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With new owner, Dodgers need a facelift

At long last Frank McCourt has opened up the path for the Los Angeles Dodgers to move out of the purgatory his destructive divorce and financial mismanagement subjected the team to these past two years. Away from the scandal, embarrassment and uncertainty he created by pursuing his best interests instead of the teams'.

But moving on is different than moving forward. Changing hands is different than changing directions.

This historical crossing should be an opportunity for the Dodgers, not simply a relief.

It might sound like a subtle point, but if baseball misses the distinction, the Dodgers miss out on their best chance to become relevant again in both this city and this sport.

It's easy to forget all these years later, and after all that has happened, how things really were in sunnier days. Before the McCourts, before Fox, before Peter O'Malley and his family decided to put the Dodgers up for sale.

Time seems to squeeze out the unremarkable, unsavory parts of our memories and embellish the people and places we were fondest of. Emotion resonates through the years, details blur.

But the Dodgers were not a healthy team when O'Malley sold them on Jan. 6, 1997. Their way of life was becoming extinct.

"I think family ownership of sports today is probably a dying breed," O'Malley said at a news conference that day. "I think if you look at all sports, it's a high-risk business. ... I think you need a broader base than an individual family to carry you through the storms. I think that groups and corporations are probably the wave of the future."

That was 14 years ago and, in all the ways that matter, the Dodgers never have evolved. Their stadium is still the third-oldest park in baseball. Their payroll is still hovering around $100 million. They haven't signed a marquee free agent to a long-term contract since Fox inked Kevin Brown to a $105 million deal back in 1998. (No, Juan Pierre doesn't count). They've lost ground in Latin American scouting. Their television contract is better for their television partner than their own bottom line.

The biggest thing keeping the team in contention recently was their farm system's ability to develop talent such as Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw and Dee Gordon. That, of course, was always the Dodger way. Grow 'em right, let 'em shine, keep 'em together.

But baseball changed a while back. That model can only take a team so far in a sport with no salary cap. To win in the era O'Malley saw coming 14 years ago, an owner has to be willing to make expensive mistakes in order to supplement that young talent with the right, usually expensive veterans.

McCourt never was. The misguided contract to Brown notwithstanding, Fox never was either.

So for the better part of the past two decades, the Dodgers have been stuck in the past and playing by old rules. The franchise has needed a facelift as much as the stadium has.

The problem is that familiarity feels good right now. The past looks sunny and warm compared to the corporate coldness of the Fox era and the shameful behavior of the McCourts.

Dodgers fans needed healing as much as they needed change. And so it's not surprising that in the first week after McCourt agreed to sell, they have unconditionally turned to trusted figures from the past.

O'Malley has offered to head an ownership group. So have former general manager Fred Claire and legendary players Steve Garvey and Orel Hershiser. So has former super-agent Dennis Gilbert, who has held season seats behind home plate at Dodger Stadium longer than Fox and McCourt owned the team.

All have talked about restoring the Dodger way, which is a great start.

But to move this franchise forward, the Dodgers' next owner must be willing and eager to reinvent to the Dodger way. To take the best from the team's storied past and make it work in this new world. To update the Dodgers' culture, not simply remake it.

I had a chance to ask Claire about this point last week. He did not disagree.

"It's not as if I'm looking to go back to the old days," Claire said. "That's not it at all. But I am looking to recapture a spirit that was in the front office, that was in the organization. We were the Dodgers. There's something very special about that."

Part of that spirit, of course, is that the Dodgers have always been baseball's avant-garde franchise. This is the team of Jackie Robinson, Fernando Valenzuela and Hideo Nomo. This is the organization that saw riches out west, not remote minor league outposts.

When country clubs in Florida wouldn't let black players Roy Campanella and Jim Gilliam play golf, Walter O'Malley built them their own course at the team's spring training facility in Vero Beach.

That legacy will always be part of the Dodgers' past. It's not enough to recreate that.

The next Dodgers owner needs to find a way to make it part of their future.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com