Stan Kasten finding his way
Dodgers' CEO brings credibility and straight-forward approach in new environment
The big man, all 6-foot-8 of him, gets the big office. Kasten, one of the most energetic people you will ever meet, doesn't figure to spend that much time at his desk, so he gets the smaller one, although he still gets a sweeping view of Dodger Stadium and the playing field below.
One of the first things Kasten said, when I began with some friendly, innocuous question about how he was settling in, was that he was still figuring out where the bathrooms are. It's an age-old cliche, one that falls especially flat in a 56,000-seat stadium that literally has dozens of restrooms, but it also spoke to the fact that Kasten's first week in charge of the Dodgers has been something of a whirlwind.
It still is a whirlwind, of course, which is why I wasn't in there long. But I was in there long enough to touch on a variety of topics.
First, Kasten cleared up the whole parking-lot mess. Yes, he said, the Los Angeles Dodgers will pay $14 million a year to a newly created joint venture between the club and McCourt -- "our lawyers tell us 'rent' isn't even the proper term," Kasten said -- but no, Kasten told me, McCourt won't have any say over the actual management of the stadium lots.
"It's important to remember, the lots weren't for sale," Kasten said. "We got, for our purchase price, full control of that land. All of the revenue [from the lots] goes to us, period. One of the first things we did was lower the price to $10 a car. That was our decision. We didn't have to ask. We just did it. We were thrilled and happy to do it, but Frank had nothing to do with that."
Then, I asked about the structure of this new ownership thing -- who does what, who has what title, who reports to whom. Kasten is refreshing in the concise and crystal-clear answers he gives to questions. When you are finished talking to him, you know exactly what he said. No reading between the lines. No subtleties or hints. Just direct answers.
"Mark is the owner," Kasten said, referring to Mark Walter, the man with the biggest investment stake in this group. "If there is a decision to make, Mark has 100 percent of the vote. I am the president and CEO in charge of everything to do with Dodgers business, either the baseball side or the business side. And then, there is Earvin [Johnson]. He is an investor and a part-owner.
"We told him we obviously would like as much of his time as he can give us. He said he wanted to help with sales, with marketing, with media. We are very blessed."
One of Kasten's first tasks is to assess. Assess situations. Assess people. Assess what he wants to do with what are now several open positions within the organization, everything from chief financial officer -- Peter Wilhelm resigned earlier this week, but Kasten said Wilhelm will help in any way he can with the transition -- and communications director (that one has been vacant since late last season) to the low-level public-relations assistant job that came open two weeks ago. And that doesn't even begin to address any additional positions Kasten may or may not create.
The big one, of course, is general manager Ned Colletti, who, like any longtime GM now working for people who didn't hire him, is effectively auditioning to keep his job. Kasten and Colletti have spent considerable time together recently, much of it before the sale was completed, so there already is some level of rapport.
"He is obviously a real pro with real experience," Kasten said. "I am trying to learn his methodology and trying to learn the staff he has. Along the way, I tell him what my observations are. Right now, I am learning. I have no preconceptions."
The timing of the ownership change is such that no major changes figure to be made any time soon. You don't fire your top people the second week of May, especially when your team is tied for the best record in the National League.
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One change you probably can expect under Kasten is more of an emphasis on player development. Not that that hasn't always been there, but Kasten is big on it. It was a major part of the philosophy the Atlanta Braves used to build their dynasty under Kasten's leadership, and the recent flow of top talent from the Washington Nationals system -- Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper -- also is the result of drafts that took place during Kasten's tenure as their president.
That isn't to say, though, that Kasten won't authorize big free-agent spending -- when it is deemed prudent.
"I do have a philosophy that you grow arms and buy bats," he said. "I think one of the biggest mistakes you can make is giving a long-term contract to a pitcher. With a batter, you have a better idea of what you're getting. One of the best things you can do is develop young arms and have a stockpile.
"[But] it won't be a question of resources. I like to say we will try to be aggressive, but not reckless. We like to be smart about what we do. I do think the most effective way [to amass talent] is to grow it yourself, and the second best is through trades. But free agency is important to try to fill that last hole or two.''
Finally, I asked Kasten about the general mood among the front office and team employees. He said he has a clear understanding of what he is inheriting, that the bankruptcy and image problems the Dodgers have dealt with seriously dampened the overall morale. That in turn, though, led to a sense of being welcomed -- something McCourt didn't really experience much when he took over the club a little more than eight years ago.
"It has been heartwarming," Kasten said.
I thanked Kasten for his time, shook his hand and headed out, exchanging a few more pleasantries on the way out the door. I was struck by his legendary energy, which you feel almost instantly upon meeting him. And I felt, for really the first time in the nine years I have covered this franchise, as though the Dodgers were in good hands.
Where it goes from here is anyone's guess. But after what the Dodgers have gone through over the past year, we can all take comfort in the knowledge that the only way it can possibly go at this point is up.