Former agent Gilbert emerges as surprise favorite to buy Rangers

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Former baseball superagent Dennis Gilbert and his ownership group have emerged in recent days as the surprise frontrunner to buy the Texas Rangers, SI has learned.

The deal is not believed finalized yet, but the winning bid is expected to be "north of $500 million,'' according to people familiar with the talks.

Sometime after bids were submitted just before Thanksgiving, multiple sources say Gilbert took the lead for ownership of the team that went up for sale this summer, after current owner Tom Hicks ran into financial difficulties. Pittsburgh sports lawyer Howard Greenberg, who lured Texas baseball icon and current Rangers president Nolan Ryan to his group, has been seen by many as a strong contender for the team, perhaps even the leading contender, with Gilbert originally viewed by some as something of a long shot.

Gilbert, who has been known as "Go Go'' since his days as a speedy minor leaguer in the Red Sox system, built a successful insurance business in addition to his prominent baseball agency. In recent years he's raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for needy scouts through his Professional Scouts Foundation. His bid for the Rangers has been boosted by the support of baseball commissioner Bud Selig and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. And, as happened many times in the past, Gilbert probably was underestimated in his efforts. He has dreamed of buying a team for years, but doubters wondered whether he had the wherewithal to do so.

When approached Tuesday night, Selig only characterized the competition for the Rangers as being between two or three competitors, Gilbert included. There is said to be "work to be done,'' by people familiar with the talks, but Gilbert's group appears to have the clear lead now. Baseball's goal was to get the Rangers sold by Thanksgiving, and while it didn't meet that objective, it may not be all that far behind it.

Perhaps partly because of the Ryan connection, people inside the Rangers organization have been expecting for either Greenberg to get the team or even for Hicks to make an 11th-hour deal to hold onto it. While hosting interested outside buyers, oddly enough, Hicks also has been trying to organize new investors to provide new cash and allow him to maintain a prominent role with the team. However, the idea of Hicks' continuing ownership is a non-starter with baseball powers since Hicks has needed MLB help to meet payroll at times this season. Hicks is well-liked in baseball circles, but he ran into financial difficulty with leverage issues related to the Hicks Sports Group at a time the economy went south.

Gilbert, who represented Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Rickey Henderson, Mike Piazza, George Brett, Bret Saberhagen and many other stars during his agenting heyday after beginning the business with former Red Sox star Tony Conigliaro as his partner, will be expected to be a hands-on owner. Assuming the deal goes through, Gilbert is expected to retain the current baseball operations department, led by bright young GM Jon Daniels. Gilbert has said that he hopes current club president Ryan will stay on and that he has no intention to change leadership.

Gilbert still has an insurance business in Beverly Hills, Calif., and has served as a White Sox consultant to Reinsdorf in recent years, ever since turning over his agenting business, the much-noted Beverly Hills Sports Council,.to his protégés.