Frank McCourt speaks his mind about baseball, an NFL franchise and more

After Frank McCourt wrapped up a spirited conversation with San Fernando Valley business leaders on Tuesday, he peeked inside the wrapping of his thank-you gift. He had a twinkle in his eye as he held the bottle of wine aloft.

“With the off-season I’ve had, the fact that this has a cork is a good thing,” he said.

The acrimonious divorce between the Dodgers’ owner and his estranged wife Jamie has dominated the off-season headlines. However, two weeks before the Dodgers open the defense of their National League West championship and two days after Frank McCourt’s relaunch of the Los Angeles Marathon, he noted the question that has dogged him all winter did not follow him to the 26.2-mile race course.

“Not a single person in the media has asked me how my divorce affects the marathon, because it doesn’t,” McCourt said. “I understand the urge by the media to create drama around my personal life. It’s really not that dramatic.”

In a wide-ranging breakfast discussion with the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., McCourt said he would soon unveil a Los Angeles bicycle race that he hopes can evolve into a world-class event similar to the marathon. The inaugural bike race is tentatively scheduled for November.

Court filings in the divorce case revealed that McCourt also remains active in planning for an NFL stadium in the Dodger Stadium parking lot.

“There’s no question L.A. should have an NFL franchise,” he said. “It’s probably the worst-kept secret in Los Angeles that the NFL would love to be at Chavez Ravine. Other than that, I can’t comment right now.”

McCourt opened his remarks by addressing what he called “the elephant in the room.” He does not want to discuss his divorce publicly, he said, other than to assure fans concerned about how the proceedings might impact ownership of the Dodgers.

Jamie McCourt, whom he fired as the Dodgers’ chief executive, claims co-ownership of the team. She has asked a court to invalidate a marital property agreement that provides her with sole ownership of the couple’s residential properties and provides him with sole ownership of the Dodgers and other business assets. No trial date has been set.

That agreement would override California’s community property law, in which the value of assets acquired during a marriage is split 50-50 in the event of divorce. When San Diego Padres owner John Moores and his wife Becky divorced, he had to sell the team in order to pay the settlement.

“Because of California, community property, divorce, sports franchise and San Diego, people jump to conclusions about what this means for the Dodgers,” Frank McCourt said. “The key omission there is the fact that I have marital agreements with Jamie that make crystal clear I own the Dodgers.

“The Dodgers are not for sale. My kids will own the Dodgers someday. As we get this matter resolved … things will get back to normal.”

To McCourt, a normal season ends with the Dodgers playing into October. He said the Dodgers could advance to postseason play for the fifth time in the seven years of McCourt ownership — a run unprecedented in club history — then quickly added that the World Series remains the primary goal.

“There is no substitute for that,” he said. “You all deserve that. The community deserves that.”

For the first time in 31 years, the Dodgers advanced to the National League Championship Series in each of the past two years. They declined to pay the price of adding an ace pitcher at the trade deadline in each of those years.

In 2008, when the Dodgers declined to pick up the contracts of their summer reinforcements, the Cleveland Indians traded CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers. Sabathia filed for free agency and signed for $161 million — a record for a pitcher — with the New York Yankees. First baseman Mark Teixeira, traded from the Atlanta Braves to the Angels, also filed for free agency and signed with the Yankees, for $180 million.

“I respectfully disagree that giving up a Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, or Matt Kemp to have CC Sabathia or Mark Teixeira for two months — and maybe be able to sign them beyond that — was a good proposition,” McCourt said. “How would we feel right now without Clayton Kershaw or Matt Kemp?”

In 2009, the Dodgers balked at including top young major leaguers in trade talks for Cliff Lee of the Indians and Roy Halladay of the Toronto Blue Jays. Lee and Halladay would not have been eligible for free agency until after the 2010 season.

The Dodgers’ payroll for the 25-man roster could drop below $90 million for the first time in five years and the second time in 11 years. That payroll stood at $109 million in 2001 — under the ownership of News Corp.'s Fox Group — and ranked third that year behind the Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

Yet the Dodgers never appeared in the playoffs under News Corp. ownership. McCourt said he prefers — and he believes that fans prefer — developing and investing in a homegrown core.

“A mercenary team doesn’t work,” McCourt said. “News Corp. was never short on money. It doesn’t work.”

McCourt lauded the Dodgers’ stability in management as well as on the lineup card. General Manager Ned Colletti signed a new contract last winter, and Don Mattingly is being groomed to replace Manager Joe Torre, who said this week he has put off negotiations to return next year.

“Whether or not he comes back for another year, we have a succession plan in place,” McCourt said.

Manny Ramirez, who was suspended for violating baseball’s drug policy last season and whose contract expires after this season, has said he does not expect to return to the Dodgers next season.

“I think it’s going to be a very interesting year for him,” McCourt said. “I wish I could predict what kind of year it’s going to be.…

“I think it stopped being fun for him last year. I think he needs it to be fun for him.”

McCourt said he was gratified by the record number of runners—and the 6,000 volunteers — that participated in the marathon during the debut of the route from Dodger Stadium to the Santa Monica Pier. He said organizers plan to “tweak the course a little bit” and attract as many as 5,000 more runners next year. He set as an eventual goal that every runner would compete on behalf of a charity.

He saluted the cooperation among the four cities along the route — Los Angeles, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica — and said that kind of cooperation will be necessary to develop what he calls the “robust public transit” so desperately needed in the Southland.

The success of the marathon, he said, was tempered by traffic congestion that forced some runners to abandon their cars along the freeway and jog to the starting line at Dodger Stadium. He said local governments urgently need to solve traffic and transportation issues, noting that the sellout crowd on opening day inevitably will struggle to get out of the ballpark and onto streets and freeways during the afternoon rush hour.

“There’s been that story every year for 52 years,” McCourt said. “It’s time for us as a community to change it.”