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Frank and Jamie McCourt Sooooo Love L.A. Why Hasn’t L.A. Loved Them Back?

Pat Jordan has written 15 books, including the baseball memoir "A False Spring."

Frank tells stories in the Irish way, with a Boston accent and a faint stutter. Long, elaborate, convoluted stories, all curlicues and digressions, swirling back on themselves, redundant, pointless, spinning and spinning and spinning, but apparently going nowhere, until, miraculously, they begin to rise in a masterful flourish like a baroque concerto from Handel, rising and rising to a deafening crescendo, the point.

“So I was a construction foreman on one of my dad’s projects when I was 18 and I’d come home filthy every night just looking for my dad to tell me I was doing a great job, and everyone had to wait for me to wash up because I was late for dinner and one night I sat down at the table and he was looking at me and I knew this was it and he was gonna tell me and we said grace and then he looks at me and says, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself,’ and I was crushed because I thought he’d say how proud he was I was working so hard but all he said was, ‘You don’t get it, you’re a foreman and you should go to the job in a white shirt and come home clean and not keep everyone waiting for dinner because you grabbed a shovel and jumped in a hole with laborers to show them how to dig dirt and while you’re in the hole you can’t see what’s going on on the site,’ and I was stunned while it began to sink in that it was important for me to get out of the hole to see the whole picture, which wasn’t really his only point because he said, ‘If they can’t do the job, get rid of ‘em!’”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 20, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 20, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
The McCourts: In West magazine’s July 23 article on Dodgers owners Frank and Jamie McCourt, the quotes from Bill Chadwick, former president of the Coliseum Commission, and Bernard Parks Jr., chief of staff for City Councilman Bernard Parks, were from a December 2005 story by the Boston Herald.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 03, 2006 Home Edition West Magazine Part I Page 5 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
In the article on Dodgers owners Frank and Jamie McCourt (July 23), the quotes from Bill Chadwick, former president of the Coliseum Commission, and Bernard Parks Jr., chief of staff for City Councilman Bernard Parks, were from a December 2005 story by the Boston Herald.

Jamie tells stories reluctantly, in fits and starts, truncated stories with conspicuous gaps, like neurotically over-pruned shrubs, clipped with embarrassed silences, until, under prodding, she begins again, another nip here, a nip there, her stories without point except to protect her sense of privacy.

“I don’t want to say.” Pause. “I was so embarrassed.” Pause. “It was our fist date.” Pause. “1971.” Pause. “I was . . . " Pause. " . . . wearing.” Pause. “It was so embarrassing.” Pause. “I stood up.” Pause. “He could see I was wearing . . . " Pause. " . . . hot pants.”

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“I’m sooooo happy here!” Jamie McCourt says. “It’s sooooo L.A.!”

She’s sitting in a booth at the leafy outdoor restaurant of the Hotel Bel-Air on a sunny, late morning. She is a tanned, noticeably thin woman with blond-streaked hair, wearing a fitted, lime-colored sleeveless shift with stiletto heels. Not hot pants, but not the matronly dresses she used to wear in Boston, either, where she lived with her husband, Frank McCourt, a construction and real estate tycoon, before they bought the Los Angeles Dodgers 2{dagger} years ago and moved to L.A., settling into a house in Bel-Air with their sons, ages 24, 23, 19 and 16. Jamie, a quick study, looked around at the L.A. women her age, then got a tan, streaked her brown hair blond and bought some short skirts. Too short at first--and people noticed--but now fashionably short. Jamie isn’t the first person to reinvent herself in the Land of Dreams.

“The other day this man asked me if I lived around here. I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘I thought you were a West Coast girl.’”

She loved that. At 52, Jamie is girlish, but matronly, too. She says she’s a cross between Gloria Steinem and Julia Child. “I’m a chicken soup mom,” she explains. “I love hanging out with my four sons and their friends. I cook for them and tell them how cool I am. They treat me like one of the gang. They think I’m sooooo cool.” When I ask if she’s working too hard at being hip, she snaps, “Hey, buddy, I’m still a girl.” Actually, she’s a Jewish Sister Mary Ignatius, who explains it all for you.

