Do You Believe in Magic? (And Stan?)

Enough of the hoopla says Frank McCourt finally passed and passed to the best men possible. The hoopla isn’t exactly wrong. The good news for Los Angeles Dodger fans is that one of baseball’s signature franchises can no longer serve as McCourt’s personal ATM machine. The better news, for Dodger fans and for baseball itself, is that the team is now owned by men to whom winning is DNA.

Stan Kasten was the chief shepherd behind the Atlanta Braves’ stupefying division domination over a decade and a half, following years of wandering in the twisted reaches of oblivion. And Magic Johnson, who would probably admit his knowledge of baseball’s play compares to Tommy Lasorda’s of basketball’s play, doesn’t need to know the physics of the curve ball or the Zen of hitting inside out to know a winner when he thinks he sees one.

Finley launched the McCourt era with a lofty bang . . .

Parse it any way you like, but the era which launched with surrealistic promise—punctuated with the exclamation point when Steve Finley defied the San Francisco Giants’ pulling infield and outfield alike as far in as feasible, needed only to get anything in the air, and with the bases loaded lofted something past the infielders, the outfielders, and the right field fence for an eleventh-hour National League West title—and wound down with equally surrealistic malfeasance, has ended.

The only thing that can’t possibly come of this is Magic Johnson supplanting Vin Scully as the face (never mind the Voice) of the Dodgers. Until or unless Scully retires at last, that title isn’t a topic.

McCourt has been called many things in the years that followed Finley’s loft. Most of them probably can’t be republished on civilised pages. Now, however, it’s not unrealistic to presume, as Fox Sports’s Jon Paul Morosi has noted, that the word to McCourt that precedes “you” from now on will begin with a T (as in “thank”) and, perhaps, not with an F.

The Dodgers afield went from Steve Finley’s walkoff salami to Manny Ramirez’s worst of follies in a mere four years. McCourt took him off the hands of the Boston Red Sox, with whom Ramirez had finally worn out his welcome for good. He and we watched Ramirez go on a rarely-precedented 53-game tear to help launch the Dodgers into a postseason where they scored their first postseason series triumph since Kirk Gibson launched them to a World Series ring on broken legs eking around the bases off a walkoff bomb. Of course that couldn’t be quite enough for Manny Being Manny: he pulled into May the following season opening a fifty-game suspension thanks to a positive drug test. He would never be the same player again and, indeed, the Dodgers would rid themselves of him come August 2010.

Somewhere in between, McCourt and his wife, Jamie, launched toward divorce court, through the proceedings of which began the revelations that they had used the Dodgers to finance a six-home, jet-set lifestyle that enabled those with long memories to rescind every horrible utterance ever released toward Walter O’Malley. O’Malley may have taken a back seat to few when it came to avarice, but whatever he had he simply wasn’t inclined to flaunt it, the exception being Dodger championships and Dodger stars. And the memory runneth not to any time O’Malley’s avarice attracted the IRS’s attention.

What the divorce case began, the savages who beat Giant fan Bryan Stow nearly to death in the Dodger Stadium parking lot finished: the exposure of the McCourts’ reign of error, right down to McCourt having pared Dodger Stadium security down to so bare a minimum that the assault and near murder of Stow couldn’t possibly have been prevented. Stow has survived, though it took six months’ hospitalisation to get him there and a continuing residence in a rehabilitation facility to keep him there, so far.

. . . Magic Johnson joins Stan Kasten in ending it with a bang . . .

I have known of some people to whom McCourt has been “stripped” of his “lawful” property rights. Some of them have offered the concurrent thought that it wasn’t up or down to him to provide stadium security. They forget a) that your property rights do not include your right to permit visitors to be beaten senseless on your grounds; b) that a baseball team is no more an independent, autonomous property than is a McDonald’s restaurant (franchise business, anyone?), and c) the property of the Dodgers includes Dodger Stadium. It most certainly was (and remains) the owner’s responsibility to secure those grounds. And would you care to be reminded what might happen if a McDonald’s franchise owner had used that franchise as even half the ATM as which the McCourts used the Dodgers?

McCourt ended up in bankruptcy court when baseball government blocked his bid to sell the Dodgers’ television rights anew to Fox Sports for $385 million up front. His bankruptcy bid to keep the team collapsed last fall. By this week, the list of potential ownership groups had pared down to three, including the Kasten/Johnson partnership financed by the Guggenheim Partners. (Guggenheim’s Mark Walter will become the Dodgers’ controlling owner—managing partner, if you will—when the deal is finalised.) The groups who’d been rejected included groups that included former Dodger icons Orel Hershiser and Steve Garvey, and former Dodger manager and baseball government vice president Joe Torre.

It was McCourt who finally agreed to sell the team to the Kasten/Johnson partnership. It will be baseball government and 29 other owners who will have to approve the deal formally. The lone drawback could be the volume of debt Kasten and Johnson take on; baseball government is notably wary of that sort of thing, especially considering just how leveraged McCourt’s original purchase of the team was. When John Henry and Tom Werner were approved as the new (and continuing) owners of the Boston Red Sox in 2002 despite the lower bid, it was their concurrently lower debt load that appealed to commissioner Bud Selig.

. . . and it looks like Dodger fans won't have Frank McCourt to kick them around anymore . . .

Selig’s apparent hunger for less or lower debt may be counteracted by the prospective new broadcasting network deal likely to be cut, and by Kasten’s presence in the buying group. He knows Johnson—who’s had plenty of business savvy since his retirement as a basketball player—is no business fool, not to mention that he knows Johnson’s image is gilt-edged insurance. Johnson could buy into an Antarctican penguin sled team and give it at-once cred. But Selig also knows Kasten has an enviable track record as a baseball executive. He and Johnson won’t be afraid to spend reasonably on continuing the Dodgers’ reconstruction, considering how hamstrung Kasten felt running the Washington Nationals under former, tightfisted owners, but the Braves didn’t win those fourteen straight division titles by being knuckleheads with the safe, either.

The commissioner isn’t the only one who must approve the deal; it requires the approval of federal bankruptcy judge Kevin Gross, who’s presiding over McCourt’s bankruptcy proceedings. Relax, Dodger fans. And, baseball fans. This deal isn’t that likely to be disapproved. Not even with the $2.1 billion price tag on the Dodgers, the absolute highest price to date that will be paid to buy a professional sports franchise. Say good riddance to McCourt if you must, but this may be the only time in recent history when frustrated fans were only too happy to hold the door for a man about to become a dollar billionaire.

Kasten and Johnson. Johnson and Kasten. You know it’s going to be Magic selling the team and balancing its books while Kasten runs the team and balances the field act. But there’s another tandem name being attached to this pairing. Dignity and hope. Which one personifies which more may be open to speculation. But that’s the kind of speculation for which baseball fans in general and Dodger fans in particular have starved too long, when casting their eyes upon the hills and valleys of Los Angeles and the National League bellwether that plays there.

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