McCourt Adjourned

Frank McCourt’s reign of error is coming to its overdue end. Wish though he might have otherwise, it was never truly a question of if but, rather, when, his grip on the Los Angeles Dodgers, his use, misuse, and abuse of the franchise, would be finished. On Tuesday night, it was. McCourt finally, at long enough last, agreed to a court-supervised process of selling the Dodgers, Dodger Stadium (which the franchise still owns), and surrounding real estate still owned by the team.

Nobody thus far seems to know the real reason why McCourt surrendered, but it isn’t a stretch to presume most who’ve been watching the Dodgers’ doings and undoings since McCourt and his wife, Jamie, launched what became California’s most expensive divorce ever believed McCourt would have to raise the white flag sooner or later. The major question seemed always to be whether McCourt—who vowed, in effect, that nobody would pry the Dodgers away from him except out of his cold, dead hands—could or would hold out long enough to destroy one of baseball’s marquee franchises completely.

This much we know: McCourt needs a boatload of money, and none too soon. The Los Angeles Times says he needs over a billion to settle debts and taxes, not to mention another $130 million to settle his divorce from his former wife, Jamie. The paper’s writer, Bill Shaikin, thinks McCourt’s legal team advised him he had two choices left: sell the Dodgers voluntarily, or lose the Dodgers in a more expensive way.

His reign of error is coming to an end . . .

Love or loathe him, McCourt seemed at first to have had a property rights issue while baseball commissioner Bud Selig had a hypocrisy issue, when Selig launched the effort to rid the Dodgers of perhaps their least popular owner ever. After all, it was Selig who approved McCourt’s heavily leveraged buy of the Dodgers from News Corp. eight years ago in the first place. But it was something else entirely to discover that McCourt, as became an early cliche when the battle began in earnest, used the Dodgers as his personal ATM machine.

Things became even testier for McCourt after a San Francisco Giants fan, Bryan Stow, was beaten nearly to death in the Dodger Stadium parking lot after a game in April. Stow’s family is suing the Dodgers; the beating amplified the jarring revelation that McCourt had cut back stadium security drastically. (A McCourt attorney suggesting Stow himself bore some responsibility for the savagery probably only disgusted Dodger fans and baseball nation even further.) Selig’s office took over day-to-day operations of the Dodgers in the same month and assigned a former Texas Rangers president to oversee the team’s finances. McCourt filed for bankruptcy in response (retaliation), taking the Dodgers out of Selig’s hands and putting them into the hands of a bankruptcy court judge.

That judge, Kevin Gross, presided over a case in which McCourt sought approval to auction the Dodgers’ television rights as a way out of the bankruptcy, but baseball government countered with a bid to file a reorganisation plan that mandated the Dodgers’ sale. Gross hesitated to allow the TV rights auction, and while it isn’t being cited as a factor in McCourt’s surrender, it isn’t exactly clear that it wasn’t one of the factors about which McCourt’s legal beagles advised him, either.

Selling the Dodgers and the ballpark could mean at least $1 billion. They weren’t exactly uncompetitive under McCourt’s ownership, but while McCourt and his now former wife used the club as a personal piggy bank it meant the Dodgers lacked the financial flexibility to fatten their farm system or sign viable free agents. They went to the postseason four times in eight years of McCourting, including back-to-back appearances in the National League Championship Series, but got no further.

On the other hand, the McCourts’ financial strangulation probably brought out the most creative side of general manager Ned Colletti. The Dodgers’ farm and dealings have produced an impressive looking group of youth, including but not necessarily limited to Dee Gordon (shortstop), Nate Eovaldi (righthanded pitcher), Jerry Sands (outfielder) Javy Guerra (relief pitcher). A new owner would also have to get down to locking down the best of the Dodgers’ young regulars—center fielder Matt Kemp, lefthanded starter Clayton Kershaw, to long-term deals. And 50-year-old Dodger Stadium, once one of the absolute jewels of major league baseball, needs a facelift at minimum.

