Last week 14 former minority owners of the Expos filed racketeering charges against baseball commissioner Bud Selig and former Expos majority owner Jeffrey Loria. In the suit the plaintiffs contend that Selig, Loria and other baseball executives conspired to dilute their ownership and to drive down the value of the Expos as part of a plan to relocate or eliminate the franchise.
Major League Baseball is unimpressed. "The former limited partners of the Montreal Expos...have decided to engage in a public relations campaign and file a frivolous lawsuit," said baseball's chief operating officer, Robert DuPuy. Loria calls the suit "frivolous and completely without merit."
The idea of Selig as a racketeer may sound far-fetched, but SI investigative reporter Lester Munson says there are four reasons why the commissioner must take the case very seriously.
1. The plaintiffs are huge engines of Canadian commerce with unlimited funds. In most civil cases involving a league, the league has the advantage in a courthouse war of attrition. The league can out-spend and exhaust its attacker. Here, the plaintiffs would win any such war. They include the Bronfman family (which owned Seagram's and founded the Expos), a huge investment bank, one of Canada's largest communications companies, the Fairmont hotel chain, a labor-based investment fund with 530,000 shareholders, Canada's leading grocery chain and a Canadian publishing giant.
2. The attorneys representing the Canadian moguls, Jim Quinn and Jeff Kessler, are among the most impressive anywhere. In the early 1990s Quinn and Kessler handled free-agency cases for the NFL Players Association and defeated the NFL, an extremely formidable organization with brilliant representation. Working for the NBA players' union, also in the early '90s, Quinn and Kessler caught NBA owners cheating on revenue sharing and extracted a giant set-dement for the players. Now these pros will go up against Major League Baseball, an enterprise that has had trouble finding adequate representation and that has a history of embarrassing legal mistakes.
3. Paul Beeston, baseball's chief operating officer from 1997 to 2002, could be a critical player. When the Canadian moguls were trying unsuccessfully to sell their interests in the Expos to Loria in an effort to get something out of their investment, Beeston, the plaintiffs say, reassured them that MLB officials would protect them. Instead, MLB reduced those owners from 76% to 6% ownership and tried to kill the team in Montreal. Beeston was Toronto's president before his MLB gig and had strong allegiances to the Canadians, and the suit states that " Beeston may have been misled by Selig." Will Beeston's testimony help the Canadians? It's unlikely that these lawyers would cite him in the suit if they didn't believe he would support them as a witness.
4. In the course of the pretrial skirmishing we may get our best look ever at the true state of baseball's finances. In the NFL cases Quinn and Kessler made sure that detailed financial records of each team were made public. They'll attempt the same thing as they prepare for this trial. If they're successful, baseball's image and its future bargaining position with the players could be permanently damaged.