She holds up a croissant: “Even the chocolate in a croissant tastes better at the Bel-Air.”

Frank arrives late, wearing a silvery-gray suit and crisp white shirt and tie. He kisses his wife and sits down. Frank and Jamie make a great production of their closeness. They were once caught on television at a Dodger game kissing in the stands.

He’s also 52, a trim, handsome man, not unlike Paul Newman in “The Verdict.” He has short gray hair, a determined jaw, an Irish tan and the map of County Cork on his face. He can be stubborn. When challenged, he clamps down like a pit bull and refuses to let go. It happened after he bought a piece of land on the water in South Boston 25 years ago. He hung on to it year after year, refusing project after project because none of them was grandiose enough for his vision. He used the land as a parking lot for a quarter of a century, until finally he had to sell it this past year to complete the purchase of the Dodgers.

Both Frank and Jamie had always dreamed of owning a baseball team. They had tried and failed to buy the Boston Red Sox. And in February 2004, when they became the proprietors of the Dodgers, Frank was ebullient. “This is gonna be fun!” he said. Jamie said, “Now our hearts are in L.A.”

The hearts of Angelenos weren’t with the McCourts, though, and probably still aren’t. Frank and Jamie are nice people, they love each other, they love their kids, they love baseball, they love L.A., but none of that much matters, because the McCourts have bungled just about every attempt they’ve made at communication and public relations. They know that--and, then again, they don’t.Either way, they were hurt by the local media criticism, of which Frank says: “You’da thought Jamie and I were going publicly naked, or worse, we were stripping the elderly of their Social Security.”

Early on, Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers began referring to Frank as “the Boston parking lot attendant.” That set the tone for local coverage of the couple, the East Coast interlopers, as clueless as the Beverly Hillbillies.

The team’s new owners were ridiculed for a variety of reasons, some of which were their own doing. Jamie, for example, once said it would be nice to give women lipstick at the turnstiles instead of useless baseball items, such as rally towels, and Frank was secretive when he entered into negotiations to build a football stadium on Dodger property and possibly bring an NFL franchise to town. (McCourt claims the idea of a franchise was never discussed during the stadium talks.) They were also criticized for things so picayune that they defy logic--the length of Jamie’s skirts, for instance, and the fact that their oldest son, Drew, dated bad-girl actress Shannen Doherty.

They were blasted for misunderstandings, such as the rumor that they didn’t really care about the team and actually planned to cash in by selling off 300 acres around the stadium.

Worst of all, they’d had the audacity to buy L.A.'s darling Dodgers, which then proceeded to disintegrate. After the McCourts took over there was an exodus of front-office executives, coaches and players, men who quit or were fired, weren’t rehired or were let go. Favorite players such as Paul Lo Duca, Shawn Green, Steve Finley and Adrian Beltre left the Dodgers and over time were replaced by former Boston Red Sox stars such as Derek Lowe, Bill Mueller and Nomar Garciaparra.

Beyond all that, the McCourts were suspect because they were too private, because their supercilious East Coast reserve didn’t play well in a Land of Dreams. In Boston, it was said that Frank and Jamie McCourt were two of the most important business people in the city whom no one had ever heard of. Back East, Jamie says, baseball fans’ attention “is on the players, not the owners.”

In Los Angeles, to their great amazement, one’s fame is a commodity owned by everyone else. “Part of me still hasn’t adjusted to it,” Frank says. “Maybe I never will.”

It didn’t help that their way of dealing with it was to remain silent. Frank’s way, in particular, was (and sometimes still is) to ignore problems and forge ahead. When Jamie informed him one day back in Boston that the L.A. press was crucifying them, Frank told her, “I couldn’t care less. Stop reading that stuff. It’s immaterial. It won’t change anything. We’ll buy the franchise, fix it, then they’ll respect us when they get to know us. It’s the substance of who we are that matters.”

