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Rupert strikes out Ted

Murdoch wanted one of baseball's mightiest teams. His media - and sporting - rival Ted Turner said: `I'll squish him like a bug.' He didn't, of course. By Rupert Cornwell
ONCE, when America was young and the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn, baseball was about players and their heroics. It was about emerald green ballparks in the blazing summer sun, about Joe Di Maggio's hitting streak and small boys begging for autographs. These days America's grown older, the Dodgers have long become the Los Angeles Dodgers, and even lousy hitters charge $5 an autograph. Baseball's about money. It's about team owners. And right now, it's all about Rupert Murdoch.

Last year, Murdoch, American by passport for the purposes of his ownership of the Fox network, but Australian in every other way, reached a deal to buy the Dodgers from the O'Malley family. Now baseball, for the reasons listed above, may no longer exert its romantic grip it once did on the American psyche. Even so, the sale of the linear descendants of the team that the O'Malleys brutally uprooted to the West Coast in 1957, is something special.

For one thing, there's sentiment involved. Even now, the word Dodger is one of the most emotive in American sport, but four decades ago, the move of Brooklyn's beloved "Bums" - the eternal underdog, the team which broke the colour barrier in major league baseball - was a small watershed in America's postwar history, an early symbol of how money and power were starting to move west across the continent from the Hudson River. This time too, there's big money around. The $311m (pounds 186m) Murdoch is reputedly to pay is a record for any US sports franchise. And then, last and most important, there are the owners: Rupert Murdoch, who now is an owner, and Ted Turner, who already was one and was desperate to prevent the rival he loathes from joining that elite.

Forget baseball's players. The action these days is not on those emerald fields of dreams, but in its boardrooms of mega-bucks. Gone are the Babe Ruths, the Di Maggios, and the Mickey Mantles of yesteryear. The sport's household names, and its largest egos, now belong to the likes of Turner, owner of CNN, Turner Broadcasting Systems and the Atlanta Braves, or the autocratic Peter Angelos of the Baltimore Orioles who sacks a manager a year - or the detested George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees who no sooner wins the World Series than threatens to take the team from the Bronx to New Jersey unless New York City obediently builds him a state- of-the-art $1bn stadium in downtown Manhattan.

But these are mere caprices compared to Turner's feud with Murdoch, simultaneously epic and puerile. The two of them may bestride the global media business, yet they trade insults that belong on the school playground. "I'll squish Murdoch like a bug," Turner brags, having previously likened his rival to Hitler. Ya-boo sucks, Rupert retorts, ordering Fox not to show even a glimpse of Ted or his wife Jane Fonda during its broadcast of the 1996 Series between the Yankees and the Braves.

Petty vanities, however, are only part of the story. Murdoch's advent is feared, too, for the reasons he is feared on this side of the Atlantic: that just as with News Corporation and the British newspaper industry, his true goal is not ownership of the Dodgers, but control of baseball. If he becomes an owner, critics warn, he gets access to the sport's innermost financial books. If this particular Fox is allowed into the chicken coop, mayhem may result. For through its local stations, Murdoch's network has the broadcasting rights for 22 of the 30 major league teams. This means Fox already helps delivers the audiences and advertising revenues which provides much of baseball's money. Combine that role with new-found access to data which the owners traditionally share among themselves, and small wonder some people are already talking about "Rupert-ball".

They paint a devilish scenario; of the Dirtiest of Diggers calculatedly weakening rivals by, say, holding up the extension of a lucrative broadcasting contract. Its coffers temporarily dry, a team might be prevented from buying, or forced to trade, a star player. And Murdoch-the-owner could drive baseball's already bloated salaries through the roof. This year will see a test case, when the contract of the Dodgers' superstar catcher Mike Piazza comes up for renewal. The talk is of a six-year deal worth an unprecedented $100m. But what Murdoch wants, Murdoch is prepared to pay for. Unsurprisingly, it is less opulent franchises like the San Diego Padres, condemned to live in the long shadow of the Dodgers just up the coast, which are most uneasy about letting Murdoch among them. Probably the fears are overdone. Fox is only one of four US terrestrial networks and by some way the smallest of them. If Murdoch is a big fish on the other side of the Atlantic, America is a far larger pool than Britain. And while the Dodgers are huge, with TV followings not only in California, but also Japan and central America, they are not necessarily bigger than the Braves, not to mention the Yankees, probably the most valuable franchise in all American sport. Last night that reasoning prevailed. Despite every curveball Ted Turner threw, the Dodger deal went through by 14 votes to one, when the 16 National League franchises took the decision at their meeting in Miami.

And talking of the Yankees, they are now said to be the object of a bid from another US media giant, Cablevision, for a rumoured $550m, which would eclipse the record set by the O'Malleys' sale of the Dodgers. But if that means the end of Steinbrenner, most Yankee fans - and not only Yankee fans - will reckon the advent of Murdoch is a reasonable price to pay.