Dodgers' New Owner Steps Up to the Plate

Times Staff Writer

With his purchase of the Dodgers formally approved Thursday, Boston real estate developer Frank McCourt introduced himself to Los Angeles fans, offering considerable enthusiasm but few details about his plans for the team.

In a highly leveraged $430-million deal that is expected to to be completed next week, McCourt will assume control of the club and Dodger Stadium, as well as the Dodgertown training facility in Vero Beach, Fla., and other properties.

"Welcome to a new era in Dodger baseball," he said. "I'm mindful of the fact that it has been 15 years since your team last won a playoff game, and as far as I'm concerned that's way too long. My first objective here is to end that drought."

McCourt, 49, bought the team from Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which lent him more than one-third of the purchase price, a source said, and will retain the equivalent of a 9% ownership stake. The deal was approved unanimously by baseball's 30 owners in a conference call Thursday afternoon.

McCourt had been precluded from speaking publicly during four months of negotiations with News Corp. and Major League Baseball. In a Dodger Stadium news conference after the sale was approved, McCourt addressed widespread concerns voiced by fans, politicians, sports pundits and baseball officials about the transaction.

The purchase was financed largely through loans, which worried league executives. Fans feared there might not be enough cash left over to bolster a lineup that struggled offensively last season.

McCourt said "we need some players. We're going to get them." But with the team's payroll exceeding $90 million, he did not specify whom he wanted or how much more he would be willing to spend.

There had been speculation that the developer might seek to build housing on valuable stadium property near downtown. To that, he said: "We have no plans to do anything other than play baseball here at Dodger Stadium."

But other changes could be in store for the venerable ballpark at Chavez Ravine, including a corporate naming rights deal.

"We're going to consider doing whatever we can to increase the revenues of this franchise," he said. "We'll consider that along with any other good idea if it benefits the results on the field."

McCourt put to rest questions about being an absentee owner, saying that he and his family -- his wife, Jamie, will serve as vice chairman of the team -- will move to Los Angeles.

"I can't tell you how cold it was in Boston," he said. "We woke up [here] this morning, opened the door and it was glorious."

Terms of the deal remained unclear. McCourt said he committed more than $200 million, but baseball sources maintained Thursday he had taken out an unspecified bank loan and that none of the money was his.

News Corp. loaned McCourt $165 million and retained the equivalent of $40 million in equity, a source said. There are financial incentives for McCourt to find an investor to purchase that equity as soon as possible.

Baseball executives, who had postponed a mid-January vote to further examine terms of the deal, were satisfied.

"This transaction meets all of baseball's debt service rules and financial requirements in every way," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "We at Major League Baseball are confident that Mr. McCourt, as a rabid and knowledgeable fan and successful businessman, will devote the time and energy necessary to make the franchise a great success."

The McCourt family made its fortune in heavy construction, working on major Boston projects such as Logan International Airport, but baseball also runs in the bloodline. McCourt's grandfather was a part owner of the Boston Braves, and McCourt is a longtime season-ticket holder at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox.

As a younger man, he shifted from construction to development and earned a personal fortune buying cheap land in rundown South Boston, then converting it into parking lots for commuters.

Baseball came to know him in 2001 when he tried to buy the Red Sox. Last spring, an attempt to purchase the Angels also failed.

By October, he had been identified as a leading candidate to acquire the Dodgers from News Corp., which had grown weary of the team's annual losses reported at about $40 million.

There were hopes the deal could be swiftly completed, but the process proved laborious.

While the league pondered the reliance on loans, fans grew concerned because other teams were snapping up the best free agents. Just down the freeway, the Angels spent $146 million on big-name players, including outfielder Vladimir Guerrero.

Sources said the Dodgers did not pursue such signings for fear of jeopardizing the pending negotiations.

In the meantime, star pitcher Kevin Brown was traded to the New York Yankees.

A petition to stop the sale soon appeared on the Internet, and there were vitriolic letters to the editor in The Times and other newspapers. A sports radio host nicknamed the prospective owner "McBankrupt."

The situation grew even more complicated when philanthropist and businessman Eli Broad made an 11th-hour offer to purchase the team, mostly with cash, should McCourt's bid fail. This offer was privately encouraged -- then publicly supported -- by Mayor James K. Hahn.

But News Corp. salvaged the deal with McCourt by agreeing to stay aboard as a minority owner.

By Thursday morning, with the owners' vote all about assured, McCourt and longtime Los Angeles political insider Joe Cerrell met with City Council President Alex Padilla and Councilman Ed Reyes, whose northeast Los Angeles district includes Dodger Stadium.

A brief meeting in Hahn's office ended with both men smiling.

"I'm extremely supportive of this great team taking over my favorite team," Hahn said, adding that he had not been asked for any taxpayer support for the franchise, nor would he offer any.

Now the team waits to see what changes, if any, will be made under new ownership.

Chairman Bob Daly has already announced his intention to leave. Team President Bob Graziano is likely to go too.

Though General Manager Dan Evans and Manager Jim Tracy are under contract through this year, their futures remain uncertain.

Again, McCourt was vague: "While today is not the day to discuss changes specifically ... we do want to say that I intend to act quickly and decisively in making changes necessary to get to our goal as fast as we can."

He is expected to add Corey Busch, a former San Francisco Giant executive and his point man during the negotiations, to the front office.

McCourt also announced that, for the first time, all 162 of the Dodgers' games will be televised next season.

While Selig and Hahn appeared to have been won over, a sports business expert said McCourt must repair his image with ticket buyers.

"The trust issue with consumers is so overriding and can be a monster," said Kathleen Davis, executive director of the Sport Management Research Institute in Weston, Fla. "This is an emotional factor in the sports business. If they're already looking at [McCourt] with a crooked eye ... it doesn't bode well."

Fans seemed to take a wait-and-see attitude.

"I'm very skeptical because according to printed reports, [McCourt] doesn't have enough money," said Steve Smith, 49, of Pasadena. "How is he going to be able to infuse the millions and millions necessary to buy the proper personnel necessary to win the division?"

Hector Reyes, 30, of Burbank was similarly unmoved by the new owner's enthusiasm.

"Right now, it's just words," Reyes said. "It's like campaign promises."

The storied ballclub last won the World Series in 1988, and has not won a playoff game since.

The O'Malley family, which brought the team from Brooklyn in 1957, sold to News Corp. for $311 million in 1998. There was widespread dissatisfaction with the way the corporation operated the club.

Last season, the Dodgers finished in second place in the National League West, 15 1/2 games behind the rival Giants, and ranked last in the league with a .243 batting average.

McCourt seemed to appreciate that the questions about him could not be put to rest during a half-hour news conference.

Even as he spoke of putting "the luster back on the Dodger brand," he added: "At the end of the day, it's not platitudes, it's performance that matters."

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Times staff writers Noam Levey, Ben Bolch and Ross Newhan contributed to this report.

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