Dodger Damage Control

Times Staff Writer

If this was L.A. baseball, then L.A. baseball was a mess.

The Dodgers were defending champions of their division, but they spent the winter defending themselves, ineffectively, against relentless criticism that ownership was cheap and management was clueless.

Frank McCourt, the owner, was baffled. He had moved his family from Boston, delivered a winner in his first year, attracted fans in near-record numbers and poured $20 million into upgrading the Dodgers' beloved stadium. Yet he was portrayed as a civic outcast.

Gary Ross was baffled too. Ross, the director of "Seabiscuit," loved his Dodgers. He adored the departed fan favorites, including Adrian Beltre and Paul Lo Duca, but he admired the creative approach of the general manager charged with replacing them, Paul DePodesta.

So Ross picked up the phone and called McCourt with a friendly admonition: You're getting hammered, buddy. Get some help.

"I wanted them to have the opportunity to tell their side of the story," Ross said, "and I wanted to put them in touch with people who could help them tell it."

Ross referred McCourt to Sitrick and Co., the public-relations strategists Hollywood keeps on speed dial. Halle Berry called Sitrick when she faced hit-and-run charges; Rush Limbaugh called amid an investigation into how he acquired the prescription painkillers to which he subsequently acknowledged he was addicted.

"For Frank McCourt, this is the best publicist he can have," said Hanna Pantle, senior director of media relations at BMI music. "I think this is the smartest move he's made -- hiring Sitrick and listening to them. They're the guys you hire if you have a crisis."

McCourt insists there is no crisis. So do his Sitrick counselors, one of whom now works full time at Dodger Stadium, in the office of one of the three top executives McCourt has fired in the three months since he retained the firm.

In 1994, embroiled in bankruptcy proceedings, then-King owner Bruce McNall turned to Sitrick.

Said McNall: "You look at their client list -- which includes me -- and that's not one that would make you think everything is hunky-dory or perfect."

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Allan Mayer, the Sitrick executive primarily responsible for advising McCourt, swivels in his office chair and retrieves a copy of his biography. In the first two sentences, Variety calls his agency "Hollywood's most prominent crisis specialists" and ABC's "20/20" describes him as "the man to call if you're a star facing scandal."

That a storied baseball team that has employed Vin Scully and Tom Lasorda for more than half a century suddenly needs help explaining itself, Mayer said, does not constitute a crisis.

"A big crisis would be Milton Bradley getting caught shooting up steroids or something," Mayer said. "That's not what they have."

What they have is a riddle, the way Mayer sees it. Fox owned the Dodgers for six seasons, none of which included postseason baseball, and lost up to $50 million a year.

In McCourt's first season, the Dodgers won the National League West title, then won a playoff game for the first time in 16 years. They made money, albeit thanks to a $35-million stipend from Fox. They drew 3.5 million, the highest total in the National League in six years, and season-ticket sales jumped by 5,000 this year. McCourt renovated historic Dodger Stadium instead of abandoning it.

"It was a great story, but people didn't see it that way," Mayer said. "Why was that? It had to be the result, at least partly, of things that weren't being handled right on their end."

Click onto Sitrick's website, and these words appear, equal parts slogan and warning: "If you don't tell your story, someone else will tell it for you."

McCourt's ownership of the Dodgers started not with a clean slate but with a tarnished one. Upon the advice of major league officials, McCourt remained silent during the four months needed to scrutinize the complex financing of his purchase.

So others defined him to Los Angeles, painting him as a cash-poor New Englander who had failed in bids for the Red Sox and Angels. The business plan he submitted for major league approval outlined cuts in the Dodger payroll, numerous baseball sources told media outlets, including The Times.

McCourt's primary asset -- 24 acres of prime real estate along the Boston waterfront -- had long remained undeveloped and used for parking lots. Boston Globe columnist Steve Bailey invited readers to send in money and "help our parking lot attendant realize his dream of owning a major league team."

Times columnist T.J. Simers promptly tagged McCourt as the "Boston parking lot attendant," KSPN talk show host Joe McDonnell called him "McBankrupt," and Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss introduced a resolution urging local ownership.

"There were a number of people in the Los Angeles market who had kicked the tires of that deal for a couple years, and nobody had really stepped up to write the check when Frank got involved," said Larry Rasky, whose Boston public relations firm assisted McCourt with the ownership transition.

"There was some professional jealousy. There were people inside and outside the organization who had their own agendas, ones that were not in the best interests of the McCourts or the Dodger franchise."

