Kasten: Dodgers focused on future
Nearly three months ago the new owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers stood on a stage in center field and promised that they'd do better.
A lot of things were said that overcast morning in early May. A lot needed to be said.
After eight years of wretched ownership under Frank McCourt, the Dodgers and their fans needed an exorcism as much as a vision for the future. A mess had been made; a civic trust had been violated.
Under the circumstances, it would've been easy for the new guys to pile on. It probably would have been smart, too.
But for a number of reasons -- some of them noble, the rest legal as part of the sale agreement included a non-disparagement clause -- the only ones relishing a last swipe at McCourt that day were the fans and reporters in attendance.
The new guys, part-owner Magic Johnson, team president and CEO Stan Kasten and controlling owner Mark Walter, just promised to do better.
In the best of lights it was classy and courageous. In the worst of lights, it was a frustrating cop-out.
Nearly three months later, their tune has remained remarkably consistent. Only now they're not just singing it, they've acted on it. And yes, they've done better.
They said they were going to spend money to retain the Dodgers' core players and they have, starting with the five-year, $85-million extension they committed to right fielder Andre Ethier.
They said they were going to reinvest in the farm system and international signings and they have, swiftly locking up first-round pick Corey Seagar (a Scott Boras client) with a $2.85 million signing bonus and signing Cuban star Yasiel Puig to a seven-year, $42 million deal.
They've lowered parking prices from $15 to $10, made players more accessible to fans through autograph signings, shortened concession lines by hiring more workers, and have begun soliciting designs from architectural firms to upgrade Dodger Stadium beginning this winter.
Most of these are symbolic things. Statements designed to get people's attention and earn trust back quickly. The more substantive work will be far less glamorous or splashy. The results will take far longer than three months to measure. But symbolic gestures are also a way of signaling that there is much more to come.
As the new Dodgers ownership group finishes its first three months on the job, ESPNLosAngeles.com sat down recently for a wide-ranging interview with team president Stan Kasten.
He was, as always, on his way somewhere else -- in this case another town-hall meeting with season ticket holders at the stadium.
"I do a lot of meeting and talking to people," Kasten said. "I never really stay in one place for long. I'll spend a few innings in the stands talking to fans, a few innings with (general manager) Ned Colletti in his suite, a few innings in the press box talking to [the media] or the clubhouse talking to players. I move around a lot.
"Since we've taken over we've gotten thousands of suggestions from people. It's mostly the usual stuff. Ideas on how parking can be better, concessions, which players we should trade for.
"It's all stuff we know, but it's a good way for us to gauge what the hot buttons for people are."
It's also a good way to signal to fans that their voice will be heard again.
"We're listening," he said simply.
That may seem like a small point. Or yet another symbolic gesture. And maybe it is. But it's a start.
Kasten said the new ownership had done enough due diligence before buying the team to know how extensive the work of rebuilding both the Stadium and the franchise's trust with its fans. Much of the wiring and plumbing inside Dodger Stadium dates to its opening in 1962. WiFi and cell phone service are spotty on nights with large crowds.
"I'm told to be careful if I want to plug one more toaster in," Kasten joked. "So yes, we have real critical needs that I'm currently working on."
Those nuts-and-bolts type upgrades will begin this winter. By Opening Day next season, Kasten said he expects the majority of those issues to be fixed.
Longer-range goals like adding restaurants, children's sections and a history display to the stadium, restocking the farm system and spending top-dollar on impact free agents will take a few years to manifest.
"I've often said, for a guy who does what I do, I'd be much less interested in coming into a situation where things are swimming along, and the franchise is coming off consecutive world championships. There wouldn't be much to do. The fun is in building something."
So far the building has been slow but steady. Kasten said that the team has sold more than 3,000 season tickets since Opening Day and that attendance is up by almost 5,000 a night over last season.
"I understand that's almost entirely because the team has been so good," Kasten said. "But there's nothing about ownership that has been a negative for them.
"It just goes to show you what we believed: If there was change, if there was a commitment to doing what people regarded as the right way, if there was some credibility in your ownership, people would respond because they're just dying to come back."
This is about as far as Kasten or any of the new ownership group comes to saying something negative about McCourt.
"I've learned I'm not on safe ground with anyone discussing former ownership or discussing parking so I just stay on Dodgers, where I'm on very safe ground," he said. "So I'm not going to go back and revisit it.
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"I will say this. Other than (the media), I've not been asked about former ownership in two months. Not one person, not one fan, has asked me about that. Not one of the thousands and thousands of people that I've talked to, not one has asked me about that. And I would suggest that you have a troubling fetish if you're still focused on that."
Kasten's tone drifts toward combative when I ask about McCourt. But he's been around long enough to know why the question is being asked. In person, he seemed more annoyed than angry.
I get it. He and the new owners have done a lot in their first three months. It would be nice if they could be judged solely on those actions and deeds and not contextualized by the mess they inherited.
Could they have made it easier on themselves by taking a clean, swift shot at McCourt early on? Of course. A better, less-confusing answer to questions about whether McCourt stood to profit in any way from his half-interest in the stadium's parking lots would've helped, too.
But three months have passed and they've done a lot of what they said they would. They've listened and they've learned. They've spent money and seem intent on spending more.
Kasten said the Dodgers are operating without a payroll "until we learn what it should be," and that "we're going to be as aggressive as we can" at the trading deadline later this month.
"For the next two weeks we have scouts all over the country at every game that there might be a player," he said. "So we're taking it very seriously."
There is a long road to travel still. Three months is barely enough time to make a start, let alone envision a finish. But one thing has become very clear. This new ownership group has little time or energy to worry about the past.
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