Major League Baseball's announcement that it would seize operating control of the Los Angeles Dodgers sets the stage for the team to be sold and for debt-stricken owner Frank McCourt to be sent packing. That's the good news.
The bad news? This might get a whole lot uglier before a final sale goes through.
Twice in the past decade, MLB has assumed some kind of control over a major league franchise. In 2009, a similarly debt-saddled Tom Hicks announced he would sell the Texas Rangers to pay back his many creditors. In January 2010, Hicks reached an agreement to sell the team to a group headed by Chuck Greenberg and Nolan Ryan. But one of Hicks' biggest lenders opposed the deal, arguing that the $570 million sale price would not be enough to repay all outstanding debt.
The league lent money to Hicks to keep the Rangers afloat. Then, in April 2010, MLB got more aggressive, taking control of the sale process. The league threatened to seize operating control of the team too, if the sale wasn't completed by Bud Selig's unspecified deadline. Less than three months later, the deal was done, with Greenberg and Ryan winning a bankruptcy court battle against a group of hopeful buyers headed by Mark Cuban. The Rangers were so unaffected by the whole mess that they nabbed Jeff Francoeur, Jorge Cantu and, the biggest fish of all, Cliff Lee, in a trade deadline spending spree that looked more like the work of the New York Yankees than that of a team flirting with financial disaster. In the biggest year of turmoil in Rangers history, they made the World Series for the first time.
The damage MLB inflicted on the already failing Montreal Expos franchise was much more serious. The league took full operating control of the Expos on Valentine's Day 2002, even hiring a manager (Frank Robinson) and general manager (Omar Minaya) to run the club. Deprived of front-office personnel and even basic operating equipment by former owner Jeffrey Loria, the Expos did well just to keep the team afloat for three final seasons in Montreal. But the league and Minaya undercut the product on the field.
Operating under the (very likely false) assumption that MLB planned to contract the Expos, Minaya shipped blue-chip prospects Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore and Lee to the Indians for Bartolo Colon. Washington Nationals fans can only wonder how different their team would have looked with those three future stars, or even the fruits of subsequent Phillips-Sizemore-Lee trades, on the roster.
Meanwhile, despite a 2002 season that saw the first attendance uptick in years, MLB moved 22 Expos games to Puerto Rico for the 2003 season. Even with a muddled schedule and makeshift management, the team pulled into a five-way tie for the wild-card lead on Aug. 28. But MLB ruled that the Expos couldn't call up any minor league players for the stretch run despite a cost projected to be low six figures at most and more likely about $50,000. The team was still a long shot to make the playoffs, and those reinforcements might not have helped much. Still, not getting a chance to find out reminded everyone of the huge conflict of interest that exists when 29 rival owners, in it for themselves, take over a rival club.
A day after Selig's 2011 announcement, it seems clear that the Dodgers won't face anything near the chaos that plagued the lame-duck Expos. Ned Colletti likely will remain GM; Don Mattingly will stay in the manager's chair; and, most importantly, key players such as Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier aren't going anywhere. For that, Dodgers fans can thank the sport's de facto safety net. Other teams might be asking why they have to subsidize their competitors and why the Dodgers shouldn't be required to sell off high-priced players if they can't make payroll. Fortunately, the league does understand the value of having 30 healthy franchises, especially when the team in question is the Dodgers. There's no recent precedent, or hint of a precedent, to suggest anything resembling a forced roster teardown.
On the other hand, a contending Dodgers team could cause headaches for MLB. Does the league adopt the same approach it had with the Rangers, in which new spending was allowed, knowing that a new ownership group eventually would pick up the tab? Or does having full operating control necessitate a freeze on spending like we saw with the Expos, where even $50,000 constitutes too much investment for the 29 other owners? There could be a Plan C that solves this problem: The Dodgers could, as they did with Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake, make other teams pick up all remaining salary in any deadline deal, with the concession being a higher price paid in prospects. That's a dubious idea given how thin the Dodgers' farm system is already, but the Dodgers have been willing to do it in those previous cases.
If MLB does put the kibosh on new spending, or even order austerity measures, that still might be milder than what the Dodgers faced under McCourt the past couple of years. The Dodgers didn't tear down the roster after winning two straight division titles in 2008 and 2009. But they also didn't make the smaller, but very necessary, moves to keep their winning window propped open. The club let valuable second baseman Orlando Hudson leave via free agency, when a one-year deal for reasonable dollars surely could have brought him back. They watched Randy Wolf bolt for Milwaukee, failing to beat the Brewers' reasonable $30 million offer or to adequately replace their 2009 ace until it was too late.
Perhaps most problematic of all, the Dodgers spent a grand total of $314,000 on international signings in 2010, dead last in baseball. The same Dodgers team that once dominated the international market by plucking stars such as Fernando Valenzuela ostensibly now needed the money to pay for McCourt's mortgage and legal fees. With McCourt's financial situation deteriorating by the day, even a somewhat draconian ownership stint by the league suddenly doesn't sound all that bad.
More broadly, the Dodgers aren't the Expos, or anything close. There are legions of fans and media ready to jump all over the league if the horrors of Montreal are revisited in L.A. There also will be a passel of prospective owners ready to pounce once the league officially declares the Dodgers for sale. The rapid rise of MLB franchise values in recent years, the intangible allure that still comes with owning a team, and especially the Dodgers' still-strong brand make that a lock.
The biggest remaining issue is whether McCourt will go quietly. There's been speculation that he might not want to pay the enormous legal fees required to challenge MLB's power play or a potential franchise sale against his will. But new Dodgers vice chairman Steve Soboroff told the L.A. Times on Thursday that MLB swooping in now -- with McCourt (supposedly) on the verge of signing a $3 billion TV deal with Fox -- amounts to "having money in the bank and having somebody hold your ATM card."
Time and time again, MLB has gone out of its way to avoid any kind of litigation, to the extent that the league once even went so far as to grant an expansion franchise to Tampa Bay and avoid Vince Naimoli and his lawyers making the league open its books and put its coveted antitrust exemption on the line. Although the circumstances are different here, the takeaway remains the same: If McCourt feels wronged and bucks for a fight, MLB may well fold, and quickly. My best guess? Sometime in the next few months, McCourt will walk away with a big payoff, allowing him to settle his debts and come out of his self-inflicted mess in much better shape than he had dared hope before MLB stepped in.
The biggest source of intrigue could come from the eventual sale. Speculation was already bubbling before Wednesday's announcement. Would A's owner Lewis Wolff bail on Oakland after numerous thwarted attempts to get a new ballpark in San Jose and instead make a bid for the Dodgers? Despite two AL East titles in three years, healthy annual profits and a franchise value that has more than doubled in six years, might Stuart Sternberg consider selling the Rays and dipping his toes in new waters? Could some kind of convoluted ownership merry-go-round take place, similar to Loria taking over the Marlins and John Henry bolting from Florida to Boston to claim control of the Red Sox?
And what of Cuban, the name most often brought up when an MLB franchise goes up for sale or even threatens to go up for sale? Asked by MSNBC's Darren Rovell about his potential interest in the Dodgers, Cuban said: "I won't participate in a bidding scenario, but I'm happy to take a look if the team is for sale."
Act 1 of the McCourt saga has drawn to a close. Acts 2-5 will be must-watch theater.
Jonah Keri covers baseball and other topics for FanGraphs, The Wall Street Journal and other publications. His new book, "The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First," has received critical acclaim from Peter Gammons, Joe Posnanski, Buster Olney and many others and is a national bestseller.