The simple truth was that “we were naive about maintaining our privacy in L.A.,” Jamie says, and about how passionate locals are when it comes to the Dodgers. “People didn’t know who these people were who were buying their beloved team. Now that we’re integrated into the community they know we’re going to stay here. But it was a learning experience.”

What did she learn? “That baseball’s a lifestyle.”

Even when Frank delivers long, passionate defenses of his criticized decisions, he usually prefaces those defenses to reporters with, “But this is off the record.” He’d prefer that his statements not be attributed to him--his way of avoiding further criticism. To many people this seems disingenuous, as if he wants credit when his defenses are acknowledged and wants to avoid blame when they are impugned. This is a win-win situation, but to the media it’s further proof that the McCourts are Machiavellian East Coasters.

Take the football fiasco. “The NFL approached us our first year here,” Frank says. “We told them we had too much on our plate at the time. Then they came back a year later.” So the McCourts entered into “secret” negotiations with the NFL to bring a team to Los Angeles by building a new stadium. They were advised to be silent about the idea. Those negotiations were discovered when someone--the McCourts don’t know who--allegedly stole and revealed the documents regarding the proposal.

What infuriated Angelenos was not that the McCourts were trying to bring an NFL team back to L.A., which everyone wanted anyway, but that they reportedly planned to house the team in a new stadium on Dodger land rather than in the famed Coliseum. Frank claimed at the time, and still claims, that he would “not compete against the Coliseum as long as the Coliseum was viable.”

Still, the city was outraged. Bill Chadwick, then-president of the Coliseum Commission, called the plan “very, very naive” and said Frank “doesn’t have any supporters in any quarters.” Bernard Parks Jr., chief of staff for his father, City Councilman Bernard Parks, said that “feelings were hurt by this whole thing.” That was putting it lightly, but Frank’s way of responding was typical. He issued a few bland press releases and then said nothing. Which is the core of the McCourts’ problem.

Whenever Jamie speaks publicly or is interviewed by the media, she is accompanied by a Dodger publicist who spends more time urging Jamie to be forthcoming about her life than she does urging Jamie to be reticent. When Jamie was interviewed recently on a radio program, she stayed a few minutes afterward to critique her performance with her publicist. The two women went over what Jamie had said. How much she loved L.A. because it’s “the heart of America, the melting pot, a Land of Dreams, with people from every walk of life,” and about how much she loved baseball, “the popcorn, the hot dogs, the green fields, the time with family,” and, finally, how she couldn’t wait for the Dodgers to draw 4 million fans in a year. (Last year, despite 91 losses, the Dodgers drew 3.6 million fans.) What they didn’t discuss was one of the interviewer’s questions that Jamie didn’t like. “That’s a loaded question,” Jamie had snapped, and refused to answer it.

Jamie said to her publicist, “Can we get [the interviewer] to cut that stuff about my eye injury? It’s so boring.”

“No, Jamie, we can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because we can’t control” the media.

Los Angeles may be where people flee to escape their pasts, but the McCourts are proud products of their pasts. That’s why they can’t, or won’t, reinvent themselves, not even to silence their harshest critics. Their refusal can be seen as blind stubbornness, or as the principled decision of two people who revere what formed them.

Frank is descended from Irish Catholic immigrants who settled in the tough South End of Boston in 1893. His great-grandfather started a construction company and was a part-owner of the Boston Braves baseball team. His father, who inherited the family company, was known for his work on Logan International Airport. Frank and his six brothers and sisters grew up in the middle-class Boston suburb of Watertown, and from the time Frank was a child, it was accepted that he would step into the family company. Frank craved his father’s approval but rarely got it, and when the time came in the mid-'70s for Frank to join his father’s company, Frank, with his father’s blessing, opted instead to start his own.

