Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Wojciechowski [Print without images]

Thursday, April 21, 2011
Blame MLB, too, for the Dodgers mess

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

This isn't a column about 20-20 hindsight. It's about foresight -- and how Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig and 29 owners wore eye patches the day of Jan. 29, 2004.

That's the day the owners, with Selig's blessings, unanimously approved the sale of the once-proud Los Angeles Dodgers to the overleveraged and underwhelming Frank and Jamie McCourt. The McCourts had as much business buying an MLB ballclub as Charlie Sheen has buying the Christian Broadcasting Network.

This wasn't just any big league franchise. This was the Dodgers. This was baseball royalty.

It was Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. It was Tom Lasorda, Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson. It was Vin Scully, Dodger Stadium and Chavez Ravine.

Frank McCourt
Now no longer pitching for the Dodgers … Frank McCourt.

In just seven years, the McCourts have sandblasted that legacy into fine, worthless dust. They used the franchise's equity as if it were their very own ATM machine, pressing the Fast Cash button to fund their diva lifestyles. They were the kind of people who would have hired a limo to pick up the morning newspaper at the end of the driveway.

Stupendously vain, arrogant without reason and increasingly cash poor, those were the McNightmares. Yet, Selig and those 29 other owners gave them the approval thumbs-up.

Remember Selig's words that day? The sale, he said, "heralds the beginning of a new era of family ownership for one of the game's most storied franchises." He assured us that the transaction "meets all of baseball's debt service rules and financial requirements in every way." And he expressed confidence that Frank McCourt, as chairman of the Dodgers, would "make the franchise a great success."

It was a new era, all right. Of greed. Of waste. Of debt.

One person with intimate knowledge of the 2004 negotiations and MLB vote says McCourt's financial bona fides were in good order at the time, and that no special allowances were made relative to leverage issues. In the owners' minds, he was a qualified buyer whose later financial problems were self-inflicted.

But Selig and the owners knew that the sellers, FOX, desperately wanted to unload the Dodgers. They knew the mega-media company was willing to float McCourt a $145 million loan to complete the deal. They knew McCourt used his Boston parking lot properties as collateral on the loan. (He later defaulted those properties to FOX.)

Who's kidding who? FOX was MLB's national TV rights holder and Selig and the owners were trying to do it a business favor. So everybody drew smiley faces on the McCourts' spread sheets and ledgers and hoped for the best.

Yes, the MLB number crunchers said the deal worked. But there wasn't a lot of margin for error. There were concerns, legitimate ones expressed by media, fans and even some MLB executives, about the McCourts' cash reserves.

Bottom line: Frank and Jamie were buying one of the Rolls-Royces of baseball, but would they have enough money to fill the tank with gas?

Bud Selig and Frank McCourt
Back in 2004, Bud Selig and baseball's owners didn't see the trouble coming from Frank McCourt's ownership.

The answer then -- just as it is now -- should have been no. And it should have been no even before the McCourts filed for divorce and details of their obscenely extravagant lifestyles were made public. Or before Frank McCourt raised ticket and parking prices and lowered payroll after promising that he wouldn't. Or before he tried to solicit Chinese investors, borrowed money from his brother and recently secured another loan from FOX (behind MLB's back) to cover payroll costs.

MLB has taken over the day-to-day operations of the Dodgers and it has itself partly to blame for the situation. The McCourts were baseball dilettantes. They were frauds. But Selig and the other owners still gave them keys to the fraternity house.

Defiant to the end, Frank McCourt issued a three-sentence response to MLB's takeover. In the brief statement, he said the Dodgers were in compliance with MLB's financial guidelines. "On this basis," said McCourt, "it is hard to understand the Commissioner's action today."

It's hard to understand anything when you're in denial. Or when your financial empire is on fire and you can't find an asbestos suit in the closet.

Frank and Jamie never deserved the Dodgers. Dodgers fans never deserved the seven-year Wrath of McKhans. The McCourts won nothing of substance. Built nothing of substance. Leave nothing of substance -- except $400 million-plus (and counting) of team debt and a legacy of embarrassment.

If they're smart, they'll realize they've been checkmated. They need to go very quietly into the night. The sooner, the better.

Meanwhile, MLB will arrange a new buyer and the McCourts will walk away with their tens of millions in profit. And Dodgers fans will get their franchise back.

But Selig and the owners need to learn from this seven-year melodrama, too. The McCourts were the lead characters in this cautionary tale, but MLB was in the supporting cast.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

MORE COMMENTARY