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Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Frank McCourt can still do some good

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

COMPTON, Calif. -- At the end of a ceremony that started late and ran a little too long for the attention spans of a group of fourth- and fifth-graders, Frank McCourt looked up from the podium, out into the eyes of his audience and made sure they heard his final message.

This was important. To him and to them, whether they realized it now or later. And if nothing else, McCourt needed to know it would be heard.

"I know this is getting kind of long and it's hard to keep paying attention," he told the group of children who'd gathered to celebrate the opening of a new Dodgers Dream field on Monday. "But bear with us for a few more minutes because what happens next is this field gets handed over to you."

Frank McCourt
In 2008 and 2009 the Dodgers were near the top of the baseball world.

He's given this speech at sandlots across Los Angeles many times over the past few years. These words were not new. But on this day, after all that has happened, they sounded different.

"You can do whatever you want with this field," McCourt said. "I hope what you do is you have fun. I hope you make friends. I hope you play some baseball. And I hope you take care of it, because it's yours."

Nearly eight years ago, baseball commissioner Bud Selig had said much the same thing to McCourt and his ex-wife Jamie when he introduced them as the Los Angeles Dodgers' new owners.

A covenant was formed that day. Trust was offered unconditionally, before it was earned.

McCourt never lived up to those words. Never came close, in deed or in spirit.

But in what could be one of his final acts as Dodgers owner, it finally sounded like he had heard them once and wished he had listened harder.

"I know the last couple years were very, very difficult," he said. "I'm very, very sorry about that."

The apology was non-specific. His missteps are too numerous to count. But regret and remorse don't always need to be hammered home.

"It's been a privilege to own this franchise," McCourt said to some of the media gathered for the field dedication. "My focus is to make sure that I hand it off in better shape than I found it."

There are those who will recoil at the idea of extending any pity to McCourt. Forgiveness is, and should be, out of the question. His sins were too many, the damage he wrought upon this franchise was too great.

But the man had a choice to make after he finally laid down his arms and gave up his bitter fight to retain control of the team he probably never deserved to own.

He could try to do right by the team and leave with a bit of dignity. Or he could leave as badly as he governed, putting his interests above all else.

Monday morning, as word spread that the Dodgers were close to signing All-Star center fielder Matt Kemp to an eight-year, $160 million contract extension, we got the first indication of which path McCourt may have chosen.

Troubled assets are generally stripped down before they are sold in a bankruptcy auction. Expensive liabilities are sold off before they can drag down a sale price.

Kemp was never going to be traded this winter. But there was always some question as to whether the Dodgers are more valuable to a new owner with him locked up with a new contract extension.

That question won't be answered until the team is sold. Only the open market can settle it.

But by green-lighting this deal -- which should be completed in the next few days -- McCourt effectively said the answer doesn't matter. This might not be the high road, but it isn't the low road either.

It isn't nearly enough to grant him forgiveness or sweeten the sour taste he left in the mouths of Dodgers fans. But it's something.

Monday afternoon, he asked for no applause and took no bows.

He was there to dedicate a baseball field to children in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. A few years ago he'd promised to build 50 of these fields. He has had time to finish only 16.

Kemp sat to McCourt's left during the ceremony and shook his hand afterward. City supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas thanked him. Anita DeFrantz, chair of the LA84 Foundation and one of the Dodgers' closest allies in the community, sat to his right. McCourt counts all of them as friends.

He has made a few of them in his seven years here. There were many times when he had fun, because the Dodgers did play some great baseball in 2008 and 2009.

It's the last part of the message McCourt always had trouble with.

The point he seemed most concerned that the children at new field heard.

"I hope you take care of it," McCourt said. "Because it's yours."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.