Jamie Luskin’s background couldn’t be more different. Her paternal grandparents were Russian Jews who had immigrated to Baltimore and lived over a grocery store. Their son, Jack, Jamie’s father, chided his parents for always speaking Yiddish in their adopted country. Jamie idolized Jack Luskin, who in the late 1940s opened a discount TV and appliance store that eventually grew into a chain of stores that made him wealthy, and famous. He became known as a “Crazy Eddie” figure after he started appearing in local TV commercials, hawking his wares with the slogan “Jack, you know, will save you dough” and branding himself “the cheapest guy in town.” Asked if her father’s cartoonish fame ever embarrassed her, Jamie goes silent. Finally, she says, “No. He wasn’t a character at first, until he was successful and branded himself as a character.” That experience, though, may have shaped her understanding that public perception sometimes has little to do with private reality.

Frank and Jamie met during their freshman year at Georgetown University. Frank remembers the moment having the same impact as the “thunderbolt” that hit the character Michael Corleone when he met the young beauty who became his first wife in “The Godfather.” “When [Jamie] stood up on our first date I saw she was wearing hot pants,” he says. “She had great legs.” Jamie remembers something else about that date: “He took me to an underground construction site for the Metro. I thought, ‘I can marry this guy. He knows how to fix things.’”

“It’s hard work,” Frank says of their marriage. “Religion was a big obstacle at first.” (Jamie’s father and mother refused to attend their wedding because of the differences in their religion.) “But you stay connected. You work out your differences. You argue.” He laughs. “It’s been one long argument, actually.” He looks at Jamie. “Like yesterday. You were wrong three times.”

One afternoon, Frank is the keynote speaker at a luncheon for area grammar school children being honored for their artwork and essays. Frank warns the children about the dangers of obesity and smoking and tells them about the need to eat properly, get their rest and compete in sports, which he says will lead to higher grades. He is not a gifted speaker, offering choppy phrases rather than fluid sentences. After his address, Frank and Eric Gagne, the team’s star relief pitcher, pass out awards to the children, a bouillabaisse of Angelenos: Anglos, Asians, Hispanics and African Americans wearing their best dresses and creased pants. Their parents and teachers are beaming from the audience or taking photographs close to the stage. One very tall girl bounds onstage and, with the smile of the innocent, wraps her arms around Gagne and hugs him. Her mother snaps her picture. The girl steps off the stage, still smiling, but crying, too. She hugs her mother, who also has tears in her eyes.

A few minutes later, walking outside the building, I ask Frank if Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Group, the previous Dodger owner that bought the franchise from longtime owner Peter O’Malley in 1998, had ever hosted such events. He turns, furious, and snaps, “Are you [expletive] serious?” When he calms down, he says his plan for the Dodgers is not only to win games, draw fans and make money, but to make the Dodgers a dominant force in the life of the L.A. community.

Later that afternoon, Frank is sitting in the topmost seat in Dodger Stadium. He looks out over the Dodgers’ 300 acres, at the big “Think Blue” Dodger sign on a hill, and then glances down at all the seats below. He begins a runaway-train of a monologue about the $40 million he spent to renovate the stadium, replace the seats and repair the chipped concrete, and how, despite Angelenos’ worst fears that he was underfinanced, he has now invested more of his own cash--$250 million (most from the recent sale of Boston land)--than any other baseball owner, ever.

“I’m gonna turn this franchise around,” he says, referring to the Dodgers’ dismal recent history. He plans to build up the Dodgers’ farm system and stock the team with young talent alongside seasoned veterans.

“This franchise deserves to be great again,” he says. “There’s no asset more beloved by the community than the Dodgers. They want the Dodgers to stand for what they once did, and they were frustrated when we took over because they didn’t know what to expect from strangers. It was the fear of the unknown.” Frank nods and keeps going. “Some of their criticism was justified. I didn’t communicate with the media. I was new to baseball. I made mistakes. I made a decision, right or wrong, not to bring in my own people right away but to work with the existing people and give them a chance to come along with us.”

When they didn’t go along with Frank’s vision, he began the series of firings that brought the wrath of Dodger fans. “It was like I lanced a boil and all this poison came out,” he says. What confused Frank was that it is the nature of baseball owners to fire general managers and managers and unproductive players. When George Steinbrenner axes executives or makes trades, he’s called a shrewd baseball owner, but when Frank McCourt does the same thing, he is derided as someone who’s tossing darts blindly.

