Mark Walter is the promise
The new controlling owner of the Dodgers prefers the background
LOS ANGELES -- Mark Walter had shown up mostly so people could take a look at him and know that he was real -- so they could see his face, hear how he spoke, shake his hand or simply judge the way he wore his new Dodgers baseball cap just a little too high.
The answers Walter gave were important too. People needed to know just how involved Frank McCourt will still be and why he wasn't completely excised from the situation. So Walter stood up and answered those questions honestly, knowing his answers wouldn't satisfy everyone but that it was important for him to simply stand up and answer as many questions as people had.
"Every aspect of this operation in [Chavez] Ravine is managed and controlled by us," Walter said more than once. "All of the revenues go to this organization. To be clear and not to be hiding anything, the former ownership [McCourt] does have an economic interest in the profits that might come from a potential development in the future. Other than that, this is ours. This is our land and we manage it."
When it was all over, when his partner in this adventure, basketball great Magic Johnson, was left to hold court with the assembled media for as long as it took, Walter finally had a chance to say what he wanted to say all along.
"This is the part I didn't think about," Walter said earnestly but without asking for sympathy. "I didn't think that this [buying the Dodgers] would be about me or public appearances ... because it's not about me.
"I keep telling this to my daughter, 'People don't care about the owners, They're going to be cheering for Matt [Kemp], right? And the new hitter that's going to come? And the World Series?'"
This was both a statement and a question.
Walter is still figuring out just what he got himself into by buying the team from McCourt. From afar, he had a sense of how deeply the wounds are. How badly Dodgers fans are scarred. How hard it will be for them to trust again, even if they want to. But being here now, feeling it for himself from fans and players and team employees, is something different.
He'll have to earn their trust over a long time. With actions and deeds, not words. The last guy got that equation wrong.
So fair or not, Walter's first job, his most important job of all, is to earn that trust back. Johnson can lend his star power and charisma. Veteran baseball executive Stan Kasten will lend his expertise and wisdom. But it's Walter, the low-key billionaire from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, by way of Chicago, who really matters.
As we walked together through the bowels of the aging stadium he now owns, Walter said he preferred it this way. The spotlight, the cameras, the fame, all that he could do without. That's Magic's job.
His job is simply to do what he's committed to do.
"People shouldn't be interested in me. They should be interested in me if I'm not doing what I promise," Walter said. "But I'm going to do what I promise."
He had a flight to catch and a charity function in Chicago to attend later that night. He walked briskly, but not so fast that he seemed hurried. I asked when he realized just how much healing has to go on.
"I'm the wrong person to ask about what the city feels. I didn't experience it directly," he said. "Obviously I think that [healing] does have to happen.
"But for us at least, if we do our job, if we help this team and focus on the fans and focus on every part of that experience, I think attention will drift to whether or not we have the right pitcher in the third game of the World Series than something that happened in the past."
It occurs to me that Walter and his partners may not have bought the Dodgers to be saviors. They will forever be cast that way, but the more you listen to him, the more you watched him Wednesday, the more obvious it seems that he bought this team for an entirely different set of reasons, none of which have anything to do with McCourt.
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Walter and his wife, Kimbra, have already given millions to charity. Buying the Dodgers gives them the platform to do more.
"For us, my wife and I, and all of my partners believe that corporations have to be corporate citizens, and individuals who benefit from them, or who have built them, need to give back," Walter explained. "You can't take it with you, and you ought to do something philanthropic with it.
"If I give dollars to some charity, nobody cares. I mean, it helps the charity, but nobody cares. But if the Dodgers do the same thing, they bring more focus to issues and that makes it better."
If that sounds a little like the reasons Johnson got involved in this process, it's probably not a coincidence.
His entire life since his HIV diagnosis in 1991 has been about using his celebrity and charisma for good. To help, if he could. To repay the second chance he'd been given. To make up for the lost years of his basketball career by doing something more meaningful.
It's why Johnson teared up when he was asked what it meant to be the first African-American owner in baseball, fittingly of the Dodgers, the franchise Jackie Robinson integrated baseball with in 1947. That means something to him. Something big. It's why he said "yes" to Kasten when he asked if he was interested in joining an ownership group.
Johnson gets 20 pitches a day from organizations and businessmen asking for him to lend his name and credibility to their cause. His brand is golden. His record is sterling. He cannot say "yes" to everything.
But for some reason he said "yes" to Walter and not to a handful of other money men who approached him during the courting process last fall. He saw something in the shy Iowan who has managed to become a billionaire without granting so much as an interview along the way.
There's an unpretentiousness about Walter. He grew up in a rural area listening to baseball games on the radio and playing catch with his father in the front yard. He didn't have a favorite team. The Cubs, Cardinals and Twins could all be heard on the radio, so instead he gravitated toward Earl Weaver's star-studded Baltimore Orioles teams. His father worked at a concrete block manufacturing plant.
"We did simpler things," he said.
In his initial remarks at the podium, Walter stood with his hands behind his back as he spoke, clasping and unclasping them to turn the pages of his notes. When Johnson ordered him to stand up from his seat and step up to the podium and answer questions about the relationship with McCourt, he did so without protest.
"Wouldn't you?" Walter joked.
It turned out to be a seminal moment in the news conference, the point when Johnson, ever the point guard directing traffic, seized control of the narrative and demonstrated exactly how influential he will be with this group. They listen to him and trust his instincts.
Later, during a small group session, Walter revealed that he'd worked on a joke about moving the team to Cedar Rapids if anyone asked a question about relocating the team. It was a peek behind the door you rarely get from public, yet private, figures. They don't like for you to know that they've worked on jokes or rehearsed answers even though that's exactly what anyone would do in a high-pressure situation.
But the fact that Walter so willingly opened that door suggests that he might prefer it to stay open.
In the end, it comes back to a question of authenticity.
Fans here are desperate for it. But they are also scared of it. McCourt hurt them badly. They don't want it to happen again.
This dream of Johnson owning the Dodgers has seemed too good to be true from the start. There had to be a snag or a hitch. The continued relationship with McCourt, which is limited to future development of the land around the stadium -- even in that case, Walter and his partners would have to approve -- has served as a harbor for those fears. Sometimes it's safer to focus on that.
It is all of their jobs to earn that trust back. To convince fans they are men of action and not words.
That may not be what Walter had in mind when he decided to buy the team. All this attention may have surprised him. He did not get into this to be a savior. But sometimes we are thrust into a reality we did not design, sometimes for reasons that have little to do with us.
As he hopped into a black SUV and drove off toward the airport, Walter turned and stopped a moment.
"Nice to meet you," he said.
Yes, this was a beginning. A good one.
If he does what he has promised to do, one day this really won't be about him after all.
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