Times Pitches for Red Sox

The New York Times wants a piece of the Boston Red Sox, and talk about a strange romance. Like Caesar and Cleopatra.

The Times Company has hitched itself to a bidding group headed by television producer Tom Werner-former owner of the San Diego Padres, co-creator of Roseanne , Katie Couric’s boyfriend-because the ball club comes with a television station. That’s easy to understand: The Times , for 50 years a television tortoise, is eager to strengthen its media grip in the region where the paper paid $1.1 billion for The Boston Globe in 1993.

But to accelerate its long-marinating TV ambition, the Times Company is trying to dip a long toe into the baseball business, and not just the baseball business-the Boston Red Sox, of all things, the team that seems to exist as a photographic negative of the New York Yankees. “It’s the ultimate irony,” said The New Yorker ‘s Roger Angell, speaking conditionally. “New York has everything, and now they have part of the Red Sox.”

There are other bidders-Cablevision’s Charles Dolan; New York lawyer Miles Prentice, possibly to be backed by Steven Rattner’s Quadrangle investment group, The Globe reported-but the Times Company’s play for the Red Sox certainly had the anything-can-happen weirdness of-who knows what?-Russia joining NATO. Fans in both cities immediately began recalling the 1920 sale of Babe Ruth from Boston to the Yankees, orchestrated-if you believe the legend, and not everyone does-by Broadway producer Harry Frazee to fund No, No Nanette .

There was also some moaning about conflicts of interest should Mr. Werner’s and the Times Company’s bid-other partners include skiing kingpin Les Otten, and “adviser” and former Maine Senator George Mitchell-go through.

“The more I think about things, the Red Sox are a really swell organization,” Dan Shaughnessy, the Globe columnist and author of The Curse of the Bambino , the primer on Boston’s tragic baseball history, wrote, jokingly, in the paper on Nov. 30. “I think I’ve been too harsh on the Sox over the years.”

As for the Times Company, its bid was the latest of 50 years of misbegotten TV moves. But last week on C-Span, its publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., said, “We know television has got to be an important part of our future.” It has tried in the past-remember the Popcorn Channel?-but the Times Company has always been conflicted when it comes to television, which for years was seen as at odds with newspapers, as well as a business that demands spending lots and lots of money, something with which the Times Company has never been that comfortable.

Now, entered into the Red Sox race, the company may been looking to “solidify its position as the leading news and advertising media in New England,” as it said in a written statement, but it’s trespassing into territory far deeper and more complicated than the weird 1946 near-trade of Ted Williams for Joe DiMaggio.

“The whole idea of what it is to be a Red Sox fan is not just about the Red Sox, it’s about the Yankees,” said Bob Costas, the NBC sports broadcaster. “Even though The Times doesn’t represent the Yankees, it’s a strange connection to the city that has dealt them so much heartache, and is the object of so much resentment.”

The Times Company, of course, carefully points out that its minority-ownership stake in Mr. Werner’s group means it will not have any role in the operation of the ball club. Arthur Sulzberger Jr. will not be trading Pedro Martinez to the Yankees for Chuck Knoblauch and cash, no matter how much we may want him to. Likewise, the Times Company insists that editorial coverage will not be influenced.

“The integrity of our news reports and the vitality of our business depends on maintaining the independence of our journalists from commercial pressure,” the written statement read. (Through a spokesperson, the Times Company declined an interview request about their involvement in the Red Sox bid and how it fits within the company’s broader television mission, saying it was too early to do so.)

Between the lines, however, the Times Company is signaling that this deal is just business. If the Red Sox accept Mr. Werner’s group’s bid, the newspaper will have control of the New England Sports Network, a bland but potent MSG-type carrier that is now in 3.6 million homes. To the Times Company, NESN is purely a vessel, one that would not only carry local sports teams, but also serve as a platform for Globe -oriented programming and personalities-and more important, a lure for advertisers seeking a multi-media buy. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” said Mark Henderson, an analyst with ABN Amro Bank.

This kind of integration, of course, is what the Times Company has been after, with mixed results, for some time now, as it tries to buy properties to diversify the company beyond its print tradition. Arthur (Punch) Sulzberger may have once said “the question is not whether television is a good business, but whether it’s our business,” but his son Arthur Jr.-now The Times ‘ publisher and the Times Company’s chairman-is a true believer.

Nevertheless, to say The Times is late to this party is to say … it’s late. Calling television “the future” gives Mr. Sulzberger a kind of Back to the Future quaintness. (On the other hand he may be right, just late.) TV has historically been a Times Company stepchild. The company owns eight local television stations, but is hardly a major player in the industry. “What they really know how to do is run newspapers, and run a news organization,” said Alex S. Jones, with Susan E. Tifft the co-author of the Times history The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times , and now the director at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. “I don’t think that they have established themselves yet as a television production engine.”

“The culture of the company is built around the news operation,” Mr. Jones said. Though he characterizes Arthur Sulzberger Jr. as a “savvy, serious businessman” intent upon making the Times Company a modernized operation, Mr. Jones believes that the old prejudices still hover, not quite dismissably. During the C-SPAN interview, Mr. Sulzberger responded to a question about the Times newsroom and television by saying: “We are doing television, our reporters are doing television; we’re past the point of saying this is a medium that diminishes news.”

