Monday, February 13, 2012

As McCourt disappears, what of the Dodgers?

Frank McCourt, the villified owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, finally has agreed to sell the team. Now, Angelinos have their ball club back after avoiding Dodger Stadium in droves last season. This post first appeared on The Expo Line (www.theexpoline.com) on Nov. 2, 2011, and is re-posted here because this is where it belongs.

By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles


Among the various caveats to relocating in Los Angeles this summer, one of the most disturbing concerned a general lack of interest in the Dodgers, who, for decades, not only maintained one of this city's most respected and unifying institutions, but, more broadly, forged a championship eminence across the baseball world and advanced an ideal of American diversity as one of its most successful practitioners. No one with a pulse for this country's high purpose and its great game could deny any of that. Even the rivals knew it was true. This summer, though, one could feel it missing. The Dodgers, in this city's walk and imagination, were dead. Glad that's over.

The good news all along was that no one hated the Dodgers. They hated Frank McCourt, and still do. Just this morning, hours after Major League Baseball (MLB) announced that McCourt finally agreed to sell the club, one Los Angeles Times columnist said it would be decent of McCourt if he would just leave town. Chances are, he won't. He and his recently ex-wife bought a portfolio of pretty nice houses here, including the $27 million glass masterpiece in Malibu and the $19 million home right next door. They also bought $29 million worth of mansions in Brentwood, collateralized with the Dodgers, which they purchased with $421 million of almost entirely borrowed money.

Never has a club owner in any professional sport exploited the property so gluttonously as McCourt, and we include his ex-wife, Jamie, for some of the houses are in her name, she produced documents naming herself as a club co-owner and she will walk away from the marriage and the Dodgers with $130 million. It's understood that team owners commonly hide personal purchases on the company balance sheet, but leveraging $75 million in real estate against the club is quite guilding the lilly. We don't know a lot about the McCourts, nor would we want to, but we do know that when they have so thoroughly blown an opportunity such as owning the Dodgers, it speaks to a general lack of competence. Anyone with access to capital could have extracted a fortune from people needing to park their cars in Boston. And when two people like the McCourts have everything you would want and they're unhappy, there’s a chance that they are incapable of happiness, together or separately.

But Dodgers fans did not deserve to be unhappy and, heeding that, they decided to make the McCourts more unhappy. Dodger Stadium attendance fell 20 percent in 2011, costing the team $27 million, according to the Times. The fans didn't turn their backs on the Dodgers. They cured the Dodgers by bleeding them. A little primitive, perhaps, but it worked. They also had MLB Commissioner Bud Selig on their side, because he owed them one after allowing the lightly funded McCourt to buy the club in the first place. Selig exerted enormous pressure on McCourt this summer, first by appointing a trustee to run the club, then by rejecting a television contract for the Dodgers and forcing the club into bankruptcy. When Frank McCourt started lashing back at Selig and other club owners spoke openly in Selig's support, McCourt was finished.

MLB said the McCourts extracted $189 million from the Dodgers to finance their lifestyle. The lifestyle of Dodgers fans has not been likewise enriched during the last two seasons. Suddenly strapped for cash, the Dodgers spent $104 million on players in 2011, 12th among 30 big league clubs, according to USA Today. The problem isn't that a baseball club must spend $150 million to win. The problem is that the Dodgers should have no trouble spending $150 million. They've got the second largest city in America all to themselves (the Angels are a suburban club), and they don't even have to worry about an NFL team stealing the Sundays in September. They've got a great tradition and a beautiful stadium, even if it's a little run down lately.

But they don't have enough players. Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw aren't enough. By many measurements, Kemp was the National League's best offensive player in 2011, and, by every measurement, Kershaw was the league's best pitcher. It says volumes about those two players, and perhaps more about first-year manager Don Mattingly, that the Dodgers finished the season with more wins than losses, an 82-79 record, because this club had nothing, or next to it, at any other position. The next best player, Andre Ethier, wasn't even an average right fielder in 2011, which was his worst season. One could easily name a dozen major league right fielders who are better than Ethier right now. Dee Gordon is an exciting presence at shortstop, but he has a long way to go as an offensive player. First baseman James Loney batted .356 the last two months of the season, but it's hard to erase the memory of his weak stick all the way through July.

When a veteran hitter finds his stroke in September, that's not the wisdom of experience. It's the outcome of playing against rosters expanded to 40 players in September, which, except for the contenders, is a Class 4A season, spring training in the fall. The same goes for the Dodgers, generally. The Dodgers won 20 of their last 30 games, which means not that they put it together, but that the Class 4A talent they played with all season is better than the Class 4A talent to which other clubs resorted in September. It says something about the Dodgers' field management and clubhouse leadership that they fought to the finish, but it says nothing about the Dodgers having the resources to compete in 2012.

On the principle that your club should have at least a major league average starter, or its equivalent, at every position, the Dodgers would be smart to keep Kemp and Kershaw for sure. If you’re the patient sort, you can give Ethier and Loney another year to become what the talent says they are. Either way, the Dodgers have more serious problems. They desperately need to upgrade at catcher, second base, third base and left field. They could comfortably keep Gordon and pitchers Javy Guerra, Kenley Jansen and Chad Billingsley for their potential. They would be no worse off replacing the rest of it.

Perhaps, now, they can. MLB and McCourt are shopping the club. It will take a few months. When Newscorp decided to sell the club to McCourt in October 2003, it still took MLB nearly four months to approve the sale. We're not even close to that point right now. The next owner hasn't been identified, let alone approved. But if the commissioner's office, McCourt and a prospective pending owner can actually work together to some extent, it's conceivable that the Dodgers will be allowed to expand their payroll during the next few months. In large part, it will depend on how the commissioner assesses the sales outlook for the club.

Be sure of this: Selig understands, as well as any of us, that it's good for baseball if the Dodgers are good, and you know the players union is griping in the shadow because a franchise that should be driving up salaries isn't doing it. Then again, all the other club owners know that if the Dodgers are back in the game for free agents, it will raise the cost of players for everybody. So, it’s also conceivable that Dodgers fans are in for one more winter -- and summer -- of discontent, until a new owner who can make his own calls is firmly in place.

Something says, though, that the worst is over, that Chavez Ravine will buzz again in 2012. Something says that you won't have to explain yourself to your pals when you go to a Dodgers game next summer. Something says the Dodgers could be on their way to a comeback. That something is a brief announcement from the commissioner's office, dated on this day, Nov. 2, 2011: "The Los Angeles Dodgers and Major League Baseball announced that they have agreed to a court supervised process to sell the team and its attendant media rights in a manner designed to realize maximum value for the Dodgers and their owner, Frank McCourt. The Blackstone Group LP will manage the sale process."

It doesn't mean the Dodgers are back. But it means McCourt is gone. By some reckonings, that’s almost as good.

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