MLB collision with reality: Mets, Dodgers

How does Major League Baseball possibly blow this? It's the most golden of opportunities in recent sports marketing memory.

Football already has thrown itself headlong into a toxic labor dispute; anyone who watched can mentally cue the recording of Roger Goodell intoning, "I hear you!" to the booing masses at the NFL draft. The NBA is walking the same line and, based upon the braying of some of those at the top, is fully en route to taking the same sludge-spill.

Now comes baseball, its white shirt labor-clean and its rivalry storylines solidly in place, and on the surface it sets up as a Canyon of Heroes moment. The steroid era has faded; the sport has re-entered the realm of undetectable advantages, meaning there are at least a couple of scandal-lite seasons ahead. The games go on, while other elite sports leagues either threaten or enact their stoppages.

The divisional races are heating up. School is letting out. Summer, the true season of the sport, feels close. Baseball as salvation!

And what is MLB's dominant image as this glorious selling opportunity swings into view?

A big bloody nose on both sides of the continent, is what. The Dodgers: reeling. The Mets: unraveling.

Are you sure this is how you capitalize on a void in the sports world?

Forget being known as the Steroid Commissioner. Bud Selig now is in danger of being associated long-term with a couple of the most spectacular financial flameouts in franchise history -- and with two of its most storied outfits. No big deal: We're only talking about the top two media markets in the U.S.

It's astonishing that baseball could find itself in a position to have a couple of its most followed franchises essentially flapping in the breeze. Talk about your bad looks: The Dodgers, via the self-immolation of the disastrous McCourt era, have become a cautionary tale in the Pacific time zone, with an underfunded, divorcing ownership couple running an epically successful product into the ground while updating "The War of the Roses" for 2011.

And in New York, Fred Wilpon's stunning half-billion-dollar financial freefall, with his ties to convicted shyster Bernard Madoff, bring the caution back to the Eastern time zone. But did Wilpon have to take the Mets down with him? Not even Thursday's announced $200 million buy-in by a hedge fund manager may be enough to keep the Wilpons in a controlling position, what with Wilpon telling Sports Illustrated the team is "bleeding cash" and may slash payroll next season. In New York? Interesting marketing strategy.

What Selig is looking at is the distinct possibility that two of his sport's most famous franchises may basically need to go up for auction, fire-sale style. In a decade of business disasters across the U.S., maybe that's not staggering news. Within baseball circles, it ought to be understood as the worst possible scenario.

If the Dodgers and the Mets can founder, what's to say the sport isn't in full-blown crisis mode? Even if that's nowhere near the truth, what happens with the Big Boys often drives the larger perception. In a summer that ought to feel celebratory -- "Hey, we're open for business!" -- the marquee-franchise meltdown is beyond sobering.

For whatever reason, it was easier for baseball to digest the disaster in Texas, where Rangers owner Tom Hicks finally admitted the worst, defaulted on $525 million worth of loans, couldn't keep the lights on or the salaries paid, and went belly-up in a forced sale to Nolan Ryan's group last year. In one of those truly bizarre occurrences, the Rangers wound up in the World Series in spite of it all. You could say the sport dodged a bullet, particularly in running into a group like Ryan's that was virtually ready to take over right away.

For that matter, fans generally have averted their eyes from the situation in Chicago, where the bankrupt Tribune company finally divested its Cubs "asset" to the Ricketts family in 2009. Forbes recently estimated that the Cubs are operating under $583 million of debt -- did you catch that figure? -- and yet Major League Baseball is said to be hoping the Cubs can generate enough revenue to offset the fact that the Dodgers and Mets, who usually pay into the industry's revenue-sharing system, probably can't.

Both the Dodgers' and Mets' ugly situations are being played out on the national stage. Hey, without football, we've got to have a sporting conflict, and Frank and Jamie McCourt and the Wilpon-Madoff lawsuit are the closest reasonable facsimiles, right?

Selig already imported a financial nanny to Los Angeles, and, as Ian O'Connor argued in a piece for ESPNNewYork.com, he ought to be doing the same with the Mets. This is no time for playing nice with old buddies or waiting to see how things turn out. Bud Selig needs to play his strongest hand right now, and that clearly includes sending a hard-nosed numbers-cruncher to babysit each of these franchises.

But the larger question is how much damage already has been done. For all of their ups and downs on the field, the Los Angeles Dodgers were seldom ever identified as anything other than a Cadillac franchise. Same for the moneyed Mets. Baseball had its East Coast and its West Coast as bookends. While the Yankees remain absurdly profitable, there is a growing perception that two of the league's most iconic franchises are falling fast and hard.

It should be a summer of coronation. Baseball, after all, is still playing. It's just that, seeing the Dodgers and Mets wobble and flail, you're hard-pressed to proclaim that the sport is thriving. And that is one magnificent opportunity missed.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in August by W.W. Norton. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.