Thursday, August 5, 2010

Blogger in the Court

If you’re not a fan of Major League Baseball, or you don’t live in north Texas, the issue of who owns the Texas Rangers baseball team probably means little to you.

And actually, it wouldn’t mean much to me, either, except that ever since this past winter, Hall of Fame legend Nolan Ryan has been trying to buy his former team from debt-ridden Tom Hicks. Only Ryan and his partners, Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Greenberg and Fort Worth entrepreneur Bob Simpson, have been hounded and tripped by Hicks’ creditors, bankruptcy lawyers, and even last-minute bidder Mark Cuban, the dot-com billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball franchise.

It’s all made for a confusing, frustrating, and roller-coaster journey as north Texas baseball fans, the City of Arlington (where I live and the Rangers play), and the media have had to watch as one of the most revered and honored baseball players-turned-managers in the history of the game has endured the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune in an unprecedented court case.

Baseball As a Business

The last time a Major League Baseball franchise was sold at auction was the Baltimore Orioles in 1993. Back then, the financial stakes were considerably lower and the personalities involved far less prominent. This time, the Texas Rangers are way ahead in their division and making a serious run for a World Series berth. Nolan Ryan has been team president for three seasons and had reinvigorated not only the players but also the fans.

Once a flamboyant billionaire investor, Tom Hicks exuded an awkward mentality that never set the right tone. He feuded with partners, overpaid for superstar players, traded fan favorites, botched a proposed mega-development for retail space around the Ranger’s home ballpark, and sweet-talked sub-prime lenders into loaning him money that eventually cost him the team.

At first, this past winter, the Ryan/Greenberg group appeared to have reached a deal with Hicks to buy the Rangers and help Hicks get out from his debts, but when Hicks’ creditors did the math, they didn’t want to be held responsible for their risky loans. They didn’t care that their due diligence on Hicks had been as worthless as his credit. So they forced the Ryan/Greenberg deal into court, and eventually into bankruptcy court.

As if on cue, the irascible owner of the Dallas Stars - who bought the begrudging admiration of his fans by getting multiple fines from the NBA for disorderly conduct - decided to enter the fray. Like a shark smelling blood, Cuban circled the bankruptcy waters, at first telling the media that his curiosity had simply been piqued. Before too long, however, Cuban had aligned himself with a Houston bidder for the Rangers, challenging the Ryan/Greenberg offer and playing the spoiler role he so obviously loves.

Get Ready. Get Set...

Fast forward to yesterday, when all sides took their places in a bankruptcy courtroom in Fort Worth, county seat for where the Rangers play. The bankruptcy judge had set up an auction for the Texas Rangers to be sold off like some antique vase or foreclosed condo. With the air of an old west duel, the "Ryan Express" faced off against Cuban’s team, a.k.a "Radical Pitch," with predictably unpredictable north Texas sports fans roughly split between the two.

Now, I don’t know much about baseball, but I know enough to respect the importance of having a bona-fide legend like Nolan Ryan being part of “the organization,” in sportscaster parlance. Ryan had pretty much told the bankruptcy judge that he wasn’t interested in staying on as a team executive if Greenberg, considered a baseball purist, wasn’t somewhere in the ownership mix. Neither Cuban nor the other contenders who had voiced an interest in buying the Rangers, including Fox News, were considered traditional baseball ownership material. So even though I haven’t been to a ballgame in two years, I wanted Ryan’s team to win.

By way of full disclosure, one of my former employers, another legendary Rangers player, the catcher Jim Sundberg, has been a personal friend of Ryan’s for years. Both Ryan and Sundberg are also personal friends with former president George W. Bush, who was part of the ownership group that sold the Rangers to Hicks years ago. However, I have a lot more respect for Ryan than I do Bush! If I had the opportunity to meet either of those men, it’d definitely be Ryan.

