Commentary

Bud Selig's delicate Dodgers balance

Frank McCourt gets to choose who buys the team. Can the commissioner influence him?

Originally Published: January 9, 2012
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

In so many ways, it is one of the apt legacies of Bud Selig's erratic tenure as commissioner of Major League Baseball: Fed an apparent batting-practice fastball when it comes to selecting new owners for the L.A. Dodgers, Selig is still even money to hit a weak roller to short.

[+] EnlargeBud Selig
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesIt's a puzzler, this Dodgers sale. And one of the puzzling elements about it is how much influence Bud Selig will be able to exert over it.

Line drive, Bud. One time. You need a ball in the gap here.

It almost defies credulity, this thing. With the reported involvement now of members of the Disney family as its latest modification, the sale of the Dodgers officially has become one of the most star-studded processes baseball has ever known.

You've got playing-day luminaries (Orel Hershiser, Steve Garvey). Mega-money brokers (hedge-fund titan Steve Cohen, investment firm guru Tony Ressler). Outsiders with stunning sports cachet (Mark Cuban). Beloved athletes-turned-businessmen (Magic Johnson). Dodgers executive royalty (Peter O'Malley, Fred Claire). Goodwill ambassadors for the sport (Joe Torre). And now, reports the L.A. Times, the family of the late Roy Disney, Walt's nephew, making this truly a small world of big names.

Those names cross generations. They intertwine with each other's storylines. They inspire Dodgers fans to dream of a day when the franchise again is associated with respectability, winning, quality.

Unquestionably, the line of applicants outside Major League Baseball's door is testament to the truth that the Dodgers remain a potential crown jewel in the sport.

[+] EnlargeFrank McCourt
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesChances are, Frank McCourt's choice of a buyer will suit his needs more than baseball's needs.

In the dream scenario, you'd see several of these competing entities find a way to coalesce into one superpower of an ownership group. They'd burst onto the scene with deep pockets and shallow tolerance for mediocrity, and that would be that.

But that is merely the dream. Here in the real world, Selig must try desperately to influence the sale to the good of the Dodgers and their fans -- and, by extension, MLB itself.

And that's the thing. In this hour of critical need, the commissioner and baseball are in the ominous position of not being able to actually dictate how the process goes. (In other words, swing and a slow roller.)

That job, and I am not making this up, falls very essentially to Frank McCourt, the man whose terminally disastrous ownership of the Dodgers put baseball in this spot in the first place, casting about for someone to rescue what has always been a glamour franchise.

McCourt's embarrassing reign of error -- an eight-season timeline punctuated by declining attendance, roster chaos, claims of financial abuse and a ruined marriage that ultimately led to the sale -- will somehow end with his being able to hand-pick the bid that best suits his money needs. McCourt secured that ability -- to choose his buyer -- as one of the conditions of his "surrender" of the franchise last year.

Under normal circumstances, the idea of a seller having such control is so commonplace it isn't worthy of mention. But these are not normal circumstances. And McCourt, who ought to be wrapped in crime-scene tape and carted off the premises for his horrible bungling of the Dodgers, is instead one of the drivers in the bankruptcy court proceeding that will culminate in the sale.

[+] EnlargeMcCourt/Torre
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty ImagesFrank McCourt once hired Joe Torre to manage the team. Think that gives Torre an inside track to ownership now?

I don't know how this Dodgers thing could get mangled, but if McCourt is principally involved, I have reason to believe it will. McCourt wants -- probably needs, in light of his debts and divorce -- his money. He wants to get out of the whole Dodgers thing with some walking-around cash. In the "bid book" distributed to potential buyers of the franchise, for example, it is noted that whoever takes over the Dodgers will owe a McCourt company at least $14 million a year in payments above and beyond the operating costs for the team.

That's parking-lot rent, basically. That is Frank McCourt hanging on to the bitter end.

And that, in a roundabout way, is the Bud Selig legacy we're talking about.

Selig, as commissioner, in concert with baseball's other owners, made the decision to allow McCourt to purchase the Dodgers in 2004. It was a terrible call. The McCourts proved to be both out of touch with a Los Angeles fan base about which they knew nothing and, far more seriously, significantly underfunded in terms of running a pro sports franchise.

This time around, Selig has to be as sure as he possibly can that the Dodgers are being handed over to responsible, invested ownership. To be sure, simple star power doesn't necessarily translate into those owner qualities. But just as surely, Frank McCourt is going to be looking at the highest bidder, period. That is the process Selig must influence.

[+] EnlargeSteve Garvey
David Livingston/Getty ImagesSteve Garvey was a Dodger during some of the franchise's better days. Would that make it hard to reject his group's bid?

So it's a tricky, sophisticated maneuver that Selig must initiate. He must bring together a scenario in which McCourt not only makes the profitable decision for him, but the right one for the franchise. Selig has to convince McCourt that money isn't everything without short-circuiting McCourt's clear ability to select the biggest offer and move on. Try that one on for size.

The act that lies just ahead will require Selig to be as nimble as he's ever been as commissioner. If he can somehow stitch together a deep-pocketed, high-minded bid group from some of these competing entities, he could well secure for the Dodgers a future that befits the franchise's history and standing in the game.

Fortune and success are guaranteed to no one, no matter the Hollywood star power involved. But baseball is better when the team in L.A. matters, so it's up to Bud Selig to rescue the Dodgers from Frank McCourt one more time. It'll take a line drive to the gap to do it.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Voodoo Wave," is in international release. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named a Top 10 Sports Book by Booklist. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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