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A baseball love story veers off the base paths

Jamie Luskin grew up playing hardball in Baltimore — shortstop material, she recalls. An ardent Orioles fan, she was 10 when she told her parents she would own a baseball team someday.

Frank McCourt, growing up in the Boston suburbs, loved the Red Sox and knew owning a team could be more than a fantasy. His grandfather had a stake in the long-gone Boston Braves.

Years later, these two met at Georgetown University, fell in love, married and eventually went to Boston, where they made their fortune in real estate.

In 2004, they realized their dream of owning a major league ballclub. They quit Boston for Los Angeles and transformed themselves into a glamour couple, hosting celebrities in the owner’s box at Dodger Stadium.

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They bought a house on the beach in Malibu. Then they bought the one next door.

Behind closed doors, they were often a noisy power couple — stubborn and contentious, arguing over whatever they felt strongly about, whether it was ticket prices or putting players’ names on jerseys. (He had the names taken off at one point; she wanted them back on.) But in public, cameras captured them perpetually grinning at each other, as if sharing some delicious joke.

“Fun and feisty,” one friend called them. If they came at a problem from different angles, so much the better. They had a yin-and-yang, you-see-the-forest-I-see-the-trees symbiosis.

Today, they live apart — she in Malibu, he at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills — and they no longer argue face-to-face. High-priced lawyers do it for them, and though the spectacle might be noisy and feisty, few would call it fun.

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They went on their first date as freshmen at Georgetown, and the differences in their personalities soon became apparent. She was punctual. He was habitually late. When he would arrange to meet her at the library, she’d use the waiting time to study.

Jamie’s father was a master of promotion. Jack Luskin boasted in commercials that he was “the cheapest guy in town,” and he had Luskin’s electronics stores in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Frank was the son of a construction company owner and knew all about nuts and bolts and infrastructure. When they were college students, he would walk her through the D.C. Metro system, then under construction, and explain how it was all put together.

“I like to learn and that was all new to me,” Jamie, 56, said in an interview.

Crazy about sports, they would drive to Baltimore to watch the younger of her two brothers play Little League.

“They were incredibly in love,” said Barbara Crocker, a Georgetown classmate and Jamie’s close friend since childhood. “I can’t remember a time when they weren’t together.”

There was, however, a period of skittishness. In college and later, when Jamie was in law school at the University of Maryland, she repeatedly broke up and reconciled with Frank, because her Jewish parents were mortified that she was dating a Gentile. Frank was raised Catholic.

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Eventually, love trumped her parents’ disapproval. Jamie moved to New York to practice corporate law, and in 1979, they were married by a rabbi in their co-op — without her parents’ blessing. Frank’s family attended and so did Jamie’s two brothers.

Even now, she laughs when she remembers how Frank was late for the ceremony — and he was arriving from the bedroom.

Her parents long ago reconciled with the couple. The McCourts’ four sons, now ages 20 to 28, were raised Jewish.

“I always tell my father, ‘You were right, I shouldn’t have married him — but you had the wrong reasons,’” she said with a rueful chuckle as she sat in the office of one of her lawyers, Bert Fields. (Frank, 57, declined to be interviewed for this article.)

After a couple of years of commuting, Frank persuaded Jamie to leave New York for Boston, where she juggled legal jobs and child-rearing before going back to school, earning an MBA from MIT. Then Frank asked her to be general counsel of the McCourt Co., his real estate development firm.

The company’s 24 waterfront acres of parking lots were the focus of a legal battle with the state over how much he should be compensated after some of the land was taken for a huge highway project.

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Eventually, the McCourts made millions. Their shared dream was within reach. They tried for the Boston Red Sox in 2000 but were outbid. They came close to buying the Angels. On the third try they succeeded, buying the Dodgers from News Corp. for $430 million.

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On Jan. 29, 2004, the Dodgers organization announced that “Frank and Jamie McCourt were confirmed as the fourth owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers…"

That seemingly innocuous sentence hints at what would become the central issue in their divorce: Does he own the team or do they own it jointly? At the time, the McCourts emphasized that they were a couple deeply in love with baseball. “Family ownership returns to the Dodgers,” Frank proclaimed in a news release — a nod to the O’Malley family who had owned the team for decades before selling to News Corp.

In the summer of 2005, Jamie became president of the team. In early 2009, she became chief executive, eventually earning a $2-million salary. She was the highest-ranking woman in Major League Baseball.

Jamie embraced Los Angeles. To her, the cross-country move meant shrugging off a wintry, provincial city — where “people are very interested in who was your father, who was your grandfather” — to bask in a place of perennial summer where you’re judged by “where you’re going, not where you’ve been.”

“There isn’t a thing I don’t love about L.A.,” she said. “I’m never moving from L.A. Ev-ver.”

She grew her hair longer and blonder. She sheathed her thin figure in sleek dresses. She lunched in Beverly Hills. She taught a class at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management called “The Pursuit of Leadership: A Female Perspective” and brought in friends — including former studio chief Sherry Lansing — to speak.

At a Lakers game, she met Kathleen Brown, a Goldman Sachs executive and a former gubernatorial candidate from the California political dynasty. Brown hosted a lunch to introduce Jamie to other high-achieving women. She met Barbra Streisand at a dinner party and later hosted Streisand in the owner’s box.

