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Fans Say Dodgers’ Likely Buyer Has 2 Strikes Against Him

Times Staff Writer

Dodger fans might have hailed Frank McCourt as their savior, the man who would rescue their team from the clutches of the increasingly indifferent and occasionally infuriating corporate ownership of Fox. But as McCourt awaits formal approval of his bid to buy the Dodgers, many of those fans have risen up against him.

As the Angels and their dynamic new owner threaten to overshadow the Dodgers in a market they have long ruled, McCourt has yet to explain how he would meet that challenge. He hasn’t even introduced himself, and in the meantime a caricature has emerged of a New England carpetbagger with one hand held out for money and the other behind his back, hiding a plan to blow up a beloved local landmark.

That image has fueled campaigns against McCourt on the air, in letters to The Times and other newspapers, on the Internet and at City Hall.

Joe McDonnell, co-host of a talk show on KSPN-AM (710), said he never has heard such vitriol toward an incoming owner during his 28-year career in Los Angeles radio. Dodger fans call in to rip McCourt daily, with McDonnell leading the charge by tagging him as “McBankrupt.”

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Even Keith Gregory, an Oak Park lawyer who roots for the New York Mets, said he does not trust McCourt with the civic pearl that is the Dodgers, explaining his fears by invoking the local standard for professional sports disgrace.

“The worst thing that could happen is for the Dodgers to become like the Clippers,” Gregory said.

On Thursday, major league baseball owners are expected to approve McCourt, a Boston real estate developer, to replace News Corp.'s Fox Group as majority owner of the Dodgers. The purchase price of $430 million includes the team, Dodger Stadium and its surrounding parking lots -- a total of 300 acres near downtown Los Angeles.

McCourt has said nothing publicly during the four-month approval process, in accordance with the recommendation of major league officials. However, as details emerged of McCourt’s plan to finance the purchase largely with loans, voices of outrage grew within the community.

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“It’s been stipulated by Major League Baseball the Dodgers are a money-losing organization,” said Jon Weisman, a Los Angeles writer and editor who runs the independent Dodger Thoughts website. “So why is a cash-poor guy getting in?”

Commissioner Bud Selig and his lieutenants also have stipulated that the more money a team spends on players, the more likely it can achieve and sustain success. If McCourt must pay off his loans, fans wonder, will he have enough revenue left to pay high-salaried stars, or will he get rid of them and field a less-talented team?

Or will he make his money by demolishing Dodger Stadium, developing that prime land and moving the team elsewhere in the city?

“It’s not the Lincoln Memorial, but Dodger Stadium is a treasure,” Weisman said.

In one segment on McDonnell’s program last week, sentiment ran overwhelmingly against McCourt.

First caller: “It’s a sorry day for Dodger fans to see such a storied franchise go down the toilet.”

Second caller: “This guy has no business buying a refrigerator, let alone a baseball team. The fans are the losers.”

Third caller, an Angel fan giddy at the tenuous fate of the Dodgers: “Big Brother up the street is in shambles.”

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McDonnell, calling the proposed deal “an absolute disgrace,” suggested that owners would have rejected it long ago if not for their desire to pacify Fox, which pays them $2.5 billion over six years for national television rights in a contract up for renewal by 2006.

He provided listeners with the fax number to Selig’s office and urged them to drown the commissioner in objections.

One fan prepared an online petition opposing the sale and provided a link from the Dodgers’ website. On the Angel website, Dodger fans pleaded for Angel owner Arte Moreno to vote against the sale. One Dodger fan, posting on numerous team sites under the heading “Help Me Save My Organization,” begged for contact information so he could lobby owners with personalized e-mails.

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn privately encouraged and publicly embraced an eleventh-hour bid by philanthropist and businessman Eli Broad, a proposal contingent upon McCourt’s failure to win approval this week.

On Wednesday, the day before owners are expected to welcome McCourt into their ranks, the Los Angeles City Council is scheduled to vote on a resolution urging that the Dodgers be sold to a local buyer.

“I understand it’s a business transaction and the views of legislators at any level are not directly relevant,” said Jack Weiss, the councilman who introduced the resolution. “But, at some point, it’s a business that runs on public opinion. I thought it appropriate to support this publicly, since so many people in Los Angeles would appreciate a return to local ownership.”

The people of Los Angeles also would appreciate a return to glory. The Dodgers’ annual attendance has been more than 3 million 18 times in the last 26 years, a milestone the Angels first accomplished last year.

The Dodgers last won the World Series in 1988, their fifth championship in 30 years. They have not won a playoff game since then, a streak of futility exceeded by only four major league teams. In the interim, championships have been celebrated in Toronto, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Phoenix, Oakland -- and, 15 months ago, in Anaheim.