Mr. Sulzberger has, for some time, publicly dreamed of a “New York Times Channel,” but the company has yet to show that it’s capable of building a television outfit on its own, from scratch. There have been quality New York Times television partnerships with ABC News, the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, Showtime and PBS, but bigger, high-profile gambles-an evening newscast with the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour -have yet to materialize. Mr. Jones said that if The Times were to make a significant breakthrough into regular national television, it would be with an existing television-news operation-partnering with CBS on the CBS– New York Times Evening News, for example. “The New York Times Channel is, I think, a fantasy,” Mr. Jones said.

Of course, nothing seems like a fantasy after having heard the names New York Times and Boston Red Sox mentioned as potential partners. Still, the bid to get in on NESN seems to fit with the idea of letting someone else at least build the foundation (the station also carries the broadcasts of the Boston Bruins N.H.L. games). Even people who work for the current company aren’t sure how it would play out in reality, how the Globe and the Times Company could fashion a network that promotes the company’s media interests.

“This idea of TV makes no sense to me,” said Mr. Shaughnessy, the Globe columnist. “I don’t see having a TV network as particularly advantageous for what we do on a daily basis. This is The Times being The Times , and they’re trying to beef up the company, which is good.” And Mr. Jones suggested a better fit for the Times Company would be a deal with New England Cable News, an existing NY1-type news network that already has a relationship with the Globe newsroom.

If Mr. Werner’s group gets the team-the Red Sox have been valued at around $400 million-the Times Company will be close to establishing in New England what it has longed for at a national level. In addition to the Globe , the area’s dominant media presence, the Times Company also owns the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, a nearby daily. A NESN- Globe – Telegram combination is not quite the TV-radio-print headlock the Tribune Company has in Chicago with the Cubs-and it’s certainly not anything like Braves games on Ted Turner’s national TBS Superstation-but it’s close to the kind of integrated, multi-platform distribution that Mr. Sulzberger covets.

Of course, this is also a news organization, and the synergy pill won’t go down easily. There has been grumbling at the Globe -which the Times Company purchased from the Taylor family, the longtime publishers-that The Times gave preferential treatment to its own paper in revealing its role in the Red Sox bid. A Times spokesperson denied this allegation, saying the Globe’ s reporters were given the same information. Globe editor Martin Baron, a former Times associate managing editor, sounded unworried. “They’re interested in television,” Mr. Baron said. “It’s no secret. It never has been a secret.”

There’s also the conflict issue. While few believe that a Times stake would influence day-to-day coverage of the Red Sox in either the Globe or The Times , it could become more complicated when it came to stadium projects or land-use issues, when a newspaper’s editorial page would usually be employed. “When the interests of the team intersect with public policy, then you have an interesting situation,” said Bob Costas. “You are always open to the appearance that your company’s interest in a business may have in some way affected your point of view,” he said.

Mostly though, it just feels odd. The Red Sox are perhaps Boston’s most famed cultural institution. While Mr. Werner’s group scored Boston points by announcing a plan to save Fenway Park by wrapping a 21st-century stadium around the old bandbox-“All the city of Boston would need is to have more New York carpetbaggers come in and try to tear down Fenway,” said former ESPN and Fox Sports broadcaster Keith Olbermann-there has also been a predictable groundswell of support for a local ownership group headed by businessman Joe O’Donnell. Mr. Werner has also been lambasted in the press for his role in gutting the San Diego Padres roster in the early 1990’s.

Still, even in diehard Boston, there is general acceptance that an era has passed, that baseball is a business, that conglomerates buy local treasures, that border wars aren’t what they once were. “We’re all cousins now,” said the documentary filmmaker and producer of Baseball , Ken Burns, a Red Sox fan. WNYC radio host Jonathan Schwartz lamented the loss of the “magic of the geography that informed my childhood … the Yankees were here, and there, in another world, almost in another country, were the heroes of my own heart.”

It’s also true that the rivalry on the field isn’t what it was. While the Red Sox have fielded consistently solid teams for several years, the Yankees, of course, have won three of the last four World Series. Worse, the Yankees are a far more likable team than the Reggie-era roughnecks who tormented Boston in the late 1970’s during the heyday of the clash. If anything, the attack of the Times Company could make affronted New Yorkers angrier than Bostonians.

“I don’t think it changes the rivalry at all, because there’s not much to it left,” said Roger Angell. “It’s there, but it hasn’t been much of a contest. I don’t think Yankee fans care much about the Red Sox, but Boston fans probably feel differently.”

Then again, the Times Company as puppet owner might inspire a round of conspiratorial fury in Boston akin to the Babe Ruth sale and the DiMaggio brothers, not to mention the triumphs of Sparky Lyle, Bill Monbouquette and Roger Clemens in the Bronx. “The idea that an out-of-towner is responsible for the Red Sox’ woes is necessary,” Mr. Olbermann said. “They may relish this, secretly. Especially if things don’t go well.”