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Friday, January 15, 2010
McCourt not showing vulnerable side

By Tony Jackson
ESPNLosAngeles.com

Six years after Frank McCourt came to town from Boston and took stewardship of one of the city's most treasured jewels, the hotly debated issue of whether the Dodgers owner is a good baseball man remains an open question. What is perfectly clear, a point that came into focus yet again when McCourt granted an exclusive interview to ESPNLosAngeles.com on Friday, is that McCourt is a very good businessman.

For almost half an hour, McCourt did what a savvy owner and chairman does when times are tough and everyone knows it.

He dutifully fielded every tough question thrown his way but didn't really answer any of them.

McCourt was asked about widespread teeth-gnashing on the part of fans over the fact that the Dodgers appear, for now at least, to have slightly less overall talent on their roster than they had at the end of last season, this at a time when the rest of their division has improved. In response, McCourt offered rehearsed optimism.

"We have had a great run the last six years, and we continue to build momentum," he said. "The last two years have been terrific, and we basically have the same team coming back that we had last year. There wasn't a lot for us to do this winter because of the way this team was set up going into the 2009 season. Some tweaking is going to take place, but that is all part of the process. Not only do we have a terrific club at the major league level but we have been able to continue to develop great young prospects."

McCourt was asked about ticket sales, which team president Dennis Mannion acknowledged earlier this week were sagging, and about sponsorships, which also need to pick up in the 11 weeks between now and the home opener April 13. Again, he kept his sunny side up.

"We go through this every year, and everything is going to be fine," McCourt said. "We are very, very sensitive to the economy and to what that means to our fans and to families that support the Dodgers, but [the economic crisis] has been going on for over two years now. Notwithstanding that, we had the highest attendance in all of baseball last year, and we have another great year coming up. … There is no question that companies are looking closely at how they can spend their sponsorship dollars differently right now, and we're adjusting to that and making sure we provide great value to our corporate partners.

"It's really all fine."

Finally, McCourt was asked about a May 24 court hearing in which the matter of a legal claim to an ownership stake in the club by his estranged wife, Jamie, is expected to be resolved. Specifically, one day after an interview appeared on the team's Web site in which Frank McCourt seemed to come across as supremely confident he would win the battle, he was asked what contingencies are in place in the event that he doesn't.

"I own the team," McCourt said. "Major League Baseball confirms that I own the team, and we are moving forward. I'm not going to get into hypotheticals."

This is the McCourt we have come to knew the past few years, and really, why should he be any other way? To refuse to acknowledge the obvious sends a certain message to the public. But to acknowledge the obvious? That would have sent a message to those within the organization, the ones whose job it is to pump up ticket sales, the ones whose job it is to fill the holes on this roster and, ultimately, to the ones whose job it will be this summer to take the field and win ballgames.

And really, what good would that have done anyone? Would it have sold one more ticket? Would it have brought in one more sponsorship dollar?

Besides, this mask of optimism McCourt is so fond of wearing isn't exactly hollow. This is still one of baseball's marquee franchises, and even if general manager Ned Colletti isn't able to add a proven starting pitcher by Opening Day, it's also a talented club. Even in their current form, the Dodgers have a decent chance of winning a third consecutive division title, something they haven't done since division titles came into existence in 1969.

To have acknowledged dire circumstances would have served only to undermine all that. To have acknowledged disillusionment among the fan base would have done nothing to change that mood.

But what of McCourt's steadfast refusal to acknowledge that he potentially could have a problem with his soon-to-be-ex-wife and her legal wrangling?

Jamie McCourt's claim to partial ownership -- based on the notion that the Dodgers were acquired during the course of their 30-year marriage and thus are a marital asset -- rests on her contention that a "post-nuptial" agreement she signed in 2004 is invalid.

The agreement declared that she owned the family's four homes in the Los Angeles area and that Frank owned the team. In a clearly delineated, black-and-white world, the existence of that agreement would get Jamie McCourt laughed out of court. But in a world, and especially a California court system, where gray areas exist, Jamie McCourt's contention that her intent in signing the agreement wasn't to relinquish her claim to ownership might be taken seriously.

For now, it isn't being taken at all seriously by Frank McCourt. At least not in his public stance.

"Do you think that if you made a claim to be my partner," McCourt asked, rhetorically, during the interview, "do you think I would make a contingency that that might happen?"

That would be ridiculous. The case at hand might not be.

The likelihood is that McCourt does have a plan in place in case things don't go his way in the courtroom, but he isn't about to tell the public what it is -- or even acknowledge that it exists. Again, a smart business practice. But then, maybe he doesn't. Maybe in McCourt's effort to "move forward," he can't even allow himself to "get into hypotheticals." If that's the case, he is running a considerable risk.

And that is one thing no businessman can afford to let happen.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.