. While the Cubs don't have a first baseman signed for next year with Carlos Peña on a one-year deal, there's no evidence yet that they will pony up the $200 million it would take to steal their main rival's best player.
• The Mets are seen more and more as the team likely to be the center of activity at the trade deadline. Arguably their three best players, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez, are high-priced veterans on the verge of free agency. Beltran is back big-time, as his three-homer day Thursday showed. Some possible fits include the White Sox, A's, Tigers and Red Sox (if J.D. Drew goes down or is underperforming). If the Mets aren't in the race -- and the season-ending shoulder injury of Chris Young doesn't help their chances, nor does Ike Davis' placement on the disabled list with an ankle sprain and bone bruise -- people who know GM Sandy Alderson say they believe he will take a dispassionate view of things, meaning the beloved Reyes will likely be traded.
• The Reds are said to be worried about the 103-mph-throwing Aroldis Chapman, who's getting wilder by the outing. "The minors wouldn't hurt for him at this point,'' one scout suggested. Chapman has 16 walks and 15 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings this season.
• Mike Leake was recently moved to the bullpen by the Reds, who have serious rotation depth. And one scout said he believed Leake would profit from his first trip to the minors.
• Kendrys Morales' current story is a sad one. He escaped Cuba but endured an unscrupulous agency worker of the Hendricks Brothers who is accused of stealing $300,000 from him, and now he has endured the loss of nearly two years following a freak injury. Morales made the call for a second surgery on his left ankle that was needed for rest-of-life issues. Morales suffered a severe lower-leg injury after jumping on a home plate following his walkoff home run last May 29.
• Veteran leftander Randy Flores has an out in his Padres minor league deal Sunday. The Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Royals, Nationals and Mets are among teams that could use a southpaw in the bullpen.
• Yankees people are very concerned about Jorge Posada, who is hitting .162 despite having six home runs. But they don't seem nearly as concerned about Derek Jeter now that he has boosted his average from .219 three weeks ago to .270 now. There also is no likelihood Jeter is in jeopardy of being moved down in the batting order.
• Two more baseball executives weighed in with "no'' votes about whether anyone gives temperamental non-producing Milton Bradley another job. "I think he's had enough chances,'' one said. "He's a fun sucker. He sucks the fun out of everything,'' one executive with one of Bradley's recent teams said. "Everyone walks around on tippy toes because nobody wants to offend him ... He has enough money. He should use it to get some help.''
• Nobody ever thought the marriage of Bradley and no-nonsense new Mariners manager Eric Wedge could ever last. One person familiar with Eric Wedge's season-opening talk to the team said it was the toughest talk they've ever heard for such a speech. The basic message was: Do it my way, or you're a goner.
• A lot of scouts missed on Lance Berkman this spring. "His bat looked slow,'' one said, admitting the error of his ways. Berkman is batting .357 and leads the NL in RBIs, slugging percentage, OPS and total bases.
• The Red Sox were concerned about their catching in the middle of April, leading to the call to free-agent Bengie Molina, but they seem a bit more comfortable with it now.
• There is no timetable for Joe Mauer's return. It's good to see the Twins being ultra-careful now with their franchise player.
• Bryce Harper, 18, has hit in 16 straight games at Class-A Hagerstown, raising his average to .395. He also has eight homers, 30 RBIs and a 1.175 OPS. He appears due for a promotion. If he makes it all the way to the majors this year, he will become the first 18-year-old in the bigs since Alex Rodriguez with the Mariners in 1994.
• Orlando Cabrera should have been included on my list of great winter moves earlier this week. Cabrera's impact on the Indians' young nucleus should be clear. My bad.
• Nolan Ryan was approved as the Rangers' controlling partner at the owners' meeting after what Selig said was "about 12 seconds.'' As the successor to the short-lived quotable braggadocio Chuck Greenberg, the alltime strikeout king is revered even more than one might imagine.