The crowded fastbreak of prospective Dodgers owners suddenly has an all-star businessman and community leader holding the ball.
It’s Magic Johnson, and the score for this city could be huge.
Johnson announced Friday that he had joined forces with Guggenheim Baseball Management, an arm of a financial services firm that controls more than $125 billion in assets, in hopes of buying the Dodgers.
With Johnson serving as the point man for a group that will be backed by the prestigious Guggenheim brand and led by respected veteran baseball executive Stan Kasten, it’s a potential dream team.
The complete list of bidders hasn’t emerged, but at this early point it would be difficult to find a group with a stronger combination of deep pockets, a deep Los Angeles connection, and deep affection for the Dodgers.
“I am so hyped, I’m ready to start right now,” Johnson said in a phone interview Friday morning. “The Dodgers have been so important to this community for so many years, for so many reasons. I’ve lived through it all like everyone else and I want to make them great again.”
Johnson is that rare former sports star whose business acumen has matched his athleticism. Since retiring from the Lakers in 1996, he has made millions in investments that have focused on rebuilding inner cities. His substantial portfolio includes Starbucks franchises and movie theaters and a piece of the Lakers, which he recently sold.
“The Dodgers are my next big thing,” Johnson said. “This is not just millions of my money, this is dear to my heart. This is bringing back the brand for the people of Los Angeles.”
Johnson said his investment is based on memories from 30 years ago, when the Dodgers were bigger than even his beloved Lakers.
“When I first got to town [in 1979], the Dodgers were on Page 1 of the L.A. Times and the Lakers were on Page 3,” Johnson said. “I’ve seen how the Dodgers can be as big as the Lakers, and I want that to happen again.”
In searching for the right fit for his Dodgers dreams, Johnson researched six prospective bidders, then interviewed each of them, beginning each session with one question.
“I asked them, ‘What is your play here; do you want this team for the baseball or the real estate?’” Johnson said. “I wasn’t interested in anybody who wasn’t going to make baseball the priority.”
If they answered the first question correctly, Johnson asked a second question.
“I would then ask them, ‘OK, once you buy it, do you have enough money to turn them into champions?’” he said. “There are groups that will spend everything just to buy the team, and I didn’t want that.”
When Johnson met Mark Walter, Guggenheim’s CEO, he was convinced.
“The first thing I asked Walter was, ‘Do you want to win, and do you want to put money in?’” Johnson said. “He said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Johnson said the interview with Walter reminded him of discussions with another owner.
“Listening to Walter talk about winning, it was like listening to Jerry Buss,” Johnson said. “He told me three times, all I want to do is get to the World Series. I know great owners, and this guy can be a great owner.”
Johnson’s decision was clinched by the presence of Kasten, who directed the building of the great Atlanta Braves teams as club president from 1986 to 2003. He later served as the first president of the rising Washington Nationals, who play in a sparkling new park with some of baseball’s best young talent.
Kasten also has the huge advantage of having already been christened by baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who personally relied on Kasten to lead the Nationals in 2006 after their messy move from Montreal.
“Stan Kasten is my man,” Johnson said. “He’s a winner and he’s well-respected. That is what was important to me. I had to get with a winner, a guy who understands baseball inside and out.”
After deciding to join the Guggenheim group, Johnson contacted one of Frank McCourt’s representatives Thursday to give him the news and pay his respects.
“I know about all the Dodger problems, but Frank McCourt did some things right, and I wanted to recognize those things,” Johnson said. “He put money into the ballpark, he put money into the community, he signed Matt Kemp, the cupboard is not bare, and I wanted him to know that I respected and appreciated all of that.”
Johnson said one focus of the new ownership group obviously will be Dodger Stadium.
“We’ll look to improve it, we’ve got to do that, make the park safe for the fans, give them a great baseball experience, give them a Dodger Stadium experience, take it to another level,” Johnson said.
If the Guggenheim group is successful in its bid, Walter, who lives in Chicago, is likely to remain quietly in the background while Kasten would move to Los Angeles to run the team in a Dodger Stadium office down the hall from, yes, Magic Johnson’s office.
“If we’re lucky enough to get this thing, of course I would have a Dodger Stadium office. This is going to be an important job for me,” Johnson said. “I’ll be meeting with bankers, sponsors, community leaders, doing the things I did with the Lakers.”
Johnson said this includes recruiting potential free agents, something he did successfully with the Lakers. He was the one who made the first calls to the likes of Gary Payton, Karl Malone and Ron Artest.
“I wish we had the team already, I would have been at Albert Pujols’ house at 12:01 a.m. on the first day of free agency,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I can’t wait.”
If this potentially magical bid works, he will not be alone.