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Fox alienated fans from the start, trading away popular catcher Mike Piazza within two months of buying the Dodgers from the O’Malley family in 1998. The Dodgers have finished out of the playoffs ever since, despite awarding the sport’s first $100-million contract to unpopular pitcher Kevin Brown. After Walt Disney Co. abandoned plans to start a local cable sports network to rival Fox Sports Net, Fox executives acknowledged that the company no longer had a strategic reason to own the team.

Under the O’Malleys, the Dodgers capped sales of season tickets at 27,000. This year, sales are flat, at about 22,000. The Angels expect to exceed that number, setting a record for the second consecutive year and possibly enabling them to outdraw the Dodgers for the first time in the 44 years the teams have shared the Southern California market.

The Angels, now owned by a Forbes-listed billionaire in Moreno, spent $146 million this winter to buy four outstanding players, including superstar right fielder Vladimir Guerrero. The Dodgers did next to nothing, eventually acknowledging they could not pursue any big-name, big-money signings that might further complicate the deal between McCourt and Fox.

“We can’t make any moves that could impact the sale of the franchise,” said Derrick Hall, the Dodgers’ senior vice president of communications.

Although McCourt is silent, reporters in his hometown are not, and their portraits discourage fans from believing the Dodgers will spend heavily once the sale is approved.

In an appearance on KSPN, Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan said of McCourt: “He’s a guy that’s laughed at here, because all he does is talk. He’ll never deliver the goods. The Dodgers deserve better.”

In recent years, McCourt has failed in bids for the Angels and Boston Red Sox. His primary asset -- and collateral -- is 24 acres of waterfront land in Boston, undeveloped in his 25 years of ownership and currently used as parking lots. In a column published in the Globe and widely circulated on the Internet among Dodger fans, Steve Bailey initiated what he called the McCourt Appeal, urging readers to send in money and “help our parking lot attendant realize his dream of owning a major league team.”

Gregory, the Southern California attorney, cited a dark moment in recent Los Angeles sports history in describing what he considered a possible foretelling of McCourt’s ownership of the Dodgers.

“With an owner who has less money than the guys who bought the Kings from Bruce McNall, they don’t stand a chance,” Gregory said, referring to Joe Cohen and Jeffrey Sudikoff, who drove the hockey team into bankruptcy proceedings in 1995, one year after they purchased controlling interest.

Steve Brener, the Dodgers’ publicity director from 1974 to 1987 and currently president of a public relations firm in Reseda, said McCourt must move quickly to ease such fears. Duffy Jennings, a spokesman for McCourt and his wife, Jamie, said Saturday that such plans are underway and that the civic uproar has not gone unnoticed.

“The McCourts are well aware of the concerns that have been raised by their reticence,” Jennings said. “Unfortunately, the process of buying the team required that course of action. Once the sale is approved, Frank and Jamie will be available to the media and plan on being very active in the community. They understand the importance of the Dodgers and are committed to bringing championship baseball back to Los Angeles.”

In addition to media interviews, Brener recommended that McCourt introduce himself to civic leaders and invite ticket holders to receptions at Dodger Stadium.

“He’s got to get his message out there about what he wants to do with the crown jewel of sports franchises in Southern California,” Brener said. “People have had their fill of what’s transpired with Fox. I think the L.A. fans will give him a chance.

“The perception that they don’t like McCourt? They don’t know McCourt.”

Larry Lucchino does. Lucchino, president of the Red Sox, said McCourt can talk for hours about baseball.

“He’s an energetic and determined person and personality with a real love of the game,” Lucchino said. “He’s got a passion in his voice and a gleam in his eye.”

The skepticism that awaits McCourt in Los Angeles faced Lucchino and partners John Henry and Tom Werner in Boston two years ago. The financing was not at issue, but New England fans questioned whether the rejection of a higher bid reflected Selig’s determination to steer a storied franchise to out-of-town owners who would keep the player payroll down and demolish a venerable ballpark.

The payroll is up. Fenway Park is standing, and the Red Sox have spent millions on improvements while studying whether a full-scale renovation is feasible. And, with the Red Sox advancing to within one game of the World Series last fall, then trading for Curt Schilling, one of baseball’s best pitchers, and pursuing Alex Rodriguez, regarded as baseball’s best player, that skepticism has abated.

“There was considerable resistance to our group,” Lucchino said. “Once we were able to introduce ourselves, the climate changed dramatically. We have been warmly received and well treated.

“It’s one thing to have these phantom fears that fans have about people who aren’t ‘from here.’ It’s quite another thing when those people hit the ground and begin to put roots in the community and operate the franchise. If people keep an open mind, I think they’ll be pleased with the return of family ownership to the Dodgers.”

Lucchino recognizes that McCourt cannot win over the Dodger faithful on promises alone.

“I think there’s an enormous opportunity for improvement in that franchise,” Lucchino said. “It is one of the great franchises in baseball.

“It comes down to competence, commitment and communication. It comes down to walking the walk.”


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