Derrick Hall, who resigned as the Dodgers' vice president of communications six weeks into McCourt's ownership, said he "never sensed" any effort among the outgoing front office to undermine McCourt.

He conceded McCourt's timing was poor, noting Arizona businessman Arte Moreno had written a $183.5-million check to buy the Angels the previous year, then spent $145 million on free agents, including star outfielder Vladimir Guerrero.

"The fans were comparing the two franchises and the two new owners," Hall said. "Arte came in and made the big splash with Vladimir. The fans became concerned about financing."

In the news conference that followed his approval, McCourt declined to explain how he had financed his $421-million purchase -- a critical mistake, according to Mayer. Every dollar used to repay a loan, after all, is a dollar that might otherwise be used to pay a player.

"The implications of this affect the team's performance," Mayer said. "Fans have a right to be concerned about the team's finances. To say everything is fine, don't worry about it -- it won't wash."

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The good vibrations of a division championship were washed away in December, when the Seattle Mariners outbid the Dodgers for Beltre, reviving skepticism about whether McCourt could -- or would -- pay top dollar for top talent. Two months later, convinced that fan angst might not have dissipated even had Beltre returned, McCourt hired Sitrick to find out why.

In March, Mayer said, he and Sitrick associate Kelly Mullens interviewed "25 to 30" Dodger employees, from the highest-ranking executives to staff members who interacted with the public. Mullens, a former senior communications executive for Sony and Universal Music, flew to Vero Beach, Fla., to meet with officials at spring training, including DePodesta.

The Sitrick team uncovered several communications lapses. Among them, according to Mayer: The marketing department would unveil an initiative to attract ticket buyers, but employees selling tickets would be unaware of it. The Dodgers significantly raised prices on their best seats, but without the context of showing how those prices remained competitive with those of teams in other major markets.

And, amid office renovations that disrupted stadium phone lines, significant numbers of season-ticket holders -- the Dodgers' best customers -- complained that messages were not returned, if calls got through at all.

"There is nothing more disrespectful than to ignore someone, particularly when you want their loyalty," Mayer said.

Said McCourt: "I return my phone calls. I take great pride in that. Everybody here, I can assure you, will be returning their phone calls. When a fan calls me, I'll happily return his call. I want to know what they're thinking and take care of whatever it is."

On April 1, McCourt fired Lon Rosen, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, and Gary Miereanu, vice president of communications. Three weeks later, he fired Doug Duennes, vice president of stadium operations.

*

Fan complaints carried little resonance, but the Dodger image was stained during the off-season by a chorus of disgruntled former employees, including Beltre, who led the major leagues in home runs and was serenaded by "M-V-P" chants at Dodger Stadium.

Ross Porter, a 28-year broadcaster who was not brought back this season, said team executives ducked him for weeks. Beltre, outfielder Steve Finley, pitcher Jose Lima and advisor and longtime coach Joe Amalfitano each said he couldn't get a definitive answer -- sometimes not even a phone call -- from DePodesta.

"Winning does not erase people's memories of what they regard as bad treatment. Nor should it," Mayer said. "A team that is perceived not to treat its fans and employees with great respect is a hard team to root for."

McCourt committed $144 million to free agents last winter, virtually the same amount Moreno spent the previous winter, but not to similar acclaim. After the Dodgers clinched their first playoff spot in eight years, DePodesta gutted the roster. Of the nine position players to start in the playoffs, six are gone.

No matter how smart his moves might have been, DePodesta could not explain them loudly enough to drown out the cries of fans concerned about the choice of the new players and the perceived mistreatment of the old ones.

To too many fans, Mayer said, DePodesta has yet to define himself beyond his caricature in "Moneyball," in which author Michael Lewis describes how the Oakland Athletics scouted some amateur players simply because "Paul's computer" spit out promising statistics.

Before McCourt hired him, DePodesta was an assistant to Oakland General Manager Billy Beane, who did all the talking for the A's. Beane was a former major leaguer; DePodesta graduated from Harvard and never played pro baseball.

"He's a very smart guy," Mayer said. "He's been saddled with the stereotype image of a statistically obsessed, bean-counter geek. He recognizes one of the reasons he's been saddled with this image is because he hasn't done very much to counter it."

Said DePodesta: "On a personal level, it doesn't bother me all that much. My focus is on trying to do the best job to win as many games as possible. The image doesn't necessarily contribute to that end, so it doesn't concern me all that much.

