Wednesday, April 20, 2011
An embarrassing situation with Dodgers
By David Schoenfield
When I was a kid, the Los Angeles Dodgers were baseball's model franchise -- and no other team was close. From 1973 to 1986, they led the major leagues in attendance every year except one. In 1978, when they became the first team to draw 3 million fans, 20 teams didn't even draw 2 million. They had those perfect white uniforms, with that perfect blue cursive script, and I swear that Ron Cey would make a diving stop in the infield and pop up without any dirt stains on his jersey. The weather was always sunny and 80 degrees, the Elysian hills and San Gabriel Mountains provided the scenic background to Dodger Stadium, and Steve Garvey had those awesome forearms and hair always in place.
The Dodgers were so perfect that when free agency hit baseball in 1977, they initially refused to sign anybody. Let their slumming neighbors to the south in San Diego sign Rollie Fingers and Gene Tenace; let the Yankees sign Reggie Jackson; that wasn't the Dodger way. No, the Dodgers would continue to build through the farm system, develop the youngsters, sell some of the cheapest tickets in the majors, pack the stadium and let the O'Malleys rake in the profits.
It worked for awhile. The Dodgers finally beat the Yankees in the 1981 World Series; they won again in the magical season of 1988. Peter O'Malley sold the team in 1998 to Fox, which traded Mike Piazza and then made pitcher Kevin Brown baseball's first $100 million man that offseason. The Dodger way? Not anymore. The team never made the playoffs under Fox, and in 2004, Frank McCourt purchased the team, Dodger Stadium, and training facilities in Florida and the Dominican Republic for $430 million. At the time, the deal was described as "highly leveraged."
I guess so. A 2004 profile of McCourt in The Washington Post described Dodgers fans referring to McCourt as "McBankrupt" after the money he had to borrow to purchase the team. And yet the story mentions him moving into a $25 million mansion in Bel Air. I would suggest there was obvious trouble from the beginning regarding the McCourt ownership, a situation exacerbated by the messy divorce from his wife, Jamie. (Calling it "messy" doesn't really do justice to everything going on in that case.)
Amazingly, the team has made the playoffs in four of McCourt's seven seasons running the team. But that already seems like ancient history. Right now, Bud Selig has an embarrassment of major proportions on his watch, one of the crown jewel franchises of his sport becoming a laughingstock as Major League Baseball is forced to take over day-to-day operations. The once-proud Dodgers have become the New Orleans Hornets of Major League Baseball.
That opens up a bunch of questions that need answering:
1. If McCourt does sue MLB, as he's reportedly threatening to do, what does that mean?
2. Will MLB eventually force McCourt to sell the team?
3. Will the Dodgers be allowed to make any trades or take on salary?
4. If the Dodgers are fighting for a playoff spot (or dumping payroll), how does an MLB executive make a deal that won't potentially upset another franchise? Will the executive running the team be allowed to operate independently of the other 29 ownership groups? (This was the case when MLB ran the Nationals.)
5. How much more money will the Dodgers need to borrow to meet payroll? (McCourt borrowed $30 million from Fox last week to meet payroll obligations.)
6. How does all this affect the players? A lot of reports from last season indicated the divorce negatively affected the team.
I think this situation -- along with the Mets crisis with the Wilpons -- will be one of the defining legacies of Selig's tenure as commissioner. The Dodgers haven't been to a World Series since 1988, and I think it's good for the sport to have a successful Dodgers team. Let's just say that Selig certainly doesn't want the Dodgers turning into the Clippers.
Which leads me to one final comment: This sport allowed McCourt into its private little group, but it doesn't seem to want Mark Cuban?
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.