- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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It has always been there, though very few have bothered to look hard enough to notice. The footnote that means everything to all prospective Los Angeles Dodgers owners, the clause Frank McCourt fought so many months to retain.
When we finally get to the end of this long, tortured road that will eventually transfer the Dodgers into worthier hands, McCourt will have the last word and maybe even the last laugh.
McCourt and his advisers at the Blackstone Group, not Major League Baseball, will select the winning bid from the prospective buyers. That was McCourt's condition for finally agreeing to sell the team. His last moment to control his fate and that of the club he still claims to love dearly.
Baseball will have a large say in the process, of course. So too will McCourt's creditors. But the final say, the final word, will come from McCourt.
At first glance, that fact would seem to be more interesting than important. But for every prospective Dodgers bidder, especially those who have been most critical of McCourt during his flagrantly flawed run as Dodgers owner, it poses a serious problem.
How do you get McCourt to say yes to your bid when all you've done is say no to him?
The majority of the prospective bidders we know about have not been shy in their public criticism of McCourt.
Steve said so much about McCourt, he got fired from his job in the Dodgers' marketing and promotions department this summer.
Former owner Peter O'Malley told The Los Angeles Times in 2010 that "the current Dodger ownership has lost all credibility throughout the city" and that "it would be best for the franchise and the city if there was new ownership."
Former general manager Fred Claire told ESPNLosAngeles.com in November that "I simply want to return this team to the fans. I've always felt the fans had a feeling about the Dodgers and there was a spirit, a connection there."
Former Cy Young Award winner Orel Hershiser has said, "It's not only important to the city of Los Angeles and the fabric of this city, it's important for Major League Baseball for the Dodgers to be significant."
Former manager Joe Torre, who announced he had partnered with L.A. real-estate developer Rick Caruso, has been working in the commissioner's office this past year and is seen as someone who probably aided Bud Selig's effort to compel McCourt to sell the team.
Larry King, who has partnered with Chicago White Sox executive and Beverly Hills insurance mogul Dennis Gilbert, has probably unleashed the most venom toward the man, telling 710 ESPNLA radio, "He has destroyed this team, and it is just sad to me to see what has happened to it. … Basically, he is a nice guy, I don't think he is an owner. I just don't think he is cut out to own a baseball team. He is cut out to be a real estate guy who does deals. He is a deal guy."
None of this means that McCourt wouldn't sell to any of these men, just that they should all be wary of antagonizing him further, and worried a bit that they have already said too much.
It's been a tricky line for all of them to walk. On the one hand, they all felt strongly enough that McCourt was unfit to own the team that they've put their names and reputations on the line to help put public pressure on him to force him out.
On the other, they all know that there will need to be some fence-mending with the man at some point.
Garvey was asked directly about the issue by 710 ESPN's Mark Willard on Wednesday.
"I've always had a direct relationship with McCourt. We've never had anything but a cordial relationship," he said. "As you get into the third and final round of negotiations and bidding, I actually do think McCourt wants it to go into the hands of people the fans feel good about. I don't think it's going to be personal at that level.
"Primarily it's going to be about the money. It's going to be about who pretty much has the most money and is going to be accepted by Mr. McCourt and MLB."
That may well prove true. Industry analysts have speculated that McCourt needs to sell the team for at least $1 billion to walk away with much of a profit after he settles with his creditors and his ex-wife Jamie and pays off the debt he accumulated during his 7½ seasons as owner.
If that holds true, the highest bid that would be approved by baseball and its owners should prevail. Money tends to settle bad blood rather quickly.
But it's still an issue to watch, a liability that has gone largely unnoticed but could prove pivotal.
Only a few prospective buyers are unexposed to it. Former Lakers great Magic Johnson and McCourt have an affable relationship. Hedge-fund manager Steven Cohen hasn't spoken publicly about him. Neither has former Buffalo Sabres owner Tom Golisano.
Only McCourt knows how much it will matter. Whichever group former manager Tommy Lasorda ultimately endorses will get the goodwill Lasorda has built up from all those years sitting next to McCourt in his owner's box at games.
You wonder how much any of that matters but can only hope that it won't.
In his few public comments since agreeing to sell the team, McCourt suggested that he would seek the high road on his way out.
"It's been a privilege to own this franchise," McCourt said at the dedication of a Dodgers Dream Field in Compton back in November. "My focus is to make sure that I hand it off in better shape than I found it."
Baseball has done a remarkable job getting the process this far. It will do its best to make sure the next owner of the Dodgers will be more worthy than the last.
But at the end of this long, awful road, McCourt will have the final say. His last words could be very memorable.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.
Remember: Frank McCourt still has final stay over the Dodgers.