Live Auction

By mid-morning, I figured the auction should have been flying along at a pretty rapid clip, so I surfed the Internet to see who was ahead. But the only people who were ahead appeared to be everybody’s lawyers, who are billed by the hour. Some bidding had taken place, but it seemed as though a lot more time was being spent evaluating than auctioning.

The local news site I check most often, CBS 11, had a live blogger in the Fort Worth courtroom, who was posting feeds and providing a blow-by-blow account of proceedings as they happened. So I clicked on the link, and quickly found myself sucked into the drama – albeit a very slow moving drama – playing out between Ryan and Cuban’s legal teams. And the judge, and the lenders, and the court-appointed restructuring officer, each having their say as well.

I didn’t stick like glue to the live blog feed being provided by Channel 11, but I checked it often throughout the afternoon, and then the early evening, and then later last night, and finally – after I decided I’d already invested too much time to quit now – until the final offer and counter-offer at about 12:45 this morning, which resulted in Ryan’s group winning ownership of the Texas Rangers.

For the princely sum of $593 million, including over $200 million in Hicks' miserable debt.

Live Courtroom Blogging: The New Trend?

Aside from the amazing price tag, the courtroom drama, and the personalities involved, one of the unique aspects of yesterday’s auction involved the live blog feed coming from the camera-less courtroom in downtown Fort Worth. Sure, a lot of reporters were there to watch the proceedings, and I believe there was at least one other news agency – possibly another local TV station – either Tweeting or blogging like Channel 11 was, so I can’t say they were the only ones who had that idea. And who knows how many lower-profile cases have already been documented by people in a courtroom texting the play-by-play live.

But to my knowledge – and judging by the rave reviews people posted on Channel 11’s blog throughout the day – this is the first major courtroom spectacle with live blogging attracting so much attention. And it made so much sense. Anybody with Internet connectivity could follow the action as the day wore on, and Channel 11’s feed archived the entire day’s postings, so you could scroll backwards and catch up on developments. As I’ve said, people could post their own comments and questions, many of which the Channel 11 blogger answered right there.

In fact, some of the comments people posted helped break up the long delays in courtroom action and almost made it a community event.

Humor In the Night

For example, at 8:02pm, long after many of us naïve auction-watchers thought the Rangers would have been sold, somebody using the name Nodukes posted this comment:

“I'm having trouble finding this auction on eBay...can someone please forward me the link?”

As the evening wore on, and five-minute recesses turned into half-hour stalls, with lawyers bickering, $2 million bid increments being inspected by opposing parties, and frequent complaints about fuzzy procedures, nobody could tell who was really ahead.

One minute before midnight, as legal teams argued in separate rooms, somebody using the name Jerry Jones (the egotistical owner of the Dallas Cowboys) posted this comment:

“Is it time for me to step in yet?”

A few minutes later, as Channel 11 reported lawyers were still conferencing, somebody using the name Wes Chapman posted this comment:

“Brett Favre just called... he wants his drama back”

After Cuban’s lawyers upped the cash portion of their bid to around $355 million, someone using the name Chris posted this reality check:

“Some of the things the losing bidder could buy instead: 6 Dallas Arts District deck parks, 5 Calatrava bridges, or 1 American Airlines Center plus 10,000,000 mosquito nets to fight disease in Africa”

Soon after that, things went wild in the courtroom, as Channel 11’s blogger struggled to keep up with the blizzard of activity. Cuban’s lawyers announced a staggering cash bid of $390 million, Ryan’s team countered with $385, and – to everyone’s surprise – won.

Channel 11 reported that the courtroom erupted in a standing ovation, with some reporters flying downstairs to prepare for live on-air reports. Meanwhile, our reliable blogger had filled us in on everything, including the high-fives and jubilant shouts in the courtroom and the palpable sense of relief that the day’s events were over. The judge left, Cuban’s folks left, and suddenly, Channel 11’s blogger posted this hilarious coda:

“12:49 CBS11 in Court: court clerk says quote of the night: "My 5 minutes is 5 minutes. Get your stuff out of the courtroom before we lock it!”

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