Prodded to elaborate on those early decisions, Frank says: “Everyone was protecting their own job, their own turf. When they confronted a problem, they didn’t want to solve it, they just wanted to position themselves so they wouldn’t get blamed. Listen, [prior to my ownership], the franchise hadn’t won a postseason game in 16 years, the team was losing $60 million a year, the brand was eroding and everyone’s pissed at me [for making changes]! People were entrenched in jobs that paid $500,000 a year and they weren’t trying to win, to make money, to do their [expletive] job. . . . I said, ‘Let me get this right. The team’s losing money, hasn’t won, the brand’s eroding and you’re [expletive] complaining because I’m making changes?’

“So I brought in my own people. If we succeed, what’s that got to say about the people who had a chance to make this franchise succeed before us? They’re bitter because we embarrassed them. So they sabotaged us [in the press].”

The portrayal of the McCourts as carpetbaggers hurt most, Frank claims, because he has always seen his ownership of the Dodgers as a public stewardship. He didn’t buy the team to strip it of land and make money, as Angelenos feared, though he does admit to “dreams” for the Dodgers’ land. “Look around,” he says. “There are 300 acres here. Great things can be built here. Why not? L.A. is all about the future.”

Frank is familiar with the idea of a place being a fulfillment of one’s dreams. Which is why L.A. is the perfect place for Frank McCourt. His dreams nurture him, give him passion, though to others his dreams are the mark of a man who fantasizes about a distant perfection rather than a present reality. It’s another criticism that McCourt tries to invalidate and, in the process, only reaffirms.

“Everyone points to the fact that I held on to that Boston land for 25 years as a parking lot,” he says. “I wanted to build on it as badly as anyone, but my concern was that my name would be on it, my family’s name. There were 101 projects I coulda built just to make money. But this was gonna be a place for Boston for the next 100 years. I wasn’t gonna do anything just because it was good for the McCourts. I envisioned museums, schools, parks. I’d rather do nothing than a bad thing.

“I’m not a developer. I’m a vintner. You can open a bottle of wine after the grapes are harvested and turned into wine. But for the finest wine you have to wait 10 years. You can’t drink it right away. You have to have patience. So don’t [expletive] ask me if I can turn my vision into reality! I’ve been [expletive] building all my life! I never quit on anything!”

A few minutes later, Frank is walking through the runways of the stadium at field level. He points out a wall of Dodger uniform shirts encased in glass. “Hall of Fame jerseys,” he says. “When I got here they were stored in boxes. I put them up because I want my players to think about the guys who put on that uniform before them.” He means Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and Jackie Robinson. The last picture frame is empty. He smiles. “My players have to walk by this one and think, ‘Whose jersey is gonna be in this one?’”

Back at the Hotel Bel-Air, Frank McCourt orders a pastry and wonders why Angelenos still believe he and his wife have a hidden agenda. He is asked about the NFL fiasco. Frank says he’ll talk about it only “off the record.”

Jamie says, “I think . . . “

“Because I really don’t want . . . “

“Excuse me!” snaps Jamie. “Did I interrupt you?”

Frank goes silent.

Jamie says, “I think you should go on the record.”

Finally, Frank says: “Other groups who wanted to buy the Dodgers had an agenda, so they assumed we did too. We were gonna build condos on Dodger land, or put an NFL team there. But we just wanted to make the Dodgers work. A lot of rich people here couldn’t figure out how to make the Dodgers work. I mean, if Fox and Murdoch couldn’t figure out how to make the Dodgers work, how could we, these strangers?”

What he leaves unsaid is his belief that his dreams of Dodger greatness do not conflict with his dreams for the future development of Dodger land. They are both part of his one grand dream for his L.A. enterprise, which is not unlike his grand dream for that 25 acres of Boston land that he never developed while waiting for the perfect moment. Frank McCourt will always be an Irish Romantic, with all that implies, a touch of doomed fatalism.

“I’m willing to fail,” he says. “I’d rather go down with the ship than play it safe.”


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