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Friday, October 11, 2013
Updated: October 12, 3:41 AM ET
Dodgers take 'Showtime' approach

By Ramona Shelburne

They hold off on the champagne until the very end where Magic Johnson came from. So you can forgive the man if his first reaction Monday night when the Los Angeles Dodgers won their National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves was a little different than what they're used to in baseball.

He lined up at the edge of the infield at Dodger Stadium and hugged each member of the team as he came off the field.

If you know the man at all, it was exactly what you would expect. Johnson is just about the warmest public figure on the planet. Still, it was quite a sight to see this 6-foot-9 NBA legend bear-hugging each and every player on the baseball team he owns a part of.

It's been a year and a half since Johnson and his partners from the financial company Guggenheim Partners purchased the Dodgers from Frank McCourt, but the uniqueness of the arrangement is still sinking in.

Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers superstar, owns part of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Magic Johnson, basketball icon, is baseball's first African-American owner. Magic Johnson, five-time NBA champion, is eight wins away from winning a World Series.

That last part might be the most unbelievable. When he bought the team, Johnson said he would have the Dodgers contending for the World Series immediately. But he said a lot of things then. That was his role as the face of the new ownership group.

With a roster that had been greedily stripped down by McCourt, a weary fan base and a depleted farm system, Johnson's charisma was about the best thing the Dodgers had going for them. So every couple of days he would step out in front of the cameras to try to excite the fan base about the future then inevitably end up with questions about what was wrong with the Lakers.

The thing is, Johnson wasn't just talking to drum up interest in the Dodgers. He meant what he was saying. Sure enough, in the year and a half Johnson has been a part owner of the team, the Dodgers have been run a lot like the late Dr. Jerry Buss ran the Lakers during their golden era, when he brilliantly translated the glitz and glamour of Hollywood in the 1980s onto the court and into the Laker brand.

Like Buss taught him, you pay a premium for players with star power and you do it gladly. There are natural advantages to playing in Los Angeles, which should be exploited at every opportunity. And if the rules allow you to outspend your competition, why not do it?

It is a formula that built the Lakers into one of the most valuable brands in sports. Johnson referenced the approach thousands of times when he first bought the team.

We just didn't know if it could be translated to baseball.

"I told you guys at the beginning," Johnson said. "What did I want? For these fans to be happy, and that's what's happening. You pay for what you want.

"This is what we wanted. The team is really exciting to watch. [Yasiel] Puig has really energized the team and the city, and then we have the greatest pitcher in baseball [Clayton Kershaw]. And [Zack] Greinke is right there with him.

"All the guys we got are playing stars. Hanley [Ramirez] is back to playing like he was. Carl Crawford is back playing. People thought we were crazy, but look at them, they're all playing well."

All that star power isn't cheap. The Dodgers' $220 million payroll is the highest in baseball and more than double what McCourt had authorized the year before. In just their first full season, the Dodgers' new owners blew right past the Yankees, baseball's standard-bearers for largesse.

It was shocking, and awe-inspiring, to both the city and the game. Their peers griped to the media, painting them as foolish, nouveau riche. Their fans loved it but waited until it translated into success on the field before they fully embraced it.

It was exactly the blueprint Buss had followed with the Lakers, as he lavishly spent on superstars like Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to the endless consternation of the rest of the NBA.

But who needs to be liked by your peers when you win 16 NBA titles?

The Lakers, apparently. After decades of being upstaged, the rest of the NBA started getting even during this last round of collective bargaining talks.

"I had owners tell me, 'We are going to fight for more and more revenue sharing,'" Lakers president Jeanie Buss wrote in an updated version of her book, "Laker Girl." "'We can't beat you on the court, so we are going to take you on in the boardroom because that is our only hope.'"

They won too. Increased revenue sharing and increased penalties for going over the league's salary cap have negated many of the advantages the Lakers have historically been so good at exploiting.

In baseball, those advantages are still plentiful. Yes, there's revenue sharing and luxury taxes, but they are less prohibitive and punitive in baseball than what's become of the NBA.

The real question, though, isn't whether Johnson's group will keep running the Dodgers like the Lakers of old. They've answered that enough times by now. The real question is whether that strategy can work in baseball for as many years as it did for the Lakers in basketball. One glance at the bloated payrolls and underachieving teams in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago and Anaheim this year answers that.

For a few years, buying the best free agents and trading for the most expensive players like the Dodgers have can yield great rewards. But in the long run, the best organizations are built from the ground up, with homegrown talent. You know, like the Dodgers' opponent in the NLCS, the St. Louis Cardinals, has done.

The Dodgers owners have said all that from the beginning too. They've invested heavily in their minor league system, in the hopes it will bear fruit.

For now, they're doing things the Laker way better than the Lakers themselves can do it anymore.

"We're happy for the whole organization," Johnson said. "This team and the staff, but also what we've been able to provide for this town. I can't go anywhere. It used to be all Lakers. Every question was, 'What's wrong with my Lakers?' I haven't heard that yet. Now they're all excited about the Dodgers. I won't get the Laker questions until we're done with our run, hopefully."