The Prodigal Owner?

In 1962, when the embryonic New York Mets hosted the expatriate Los Angeles Dodgers for the first time, a group of fans still angered over the Dodgers’ departure from Brooklyn lined up against the rim of the Polo Grounds’ upper deck and, in perfect synchronisation, dropped lampshades one after the other spelling out:

O M A L L E Y

G O   H O M E

That was then in New York; this is now in Los Angeles. With Frank McCourt agreeing at last to sell the team his financial pecadilloes had turned into a compromised mess, an awful lot of Angelenos, and no few baseball citizens elsewhere, are crying out:

O M A L L E Y

C O M E    H O M E

This time, of course, they’re referring to Peter O’Malley, the scion of Walter O’Malley, who was forced to sell the Dodgers in 1998, but whose reputation was nearly as spotless as his father’s was controversial. The father had too much taste for wheeling, dealing, and (some said) stealing; the son had too much taste for the quiet way. The father was once reputed to have beaten employees out of their rightful earnings or rewards; the son became famous for sending for gallons of vanilla ice cream for every day the Dodgers occupied first place.

When the depths of McCourt’s monetary shenanigans—his using the Dodgers to finance a very extravagant, six-luxury-home lifestyle; his cutbacks on Dodger Stadium necessities including and especially security—became only too well known, in the early wake of his contentious divorce, the normally reticient Peter O’Malley became one of his most scathing critics. Well before Bud Selig’s somewhat hypocritical move to nudge McCourt out of the Dodger picture (it was Selig—who’d earlier spurned a McCourt bid to buy the Boston Red Sox—who allowed McCourt to buy the Dodgers from News Corp. unopposed, rather than seek other bidders), O’Malley hammered McCourt for defiling the Dodgers.

“The Dodgers are a jewel and earned that reputation not just based on winning games, but on how the franchise was managed,” O’Malley said at the time.

Tommy Lasorda isn't alone wanting Peter O'Malley run the Dodgers again . . .

Some think O’Malley was being just a little too self-serving and a little too forgetful. O’Malley was compelled to sell the franchise in the first place because of two factors: a) He couldn’t convince Los Angeles city fathers to let him build a new NFL facility on Dodger-owned land, the city fathers opting instead to use the Los Angeles Coliseum while pondering a new facility in that area, depriving O’Malley of a revenue resource that might have enabled him to continue the Dodgers as a family business. b) He would have faced a ferocious tax beating had he merely passed the franchise to his and his sister’s children, another idea he pondered.

O’Malley today is considering putting together an investment group that would bring the financial weight he could no longer muster in the 1990s as just a family operator. He has come reluctantly but sincerely to believe that only that kind of group can own and operate a major league franchise successfully, even if he believes—and few would argue with him—that he can still operate the Dodgers the right way.

If O’Malley isn’t kidding around, he may have formidable competition. Two former Dodger icons, Steve Garvey and Orel Hershiser, have put a group together with an eye on buying the team. Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, has been bandied as a possible Dodger owner, though he’s said the likely price (at least $1 billion) makes him a non-candidate for now. Dennis Gilbert, the former players’ agent who lost a bid to buy into the Texas Rangers out of bankruptcy last year, is considered another candidate.

Former Dodger Cy Young winner has ownership designs on the team, too . . .

Meanwhile, the Garvey-Hershiser group may have trouble enough because of Garvey’s own reputed financial difficulties. And, because Garvey—who made little secret of his hope to buy the Dodgers over the past twelve months—was fired from his job working in the Dodgers’ marketing and community relations division in July, possibly because of those ambitions. Hershiser has no such trouble on his jacket (he works now for ESPN as a colour commentator, including for this year’s stupefying World Series, and has no known financial difficulties) but fairly or unfairly the former Cy Young Award winner could be damaged by his affiliation with Garvey, who left the Dodgers for free agency just as Hershiser’s major league career was getting off the ground.

Some, including T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times, think the world of O’Malley as a man while questioning his relevance as a baseball operator. In the final nine years of O’Malley’s ownership, the Dodgers went to two postseasons as NL West winners but won none of those games. (They did, however, finish second four times.) Simers tweaks O’Malley for his 2010 call to restore the Dodgers to local ownership after he himself had sold the team to News Corp. But it’s also entirely possible that O’Malley learned a bitter enough lesson from that, even before News Corp. sold to McCourt.

News Corp. wasn’t exactly the model Dodger ownership—it only began with their big contract signings of injured and prickly pitcher Kevin Brown, and too-often-injured pitcher Darren Dreifort—but they never drove the Dodgers to bankruptcy, either. But their somewhat haphazard operation of the Dodgers must have registered with O’Malley, who might have been enjoying the life of a gentleman retiree but whose heart never necessarily left the Dodgers.

On the other hand, the Dodgers under McCourt’s first year of ownership finished first, nailing the division on the next-to-last day in a game Giants fans still can’t forget: with the Giants up 3-0 in the bottom of the ninth, Dustin Hermanson issued a bases-loaded walk to Hee-Seop Choi, Cesar Izturis reached on a shortstop error allowing Robin Ventura to score, Jayson Werth singled home Jose Hernandez with the tying run to keep them loaded, and the Giants pulled in the infield and the outfield to contain Steve Finley—who lofted one over the right field fence for game- and division-winning grand slam.

It was one of four first place finishes under McCourt’s stewardship. The problem otherwise was McCourt buying the Dodgers with debt, as heavily leveraged a buy as has ever been seen in baseball. While he was hiking ticket and concession prices constantly to offset the purchase, McCourt was also believed—by baseball government and by the IRS—to be siphoning Dodger money to finance a lifestyle thought to be extravagant even by the common standards of the mega-rich. When McCourt’s contentious divorce was settled at last, his former wife (who surrendered her claim to half ownership of the Dodgers) got six of those homes and McCourt had to settle for a mere two.

Perhaps Selig was being just a little too disingenuous when he rejected the package McCourt swore would salvage the Dodgers, a seventeen-year television contract. Perhaps Selig feared McCourt would use those proceeds to loot the Dodgers even further. Perhaps Selig dug in firmer because he came to understand he should have listened to his original instincts, the ones that told him to reject McCourt as a Red Sox owner but slept when he accepted McCourt as a Dodger owner.

O’Malley must have squirmed in his quiet way observing these doings and undoings.

It isn’t just former manager Tommy Lasorda who hopes for O’Malley’s return to the tiller. Dodger fans disheartened over the News Corp. ownership and disgusted over the McCourt shenanigans have long been known for telling O’Malley, whenever they bumped into him, words along the line of, “We wish you were still running the show.” It isn’t unreasonable to think that, if the Dodgers’ ownership and operation were to be put to a referendum, O’Malley would win in a landslide.

2 responses to this post.

  1. So many could-have-beens. This is a bizarre situation. Can’t wait to see the dramatic conclusion… at least he didn’t buy the Red Sox!

    Reply

  2. Indeed. But it was one thing to be in a chess match while McCourt was in his last months owning the Dodgers. It’ll be something else to watch the chess match involving who gets to buy the Dodgers now. And if I know Bud Selig, he won’t make it easy or sensible. He’s quite talented at screwing pooches, you know.

    Reply

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