"When it does concern me is if at any point it takes away from the mission. I think my image is fairly insulting to our scouts. That's where it becomes a troublesome point. I have to work -- I have to do extra work -- internally to make sure everybody knows how valued they are."

As spring training opened -- and before Sitrick was hired -- DePodesta said he sent a letter to season-ticket holders, explaining the winter moves. He conceded he could improve communication with fans -- and players, although he said he would continue to decline to respond to charges leveled by players or their agents.

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The Dodgers have talking points now, shaped by Sitrick and sprinkled liberally into interviews by McCourt and other team officials.

"Our vision for the Dodgers," McCourt said, "is to build a championship team for Los Angeles, to create the world's best venue for watching sports here at Dodger Stadium -- the most entertaining and family-friendly venue -- and to run a healthy enterprise that will be here for another 100 years."

Said Mayer: "I don't think most people in the organization could have articulated that. If the people in the organization don't understand that, how can they expect anyone else to understand that?"

That the Dodgers should need a mission statement speaks volumes. Under the benevolent reign of the O'Malley family, the Dodgers fielded a good team and offered fans a good time at a fair price. Los Angeles understood.

But that was then, said Fred Claire, the former team publicist and general manager. Fifth-year Manager Jim Tracy is working for his fourth general manager, Helen Dell no longer plays "Charge!" on the organ and the Union 76 signs atop the pavilion scoreboards no longer are the only advertising in the ballpark.

"There has been so much change in recent years, with the Dodgers and with so many other franchises," Claire said. "The continuity, and the experience that comes with it, gets lost. In my 30 years with the Dodgers, there was so much consistency and continuity."

*

Sitrick's advice is not cheap, and the firm has little experience in sports. Pantle, the recording industry publicist, said top firms such as Sitrick command $20,000 and up a month as a retainer for as-needed advice. Mayer declined to say what McCourt is paying.

With Mullens working at Dodger Stadium full time, and with McCourt and Mayer saying the assignment is open-ended, a Sitrick bill for a season's worth of help could approach the $319,500 the Dodgers are paying reliever Yhency Brazoban this year, two sources familiar with the situation said.

Sitrick's clients include the Major League Baseball Players Assn., providing the union with what Mayer called "strategic counsel" over the last six months on various issues, including guidance for the congressional steroid hearings.

Mayer said he assured Donald Fehr, the union's executive director, that Sitrick would not advise the Dodgers on any labor issues. Fehr declined to specify the nature of what he called an "ongoing" relationship with Sitrick, but said he sensed no conflict of interest and cleared the company to advise McCourt.

"They wanted to make sure there was no conflict," Fehr said. "I am satisfied there isn't."

Although New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner retains a public-relations firm to issue his periodic statements, major league teams maintain their own publicity staffs and tend to limit the use of outside firms to support for such special events as postseason festivities or the opening of a stadium.

The Dodgers' decision to hire Sitrick is "nontraditional," said John Maroon, former public relations director for the Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles and Washington Redskins.

The daily scrutiny endured by a pro sports team, and by its athletes, is rarely duplicated in other industries and is best managed by experienced sports publicists, Maroon said.

In April, Sitrick staged a Dodger Stadium barbecue, inviting reporters to spend some time with McCourt and DePodesta over ribs and chicken. This month, when McCourt secured refinancing for the loans that helped him to buy the Dodgers, Mullens organized a conference call so he could explain the deal to reporters.

In between, however, in a news release about security improvements at Dodger Stadium -- days after fan misbehavior delayed a game -- the Dodgers announced the appointment of a security director. The director had been on the job for five weeks, but Mullens said the Dodgers had not had a chance to announce his hiring.

Yet the Dodgers issue news releases daily during the season -- all teams do -- and the communications director of another team asked, "Why isn't [vice president of public relations] John Olguin speaking on this?"

Said Maroon: "The illusion might be created that Sitrick has all the answers. I think it's a unique approach, but there's a danger. It's a relationship business. At some point, the keys have to be turned over to somebody who can effectively oversee that department."

McCourt says he plans to hire replacements for Miereanu and Rosen, to fill the positions charged with selling the team to Los Angeles.

The Dodgers remain embedded in the fabric of civic life, as much a part of summer as beaches and the Hollywood Bowl. That they needed to hire a firm renowned for crisis management to discover how to polish their image and relate to their customers appears striking.

"I don't see any stigma attached to it," Claire said. "The Dodgers have had a tough time in a lot of these areas. They're trying to do better."

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