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Thursday, February 23, 2012
No clean break from McCourt in sight

By Ramona Shelburne

Dodgers

For the past six months we have all been rather naive in assuming the biggest potential problem with sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers is the fact that owner Frank McCourt has the power to make the final decision on whom he sells the franchise to.

That the worst-case scenario was McCourt essentially blowing off a good candidate like Peter O'Malley because the former owner has harshly criticized him in the past.

Or that he might sell the team to some cold, calculating financial whiz who is more interested in the team's future media rights and developing the land surrounding Dodger Stadium than adding a hitter to help protect Matt Kemp in the lineup.

Rick Caruso and Joe Torre just reminded everyone of how dangerous it is to underestimate McCourt's avarice.

Thursday afternoon we learned the billionaire land developer and the former Dodgers manager pulled out of the bidding for the Dodgers because of McCourt's refusal to include the parking lots around Dodger Stadium in the sale of the team.

In a letter to Major League Baseball executive vice president Rob Manfred obtained by the Los Angeles Times, Caruso explains that "since the outset we felt that operationally it would be impossible to effectively manage baseball operations having the parking lots that surround the stadium under separate ownership. We believed that during the bid process that we would have the opportunity to buy the lots.

"It has now been made clear to us by Mr. McCourt that the lots are not and will not be for sale."

The tone of the letter is polite and professional. It even concludes with a "thank you for your time and consideration."

The message is loud though. And it is directed at Major League Baseball as much as it is directed at Dodgers fans.

There might not be a clean break from McCourt after all.

There is nothing funny about McCourt using a parking lot in Boston as collateral to buy the Dodgers and holding on the parking lots around Dodger Stadium on his way out the door. Well, maybe that's a little funny.

But the specter of a new ownership group that is in any way beholden or in business with McCourt is chilling.

Forget for a moment how that would play with Dodgers fans. Ignore the possibility those fans might continue to stay away from Dodger Stadium as they did in staggering droves last season if the money they pay to park continues to go to McCourt.

This is a lot simpler than that: With his penchant for litigation and troublesome history with Major League Baseball and the city's fanbase,  McCourt isn't a guy any good businessman would want to be in business with.

The possibility the parking lots around Dodger Stadium wouldn't be part of the sale isn't new. The McCourt company that owns and operates the lots was not part of his bankruptcy filing last summer, thus the lots weren't included in the bid book outlining what is for sale.

It has always been assumed that the parking lots were negotiable though. That McCourt would use them as a bargaining chip to extract another $300-400 million in the final sale.

That is still the assumption among many of the remaining groups. One source close to the process said there haven't been serious negotiations for the parking lots yet.

If that's the case, it's entirely possible Caruso and Torre used the parking lot situation as cover to honorably pull out of a process they might have known they wouldn't win -- either because they weren't willing or able to compete financially with the other bidders.

We'll likely never know the answer to that. Neither side has an interest in disclosing the strength of the Caruso-Torre bid.

But even if their bid wasn't going to be competitive, the issue raised by Caruso's letter to Manfred is valid and no less troubling: There might not be a clean break from McCourt after all.