To its fans, the world of professional baseball is a dreamland where grown-ups can live out their childhood fantasies, tracking batting averages and swapping stories about heroic home runs. Behind the curtain is a more brutal place, a rough-and-tumble venue where billions of dollars change hands each year. For the most part, these machinations remain unseen by the public. Since baseball teams are privately owned, they do not have to disclose much about the way they operate, whom they hire, and how much money they make. Players and their agents vie for millions in contracts; owners wheel and deal for taxpayer-financed stadiums; sponsors arrange endorsements; and bookies lay odds on the World Series -- all determined behind the closed doors of executive suites. The men who own the teams are drawn from America's well-connected, men who have a direct line to the media, which deflects inquiries into how the sport does business.
On occasion, however, sordid aspects of the sport seep into public consciousness, mostly when players get careless with their taxes. Hall of Famers Willie McCovey and Duke Snider were forced to pleaded guilty in 1995 to federal income tax evasion. They failed to report millions of dollars derived from the autograph-signing and memorabilia circuit, a business largely transacted in cash that some estimate at a billion dollars a year or more. In 1995, Yankee great Darryl Strawberry pleaded guilty to failing to report some $350,000 of autograph and memorabilia income he'd raked in over a four-year period. He paid a fine and served six months of home confinement.
In July 1990, Cincinnati Reds star Pete Rose, banned from baseball for life for betting on Reds games, was sentenced to five months in federal prison and fined $50,000 for failing to pay taxes on $350,000 of income he'd made at baseball card shows, personal memorabilia sales, and through gambling from 1984 to 1987. "I really have no excuses, because it's all my fault," Rose told the judge before sentencing. Blaming his problems on his addiction to gambling, he continued, "I have been able to stop gambling. But I will need help for the rest of my life. I have a sickness."
However egregious Rose's transgressions, some feel that he has been made a scapegoat for baseball's owners and its corporate sponsors, agents, and attorneys. Corruption connected to the sport of baseball, they say, is broader and goes much higher than the few players the IRS has corralled.
Especially these days -- with team owners hungering for larger and better stadiums financed by taxpayers -- the practice of trading cash and other favors for political influence has become commonplace. Campaign contributions and gifts to public officials are de rigueur. San Diego Padres owners John Moores has given thousands of dollars to campaigns of San Diego city councilmembers and county supervisors. He has furnished them with extravagant gifts, such as dinners, drinks, flowers, and World Series albums stuffed with player autographs. Autographs are coveted because they're easy to store, can be quickly sold for cash, and their value is negotiable. "If you are going to set out to bribe somebody, they're much, much better than cash," says a local sports-merchandise broker.
In an October 1999 incident, planning commissioner Geralda "Gerri" Stryker, who had cochaired Moores's 1998 "Yes on C" pro-stadium campaign, reported getting a series of gifts less than a year before from John Moores and his wife Becky. The gifts included a "Two-Volume Book on Lane Field," a "Commemorative Wine Bottle," and a "'98 Player Photo Album." Other recipients of the gifts had estimated their value exceeded $300; one claimed that the autographs alone were worth "thousands of dollars." If true, that would have barred Stryker from voting on the Moores stadium proposal. But the Office of City Attorney Casey Gwinn (who in 1999 reported collecting at least $1800 in campaign contributions from Moores and Moores's family members) allowed Stryker to cast the decisive vote to approve the plan.
"If the fair-market value [of the gifts] is difficult to ascertain," Gwinn's office opined in a letter dated December 29, 1999, "then the value is to be determined by the cost of the donor. If this value is unknown, then the recipient shall make a good faith and reasonable approximation [of the gifts' value]. Based on our investigation, we do not have credible evidence establishing that Ms. Stryker's valuations of the three gifts were not a reasonable approximation. By law, she therefore lacks a financial interest in [the ballpark project] because she has not been the recipient of gifts in excess of $300 from any donor, specifically Mr. Moores."
Not surprisingly, most elected officials have been on Moores's side in the battle over whether to hike the cost of the downtown baseball stadium.
Gwinn has assisted Moores in other ways. In May 1999, citizen activist Mel Shapiro complained to the city clerk that Moores and Padres co-owner Larry Lucchino appeared to be violating the city's influence-peddling law by failing to file lobbying statements disclosing gifts and dinners they had bestowed during their meetings with public officials. Gwinn opined that "Mr. Moores and Mr. Lucchino are exempted from the registration requirements because they have been negotiating a written agreement following the selection of the San Diego Padres as party to a contract with the city." The city council, following Gwinn's advice, later changed the wording of the lobbying law to make it more difficult for private citizens to file complaints such as Shapiro's. Today, Shapiro says, the law "has been gutted — now they don't have to report at all."
Much of baseball's biggest action is in a game called "sports marketing," the selling of everything from autographs to player endorsements to billboard space on the stadium scoreboard. Everyone wants a slice of the golden pie. The legal troubles of Padre slugger Tony Gwynn and his wife Alicia epitomize the big-money contracts and hanky-panky. In a complaint filed in San Diego Superior Court last month, Gwynn and Alicia charge that the powerful San Diego law firm of Seltzer, Caplan, Wilkins and McMahon provided them with bad legal advice in defending against and then settling at enormous cost a series of lawsuits filed by, among others, Japanese baseball star Hideo Nomo. (Nomo and another player alleged that the Gwynn operation had cheated them out of licensing money.)