It’s one thing for a baseball owner to make money, but it’s something else entirely to use what looks like a Yankee payroll for personal use, as baseball government and the Internal Revenue Service accuse McCourt of having done. The Dodgers were once a model franchise. They were reduced damn near to rubble by an owner who lived and thought strictly in terms of his opulent homes, his bank accounts, and his extravagant-to-the-tenth-power lifestyle, then had it bitten into by a contentious divorce.

Three weeks after the former McCourts agreed to a divorce settlement, Frank McCourt—who had to fight off his ex-wife’s claim to half ownership of the team in the bargain—has agreed to let the Dodgers go. Fans who stayed away from the stadium in droves in protest of McCourt’s dubious stewardship are expected to come back.

Now a broadcaster, could ex-Series hero Hershiser become a Dodger co-owner?

But who’s going to buy the Dodgers? A bunch of names are being suggested already. Mark Cuban—who owns the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, and was the runner up in a bid to buy the Rangers out of bankruptcy court in 2010—is one, but Cuban has said the price was too high even though he did want to buy the team. Former players’ agent Dennis Gilbert (he once represented Jose Canseco, Bobby Bonilla, and Barry Bonds), who was once seen as a favourite to buy the Rangers (until he was sunk, it was said, by rumours that his plans included firing team president Nolan Ryan), is another. Two former Dodger star players, first baseman Steve Garvey and pitcher Orel Hershiser, whom Garvey convinced to join the effort, have said they’re interested in forming a group to buy the team, even hinting that other former Dodgers, whom they won’t name yet, might join the group.

That proved testy enough when Garvey, working in the Dodgers’ community relations and marketing departments, was fired in July after he made it known that—if McCourt was forced to sell the Dodgers—he was interested either in buying the team or buying into it to provide a cash infusion. Garvey also has had a share of financial woes of his own since his retirement as a player, some tied to the divorce and subsequent sex scandals that engulfed him in the late 1980s and tarnished his clean image, some tied to rumours about his and his second wife’s handling of their personal finances.

Three California businessmen—Ron Burkle, Alec Gores, and Alan Casden—have been mentioned, particularly since Casden was in the hunt to buy the Dodgers from News Corp. before McCourt won the bid. Two incumbent owners—Mark Attanasio of the Milwaukee Brewers, and Tom Werner of the Boston Red Sox—live in southern California and might want to make a move to their home turf, which would make things even more interesting in Milwaukee (where the Brewers lost the NLDS to the Cardinals last month) and Boston (where principal owner John Henry has a remake/remodeling of the collapsed Red Sox on his hands).

Even a former Dodger owner wants to be in play. Peter O’Malley—who was forced to sell the team in 1998, after Los Angeles city fathers refused to let him build an NFL facility on Dodger-owned property (which would have brought a huge cash infusion to the Dodgers), insisting that any new NFL franchise for the city play in the antique Los Angeles Coliseum—wants to put a group together to buy the Dodgers and to return as the team’s chief operating officer at minimum. O’Malley has been a staunch public McCourt opponent for at least a year, and it isn’t unreasonable to think many Dodger fans would love having him back at the tiller.

A prodigal owner?

For now, however, Dodger fans can merely breathe and celebrate that the team’s least adored, and least competent owner, won’t have the Dodgers to kick them around anymore. Now, they can look forward to the Dodgers providing them kicks again. Kick number one has already been delivered: the Dodgers, who are accustomed to smashing precedents such as the colour line, have smashed another one, hiring Sue Falsone—their physical therapist since 2007—to be their head athletic trainer, the first woman to hold such a position in any professional team sport in the United States.

Now, they can remember highlights—there were some—from the McCourt years, including but not limited to Steve Finley’s wreckage of the Giants for the NL West in 2004, when the Giants pulled the infield and the outfield in while the Dodgers had the bases loaded, Finley had only to get something—anything—in the air, and got something over the right field fence.

Maybe the new Dodger owners won’t be quite as familial as was O’Malley, who used to buy gallons of ice cream for team staffers for every day the Dodgers were in first place. But they’ve got to be a cherries-and-cream topping for a sundae morning Dodger fans must have thought they wouldn’t see for a very long time.

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