Sudden celebrity brought with it intense scrutiny, a new experience for the couple. “It’s kind of a strange thing to go from totally private one day to suddenly everybody watching every move you make and analyzing it, to boot,” Jamie said.

Sportswriters skewered them for public relations gaffes. Fans worried that the new owners — who bought the team largely with borrowed money — wouldn’t be able to afford expensive talent. It didn’t help that the Angels’ new owner, Arte Moreno, was spending millions on free agents just as the Dodgers were getting outbid on some top players.

A perception took hold that they were clueless rich people, taking more from the Dodgers than they put in.

“In retrospect, they fed a number of those perceptions,” said real estate developer Steve Soboroff, who became friendly with the McCourts. “They bought very expensive homes. It’s not like Arte Moreno, who buys the Angels and lowers the price of beer. You sort of want to low-key it. You want to come in in a low-profile way. Or you make yourself a target.”

By late 2004 “they had won the division championship, but they were being treated like they were in last place,” said an image consultant to the McCourts who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak about them.

So they went on a charm offensive, making speeches and appearances. Jamie landed seats on civic boards, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“She was a great get,” said public relations executive Tracy Olmstead Williams, remembering the attention that Jamie attracted when she spoke at a business gathering.

The couple sat for magazine interviews, confessing their bewilderment at the bad reception and affirming their commitment to the Dodgers. They came across as spirited and sparring. He would cut her off; she would snap at him for it.

“Someone once asked me, ‘And how did you make a decision?’” Jamie recalled. “And the answer was whoever got tired of lobbying for their viewpoint” lost.

But behind the scenes, the combative dynamic that had seemed to work so well for so long became more intense.

“You weren’t sure if you were in a sitcom or an Edward Albee play,” said the image consultant. “My assumption was that they bumped heads a lot and they learned to live with that.”

Some thought they were simply a couple who made their differences pay off for them.

“I didn’t pick it up as oil and water. I picked it up as ham and eggs,” Soboroff said. “They had complementary skills. Frank talked about baseball and the finances of the team. Jamie talked about speaking on behalf of the Dodgers and promotional things and the front office.”

But they were under stress. At least one of their advisors noticed it.

Barry Cohen, a leadership consultant, listened to them talk about their personal lives and their sense of upheaval. In an early 2005 memo analyzing their relationship, Cohen seized on their disagreement over whether to build a 25-yard-long indoor pool at one of their Holmby Hills homes.

Frank thought they didn’t need the added turmoil of a major construction project. But a pool was a priority for Jamie — her daily mile-and-a-half swim was her stress-reliever.

Cohen saw two people who approached life differently. Frank thought he was looking at the big picture —delaying the pool until a renovation plan for the entire house was drawn up. Jamie thought he was dawdling.

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In the end, Jamie got her pool, and Cohen offered some cautionary advice: “It is expected that the pressure and strain of all this change would create a crisis in any relationship,” he wrote, “yet I am surprised at the level of destabilization in the partnership. This crisis I believe must be overcome quickly and decisively…" Instead, the relationship deteriorated further.

Jamie seemed to resent her husband’s attitude toward her. It came out in their arguments, said one person who worked with the couple for several years: “If Frank said ‘up,’ she said ‘down.’ It was like she had something to prove — that she wanted to make sure she was taken seriously.”

Cohen noticed it too. Summing up Jamie’s feelings (not his own), he wrote: “She believes … Frank ‘doesn’t get it.’ He doesn’t really value her talents, listens to her only on his terms and he shows little respect/acknowledgement for her in public.”

If his lawyers’ portrayal of Jamie accurately reflects his feelings, then Frank sees his estranged wife as a woman with a voracious appetite for houses and status that he was compelled to feed.

“She just went through a change and bought into the Westside/Hollywood scene,” said one of Frank’s associates who asked not to be named. “She was collecting houses while he was collecting baseball players.”

By the 2009 season, their relationship had gone terribly awry.

Her confidants say Frank seemed constantly agitated at Jamie and went out of his way to unsettle her before public appearances. “He didn’t like her in the limelight,” said an associate of hers who asked not to be named. Frank’s advisors say he was upset because he thought she was promoting herself, not the team.

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In July 2009, Jamie flew to Israel to represent the Dodgers at the Maccabiah Games. With her was then-Dodgers security staffer and driver Jeff Fuller — who, according to Frank’s court filings, was having an affair with Jamie. After they left Israel, Fuller and Jamie went to France together.

During last fall’s playoffs, the McCourts — who were once caught on stadium cameras smooching — sat separately in the owner’s box. Each had a lawyer in tow.

When they appeared before a judge in March to battle over temporary spousal support, they glided in and out of the courtroom with barely a glance at each other.

Now, the two sides are preparing for a trial, set to start Monday, to determine who owns the Dodgers.

Jamie said she had been advised not to speak to Frank, but she added: “I would talk to him in a minute.” As if unable to believe that arguing their way to a resolution was no longer possible, she said: “How can you be with someone for 30 years and not try to find common ground?”

carla.hall@latimes.com

Times staff writer Bill Shaikin contributed to this report.


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