Sale of Dodgers suddenly in limbo

Turner reportedly one vote away from killing deal

Ted Turner, the blustery Time Warner vice chairman and Atlanta Braves owner, is apparently just one thin vote away from derailing News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Flying to St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday to attend a meeting of Major League Baseball owners for the first time in nine years, Turner — who has compared Murdoch to Adolf Hitler — is vocally leading the fight to block the sale, quickly turning what looked to be a fairly smooth approval process earlier this week into a tight battle that could go either way when it comes up for vote today.

Owners to vote today

The owners are skedded to cast their ballots this afternoon on the proposed deal transferring ownership of the Dodgers from Peter O’Malley to Murdoch’s Fox Group for as much as $350 million. Sale requires approval from 12 of the 16 National League owners and 8 of the 14 owners in the American League.

Sources close to the situation maintain that Turner appears already to have swayed one team that had been straddling the fence, the Tribune-owned Chicago Cubs, to vote against the sale. In addition, two other National League team owners, John Moores of the San Diego Padres and Peter Magowan of the San Francisco Giants, are opposed to the sale.

Ted’s magic number

With four teams in pocket, that means Turner needs to use his powers of persuasion to turn just a single National League team against Murdoch to earn the five negative votes he needs to scotch the deal. Turner was said to be meeting with his fellow owners late Wednesday to accomplish just that.

“It’s a personal thing with Ted,” one source said. “Ted doesn’t trust Murdoch, thinks he’d be bad for baseball. He wants to keep Rupert out. That’s why he’s there. If any of the other owners are persuadable, Ted’s the one to persuade them. The other owners trust his judgment.”

The Cubs joining Turner’s opposition camp is a key development. Tribune — like Time Warner and News Corp. a major media conglomerate — owns the local and regional cable and/or broadcast rights to seven Major League teams, including those in media centers New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Tribune wary

Tribune has long been wary of Murdoch, who holds cable TV contracts with 22 of the 30 Major League Baseball teams, encroaching on its territory. There has likewise been an overall concern on the part of baseball’s establishment that authorizing an ownership stake to the famously free-spending Murdoch would drive player salaries into the stratosphere and that his multiteam cable pacts stand to affect local revenue streams for many big league clubs.

In addition to the Padres, Giants and Cubs, those teams said to be particularly vulnerable to Turner’s anti-Murdoch venom include the Houston Astros and Florida Marlins. If one of those two joins the Cubs in opposing the transfer, Murdoch is locked out.

Seeming amity

Prior to Turner’s active campaign to scotch the deal, there was general agreement among the TV sports establishment that Turner’s cable empire is so intertwined with Murdoch’s cable sports properties that it made significant opposition from the Braves owner unlikely.

There had also recently been a seeming mellowing in the intense rivalry dividing Turner and Murdoch after Time Warner (parent company of the Braves) sealed a pact with Murdoch last July to carry his Fox News Channel on TW’s New York City cable system.

Personal disdain

But Turner’s personal disdain of Murdoch runs so deep that it appears to have overwhelmed his better business judgment. There is clearly no love lost between the two men.

It was only last June that Turner challenged Murdoch to a boxing match in Las Vegas, with the stipulation that the loser leave the country. That followed an apparent Murdoch edict that Fox never turn its cameras on Turner and his wife Jane Fonda in the crowd during the 1996 World Series between the Braves and New York Yankees.

Still, most experts expected the charismatic Mouth of the South to relent and agree to help Murdoch gain admittance to baseball’s exclusive fraternity. Once again, it seems, the world has underestimated Ted Turner.

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