He Has a Lot to Answer for Now


Barring the unexpected, it will be only a few days now until Boston real estate developer Frank McCourt sticks his leveraged loafers into the caldron of dismay and discontent swirling around the Dodgers.

Seldom, if ever, has a new owner confronted a more incendiary environment.

There’s the aroused populace -- angered by the failure to improve baseball’s worst offense, envious of the attractive acquisitions by the Angels and skeptical about McCourt’s financial ability to operate the Dodgers at a competitive level.

There are the opportunistic politicians -- energized by the 11th-hour offer of Eli Broad to buy the club and belatedly weighing resolutions urging everyone involved in the decision to anoint local ownership despite the reality that McCourt’s bid has all the appearance of a done deal.


If, in fact, major league owners vote Thursday to endorse their ownership committee’s expected recommendation that his bid be approved, what can McCourt do to reduce the heat?

What should he do?

Well, the unrest may be too deep-rooted for any instant magic, but here’s a three-point start:

1. Reveal his motivations and intentions, immediately and totally.

2. Remove Dan Evans as general manager, replacing him with one of two proven winners: Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics or the available Pat Gillick.

3. Retain Jim Tracy as manager, but with a wary eye to whether he has the respect and control of his team.

By the numbers:

Speak Up, Please

The frenzied fan base demands and deserves to know where McCourt is headed with the Dodgers.

Among the questions:

* Why would a man whose assets are tied up in real estate go so deeply in debt to acquire an entity claiming losses of $40 million or more a year if this isn’t simply a property acquisition in which McCourt is more interested in the terrain than the team?


* Does he really plan to reduce the payroll to the $75-million range of the San Francisco Giants and model the Dodgers after their dreaded rivals?

* Can he find the Southern California investor required in his restructured purchase agreement with News Corp. and whom he failed to find when initially formulating his financing plan?

* Does he expect to survive longer than the three years many local analysts have predicted will be his financial lifeline with the Dodgers, or will News Corp., largely underwriting his purchase in its determination to get rid of the team, be forced to take it back even before then?

A columnist in the Boston Globe last week proposed taking up a collection to help McCourt leave town and wrote that few in the city’s long history had “talked the talk more and walked the walk less” than McCourt.

Dodger partisans will ultimately draw their own conclusions as to whether McCourt’s walk is that of his talk, but that doesn’t change the immediate prescription: He needs to start talking and providing answers as soon as he’s officially exposed to the local flames.

Out With the Old

The furor surrounding Evans’ inactive winter is too intense to repair and almost too inexplicable to explain.


Yes, the pending ownership change and shadowy reluctance of McCourt and News Corp. to make a contract acquisition that would change the parameters of their deal may have handicapped Evans some, but no excuse is sufficient.

He has done nothing with the financial flexibility of which he boasted after trading Kevin Brown or the money saved by the departures of Brian Jordan and Andy Ashby, among others.

Instead of firing out of the off-season gate in pursuit of a bonafide run producer, Evans gave lip service to a mysterious plan and options that failed to materialize.

Of course, the off-season isn’t over and he may still acquire a Travis Lee or Richard Hidalgo or Paul Konerko or Frank Thomas (how long has the National League been using the designated hitter?).

But it is now the last week of January, the trade and free-agent markets have been almost swept clean, and the Dodgers still have a hole at first base, offensive question marks up the middle, no cleanup hitter to protect Shawn Green, no replacements for Brown’s innings or Paul Quantrill’s resiliency and no choice but to watch Vladimir Guerrero perform with the Angels.

If, as some of his peers suggest, Evans hasn’t always been prompt returning phone calls, if he put all of his off-season hopes in Nomar Garciaparra, it can be argued that nothing has been more damaging than his refusal -- under orders or with the concurrence of Chairman Bob Daly -- to trade his top prospects: Edwin Jackson, Greg Miller or Franklin Gutierrez.


Prospects are prospects until proven otherwise, and the decision has cost the Dodgers a chance at an oft-chronicled litany of proven hitters, left even the soft-spoken Green grumbling in disappointment, threatened to undermine another $100-million payroll and will probably contribute to Evans’ firing.

McCourt needs a broom and a new direction in the GM office, and he needs a bold debut that will be applauded by the masses.

Everyone he talks to, sources claim, keeps telling him that, and the only question seems to be: To whom does he turn?

Beane is obvious.

The A’s have dominated the American League West despite a challenging roster turnover every year and a small market payroll that may be only a block or two from the neighborhood McCourt plans for the Dodgers.

With family in Southern California, Beane would certainly covet a chance to shake off the A’s restraints for a big-market opportunity on the West Coast (the key factor in his decision to reject a lucrative offer from the Boston Red Sox in 2002).

Industry sources also believe that Oakland owner Steve Schott would allow him to escape his long-term commitment providing the Dodgers satisfied the A’s compensation demands while also meeting Beane’s salary request. Whether McCourt would pay the price while buying out Evans in 2004 is uncertain.


What isn’t is this:

Although Beane has long been considered the front runner if McCourt were to make a change, Gillick has become a prime contender whose current employer probably wouldn’t require compensation.

At 66, Gillick still has an advisory role with the Seattle Mariners (Bill Bavasi having become the GM), but the USC graduate has long thought about a return to his Los Angeles-area roots.

Widely respected, Gillick was part of a group that tried to buy the Angels from Jackie Autry, and he would probably consider the chance to turn his hometown Dodgers into a winner as the final statement of a distinguished career in which he produced titles in Toronto, Baltimore and Seattle.

How this plays out isn’t certain, but this should be:

The good soldier -- as Daly guardedly described Evans recently while acknowledging that he had not recommended his retention to McCourt -- needs to be discharged.

Managing OK, Sort Of

It is unfair to suggest that the best thing Tracy has going amid the ownership change is the calendar. There are only three weeks until spring training and there are only so many changes a new owner can make before the Vero Beach encampment.

That definitely works in Tracy’s favor, but he deserves another chance beyond that.

The Dodgers have averaged almost 88 wins in his three years despite the injuries of 2002 and the broken bats of last year.


It is difficult to say what the manager could have done differently to help the Dodgers outlast and overcome the Giants last year and Arizona Diamondbacks in the two previous years.

Yet, until he wins, there will be the perception that he still has some proving to do, and now he will have to do it with a team that simply isn’t as strong as last year’s and with a new owner -- and, perhaps, a new general manager -- warily watching for the control and respect he generates.

There were two incidents last year that seemed to shake his players’ confidence.

One happened in front of the full squad when a defiant Brown simply refused to leave a game his manager was ordering him out of, hurling a defiant expletive at Tracy in the process.

The other occurred in September during a pivotal loss in Arizona when he failed to bring in Eric Gagne to face Steve Finley during an eighth-inning Diamondback rally even though Finley had overwhelming statistics against Quantrill, then pitching, and a frantic Gagne was calling from the bullpen to say he was ready and willing to work.

Finley promptly delivered the key hit in a killer comeback and Tracy said later he didn’t consider using Gagne with his team up by four runs when the inning started, tended to lay the blame on Quantrill and said he had nothing for which to apologize.

Two days later, however, with a veteran player having gone to him to tell him he was going to lose the clubhouse, Tracy called a meeting and did, indeed, apologize for not employing his closer.


Of course, it’s a tough but valuable lesson when you can learn from a mistake.

Then again, with a new owner experiencing the caldron’s heat himself, how many mistakes he allows Tracy -- or anyone else -- remains to be seen.