Dodgers' Mark Walter takes long view
LOS ANGELES -- Mark Walter is the CEO of a company that controls more money than many European nations. He is the controlling owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of Major League Baseball's most historic franchises. He confirmed Tuesday that his company is exploring a bid for AEG, the sports and entertainment goliath that owns the Los Angeles Kings, Galaxy, Staples Center, the Home Depot Center, a portion of the Lakers and is the driving force behind the Farmer's Field project that is hoping to lure an NFL team to the city.
Financially and conceptually, he has the means to do pretty much anything he wants.
But after the Dodgers' heartbreaking 4-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday night eliminated them from postseason contention, Walter could only sit quietly on the couch in Don Mattingly's office and listen as the manager tried to explain how a team that pulled off the biggest in-season trade in baseball history failed to make the playoffs.
"We made the Boston trade and from there I think there was this huge expectation and we just didn't do anything," Mattingly said. "It was kind of surprising from that point. It took us a long time to get going."
Walter and team president Stan Kasten listened closely to Mattingly, nodding along at times, but mostly just looking like they were trying to process it all too.
This wasn't what they had in mind when they authorized general manager Ned Colletti to take on $260 million in payroll obligations from the Boston Red Sox in a trade for Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto at the end of August.
But Walter has taken enough risks in his financial career to know they don't always work out. At least not in the time frame you hope for. So while he seemed disappointed after Tuesday's loss, he wasn't thrown by what happened this season.
"Are we disappointed we didn't win more? Absolutely," Walter said during an interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com before Tuesday's game. "I hope everybody is. But we didn't do it just for this season. We did it to make the team solid and better for as long as it can be. I think this is a better team now."
While the financial muscle flexed in the trade raised eyebrows all over baseball, Walter said the decision to green-light it had nothing to do with money.
"What I don't think people got about that trade is we wouldn't just throw money away to make the team slightly better. It's gotta make sense," he said.
"I feel like the people we got are people we should be able to count on as a core group of players for a long time. We got a good young first baseman who happens to be about the same age as the guy in right field, and shortstop, and center field."
Walter isn't the guy tasked with figuring out why all that talent didn't translate into more wins this year. He pays Colletti, Kasten, Mattingly and a host of others in the front office and clubhouse to analyze those things.
He is the guy who gets to decide what type of philosophy will govern this franchise going forward, however. And on that note he's pretty clear: The way he and his partners ran the Dodgers this year is the new normal.
"We didn't do any of this to impress people," he said. "When someone says we threw money at [problems], I say it's more like, 'What did it take to get a player like [Gonzalez]? And I don't think there's any other way."
As for how Mattingly managed the team this season, Walter was supportive.
"One of the things I've learned is that baseball is something that happens over time," he said. "So you dump a bunch of guys who didn't go through spring training together more or less at the end of August. I'm not sure you can judge it that way."
"The team made a lot of moves," Walter said. "And I think he did a great job."
It's hard to say when or if Walter will feel like enough time has passed to start judging things. When you're around him, you get the feeling he's always analyzing. Always thinking. Always processing. It's how you get to be the CEO of a company that manages $160 billion in assets.
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In our chats this season, the conversation has flowed easily from baseball to high finance to city politics and his philosophy on corporate responsibility and philanthropy.
During games he cheers like an enthusiastic fan from the owner's box but sits close enough to study the way individual players prepare and conduct themselves on the field. Before games he's as likely to be standing on the cage watching batting practice as he is to be chatting with Mattingly, players or guests of the team.
"I see Mark all over," Mattingly said. "He was in St. Louis. [His business partner] Todd Boehly was in Cincinnati the other day. He was in Atlanta.
"It's been good. I get to continually hear what their thinking is. Their approach to what we're doing here. I want to encourage that."
Baseball has always been a passion for Walter, but never at this level. He was just a fan. He still is. But now he's also an owner, learning the ropes in an entirely new world.
It's why he brought in an experienced baseball man in Kasten and attached sports and entertainment moguls Magic Johnson and Peter Guber to the ownership group.
Since buying the team, Walter has immersed himself in baseball. He works a full day at Guggenheim's Santa Monica offices, beginning as early as 5 a.m., then heads to Dodger Stadium for night games, where he seems to live and die with every play.
"I guess I didn't really have expectations about the experience," Walter said. "It really has been a lot of fun. The players have been great. They really are good people."
That last part means something to him. For the next five minutes he gushes about how much Matt Kemp does for people in need, flying kids out for games, taking time out to meet them, never promoting any of these things publicly.
"He really does a lot nobody ever hears about," Walter said.
After the game, Walter found Kemp staring blankly off into the stands. The finality of it all was sinking in for both of them: Kemp trying hard to swallow this disappointing, injury-riddled season; Walter digesting how he'd done everything he could as an owner to give his team a chance to win on the field, only to come up short.
It wasn't a time to say anything, however. Walter patted Kemp on the shoulder.
They'll both have to try and do better next year.
"It is what it is," Kemp said. "We all say we wish we could've started hitting better sooner, but we still had a chance to do it. We kind of just came up short."
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