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DiBella takes jab at baseball

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

When the first pitch of the Eastern League All-Star Game is thrown Wednesday at Dodd Stadium in Norwich, Conn., there will be 48 Double-A players and at least one minor league owner dreaming of reaching the big leagues.

Boxing promoter Lou DiBella is the president and part-owner of the host team, the Connecticut Defenders.

Though boxing is his livelihood, the baseball fanatic and lifelong New York Mets fan says he wants every bit as much as the players on the field to reach the pinnacle of the sport.

"I love the game dearly and to be able to say I am one of 30 (Major League owners) would be more than the dream of a lifetime," DiBella said. "I can't tell you what that would be like to me."

Even for the owners, it's a long way from Double-A to the majors. DiBella and a consortium of about 30 partners – a varied group that includes Bob Katz, the general counsel for Goldman Sachs and Bob Canobbio, the owner of CompuBox, a boxing statistical service – paid $9 million to buy their franchise just before Opening Day in 2005.

DiBella said it took him about a year to raise the money to buy the franchise, which was named the Norwich Navigators at the time. To purchase a major league team – assuming one came on the market – would cost at least 30 times that amount and then that would only net one of the low-end franchises.

He's a dreamer, but he's also realistic.

"You're not pulling out the cash and buying a Major League team unless you're one of the guys on the Forbes list (of the country's wealthiest people)," DiBella said. "The DiBella family doesn't have that kind of money. I know who I am. But I have some marketing ability and business sense and I have partners who have bread.

"We're guys with aspirations. It's not a crazy dream. I'm not going to walk down to the bank and withdraw the money tomorrow, but maybe I can put a group together and be the managing general partner."

DiBella has always been a dealmaker, back to his days when he ran the boxing programming at HBO.

That ability to cut a deal has been why DiBella has hung around so long as a promoter in a business he frequently finds nauseating. There are few more outspoken figures in boxing than DiBella, who could easily be characterized as the George Steinbrenner of boxing.

But if he owned a major league team, the volatile DiBella could make Steinbrenner look like a combination of Ghandi and Job.

He isn't so sure, though, that he'd be ready to cut his second baseman after the first error in a critical situation.

"It's important to know what you don't know and I do," DiBella said. "I believe I'm one of the best in the world at picking out fighters. I know who has talent and who can make it and who can't. I have that eye and that ability.

"But I understand my shortcomings, too. I know what I don't know in baseball and I think my inclination would be to hire someone who knew what he was doing and then give him everything he needed to do the job."

Even owning a minor league franchise has proven rewarding to DiBella, 46, who delights in discussing the myriad prospects he's seen play. He's a 'tools guy,' and pointed out that frequently, the best major league prospects in the minors are ones with so-so numbers. Watching the development of the young players and being around the game he grew up with has helped make what he calls the stench that often surrounds business dealings in boxing somewhat tolerable.

His grandfathers were both Italian immigrants who latched onto baseball and boxing when they arrived in the U.S. They landed in Brooklyn and became diehard Dodgers fans.

DiBella, who was born in 1960 after the Dodgers had moved to Los Angeles, said he had no choice but to become a Mets fan.

"No way my family was accepting a Yankees fan," he said.

His first favorite player was Mets pitcher Al Jackson, who lost 73 games in the Mets' first four seasons. But his true favorite was the sweet-swinging outfielder, Cleon Jones.

He later met and become friends with many of those on the 1969 Miracle Mets team that upset the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, including outfielder Art Shamsky.

He's kept his connection with the Mets, even though the Defenders are a Giants' affiliate.

He is friends with Mets' general manager Omar Minaya and took Minaya and Sandy Johnson, the club's vice president of scouting, to the welterweight title fight between Miguel Cotto and Zab Judah last month at Madison Square Garden.

It was one of the best fights of the year, but the quality of the fight wasn't what was at the front of DiBella's mind.

"I'm sitting there like I'm 12 years old or something and thinking, 'Here I am sitting with the general manager of the New York Mets. How many people in this place wouldn't love to be me?'" he said. "I was loving it."

Minor league owners have nothing to do with the personnel side of the game, so DiBella can watch the game and not worry whether he could have done something to help his team win.

DiBella said he is concentrating on becoming a model minor league owner and feels he's made significant progress. He's interested in acquiring additional minor league clubs.

"I'm more tempered in my role as the president of the club than I am in boxing and than I was when I first took over," DiBella said. "The insanity of my personality that manifests itself in boxing isn't there. In boxing, it's necessary to blow up now and then to keep sane. If you don't let the valve open and let the steam out in boxing, you can easily blow up. Here, I'm just enjoying it and trying to run a better operation. There is a learning curve, but I'm getting there."

But where he really wants to go is to the top. He's been there in boxing, with fighters like middleweight champion Jermain Taylor and ex-champion Bernard Hopkins. If he gets there in baseball as the owner of a major league team, the unthinkable might occur.

"If it happened, I might be speechless," he said. "I'd be so (expletive) happy and excited, I think I'd be speechless for a week."