01/11/2011 2:07PM

Racing writer takes aim at baseball hypocrisy

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TUCSON, Ariz. – As long as David has his slingshot, Goliath has no chance.

David in this scenario is Bill Christine, one of the nation’s finest sportswriters, twice winner of an Eclipse Award, five-time winner of the Red Smith award for coverage of the Kentucky Derby, and for 24 years the star racing writer of the Los Angeles Times. He also has a National Turf Writers’ Walter Haight award and Pimlico’s Old Hilltop trophy on his shelf for contributions to racing journalism and is one of the most skilled wordsmiths in the business.

He carries a big slingshot, with a remarkable memory, loaded files, and background that includes 22 years of covering the Breeders’ Cup and a Pulitzer as part of a reporting team covering the Northridge earthquake for the Los Angeles Times in 1994.

We have been friends from his days with the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, and before that when he wrote for papers in East St. Louis, Baltimore, Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. More recently, he writes a twice a week column for a Canadian website called horseraceinsider.com.

Christine called me last week and asked what I knew about a $9 million bid by Peter Angelos, majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles, for shuttered Rosecroft Raceway, a harness track just outside Washington, D.C. I told him what I knew, gave him a few references, exchanged pleasantries, and hung up.

Christine, a veteran reporter, did not stop with his call to me. Among his follow-up calls was one to the Baltimore Sun and another to Major League Baseball in New York, where he asked about rules Major League Baseball invoked 30 years ago when Ed DeBartolo, who owned racetracks, tried to buy the Chicago White Sox. He also may have mentioned a man named George Steinbrenner.

A spokesman told him, “We take these things on a case-by-case basis, but I need to talk with our lawyers before I say any more.”

The man called back a few hours later and said, “The rules have not changed regarding club ownership and gambling.”

With that, Christine pulled out the old slingshot.

He had covered the DeBartolo story and Steinbrenner’s problems with the Yankees and racing, and he had asked Bowie Kuhn, then commissioner of baseball, about them. Kuhn told him, “Easy. The rule about track ownership came in after George already had those racing investments. So he was grandfathered.”

Along the way, Bill had heard that Rosecroft might be sold to Mrs. Angelos, and that triggered a Christine recollection of when Mrs. Bob Levy, whose husband owned Atlantic City Race Course for years, owned a piece of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Christine started his column by recalling another veteran of the past, Dick Young, whose columns for the New York Daily News were sparklers. Young got to referring to the owners of major league teams as the “lords of baseball,” and Christine said when Young wrote that it was not flattery. “It meant Young’s blood pressure was rising,” he said, “and he had a brickbat in hand.”

Peter Angelos, as powerful a lawyer as there is in the state of Maryland, may or may not get to buy Rosecroft. There are stumbling blocks. One is the condition he put on the sale, saying he would add $5 million to his $9 million stalking bid if Maryland would change its slots laws and permit him to install a racino at Rosecroft by the end of 2012. Although everyone from the president of the horsemen-owned track to the chairman of the racing board to the president of the state senate to the governor likes the idea, the legislature could shoot it down as it did in the recent past when it excluded Rosecroft from the five sites that currently can have slots in Maryland.

A baseball friend of Christine’s, no lover of hypocrisy, reminded him that major casinos all over the east advertise on radio broadcasts of major league teams, the Boston Red Sox and Yankees, in particular. The major leagues obviously don’t mind taking money from casinos, Christine wrote, yet it frowns on someone owning a team just because he’s deeply involved in another form of gambling.

Christine ended his essay by recalling an incident in which Steinbrenner called Phil Rizzuto, long past his Hall of Fame shortstop days but then broadcasting Yankee games, into his office and chastised him for doing New York City OTB commercials on another station. “How could you do that? What were you thinking?” Steinbrenner asked Phil.

Rizzuto, who spoke to Steinbrenner without reverence or fear, told him, “George, it was no big deal. I had a chance to make a few bucks and I did it.”

Peter Angelos sees the same prospect, and my money is on him to buy Rosecroft, return racing there, and make a few bucks with a racino as well.