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The bad news? This might get a whole lot uglier before a final sale goes through. Twice in the past decade, MLB has assumed some kind of control over a major league franchise. In 2009, a similarly debt-saddled Tom Hicks announced he would sell the Texas Rangers to pay back his many creditors. In January 2010, Hicks reached an agreement to sell the team to a group headed by Chuck Greenberg and Nolan Ryan. But one of Hicks' biggest lenders opposed the deal, arguing that the $570 million sale price would not be enough to repay all outstanding debt. The league lent money to Hicks to keep the Rangers afloat. Then, in April 2010, MLB got more aggressive, taking control of the sale process. The league threatened to seize operating control of the team too, if the sale wasn't completed by Bud Selig's unspecified deadline. Less than three months later, the deal was done, with Greenberg and Ryan winning a bankruptcy court battle against a group of hopeful buyers headed by Mark Cuban. The Rangers were so unaffected by the whole mess that they nabbed Jeff Francoeur, Jorge Cantu and, the biggest fish of all, Cliff Lee, in a trade deadline spending spree that looked more like the work of the New York Yankees than that of a team flirting with financial disaster. In the biggest year of turmoil in Rangers history, they made the World Series for the first time. The damage MLB inflicted on the already failing Montreal Expos franchise was much more serious. The league took full operating control of the Expos on Valentine's Day 2002, even hiring a manager (Frank Robinson) and general manager (Omar Minaya) to run the club. Deprived of front-office personnel and even basic operating equipment by former owner Jeffrey Loria, the Expos did well just to keep the team afloat for three final seasons in Montreal. But the league and Minaya undercut the product on the field.
|Major League Baseball installed Frank Robinson as a manager of the Expos in 2002.|
Perhaps most problematic of all, the Dodgers spent a grand total of $314,000 on international signings in 2010, dead last in baseball. The same Dodgers team that once dominated the international market by plucking stars such as Fernando Valenzuela ostensibly now needed the money to pay for McCourt's mortgage and legal fees. With McCourt's financial situation deteriorating by the day, even a somewhat draconian ownership stint by the league suddenly doesn't sound all that bad. More broadly, the Dodgers aren't the Expos, or anything close. There are legions of fans and media ready to jump all over the league if the horrors of Montreal are revisited in L.A. There also will be a passel of prospective owners ready to pounce once the league officially declares the Dodgers for sale. The rapid rise of MLB franchise values in recent years, the intangible allure that still comes with owning a team, and especially the Dodgers' still-strong brand make that a lock. The biggest remaining issue is whether McCourt will go quietly. There's been speculation that he might not want to pay the enormous legal fees required to challenge MLB's power play or a potential franchise sale against his will. But new Dodgers vice chairman Steve Soboroff told the L.A. Times on Thursday that MLB swooping in now -- with McCourt (supposedly) on the verge of signing a $3 billion TV deal with Fox -- amounts to "having money in the bank and having somebody hold your ATM card."
Time and time again, MLB has gone out of its way to avoid any kind of litigation, to the extent that the league once even went so far as to grant an expansion franchise to Tampa Bay and avoid Vince Naimoli and his lawyers making the league open its books and put its coveted antitrust exemption on the line. Although the circumstances are different here, the takeaway remains the same: If McCourt feels wronged and bucks for a fight, MLB may well fold, and quickly. My best guess? Sometime in the next few months, McCourt will walk away with a big payoff, allowing him to settle his debts and come out of his self-inflicted mess in much better shape than he had dared hope before MLB stepped in. The biggest source of intrigue could come from the eventual sale. Speculation was already bubbling before Wednesday's announcement. Would A's owner Lewis Wolff bail on Oakland after numerous thwarted attempts to get a new ballpark in San Jose and instead make a bid for the Dodgers? Despite two AL East titles in three years, healthy annual profits and a franchise value that has more than doubled in six years, might Stuart Sternberg consider selling the Rays and dipping his toes in new waters? Could some kind of convoluted ownership merry-go-round take place, similar to Loria taking over the Marlins and John Henry bolting from Florida to Boston to claim control of the Red Sox?
|Whatever happens, the Dodgers will count on being able to build around talent like Clayton Kershaw.|
Jonah Keri covers baseball and other topics for FanGraphs, The Wall Street Journal and other publications. His new book, "The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First," has received critical acclaim from Peter Gammons, Joe Posnanski, Buster Olney and many others and is a national bestseller.