Major League Baseball named J. Thomas Schieffer, a former diplomat and past president of the Texas Rangers, as its watchdog over the Dodgers, a key step toward righting the ship after wresting control of the club from its beleaguered owner, Frank McCourt.
Schieffer, 63, of Fort Worth is a senior attorney at one of the nation’s most powerful corporate law firms, specializing in oil and gas investments. Suddenly, he is the most powerful executive of one of baseball’s most storied franchises, even if most of his new colleagues had never heard of him before Monday’s announcement.
According to one baseball executive briefed on the appointment, although Schieffer’s formal title is “monitor,” he is the de facto president, responsible for the club’s finances and operations. He must sign off on any check the Dodgers write for more than $5,000, no trifling matter for a club that has accumulated more than $400 million in long-term debt.
Schieffer could also reorganize a fractured front office that has operated without an experienced sports executive at the top since McCourt pushed out president Dennis Mannion last fall.
“I love baseball and baseball called,” Schieffer, who is expected to arrive at Dodger Stadium sometime this week, told The Times on Monday night. “I look forward to helping Major League Baseball and the Los Angeles Dodgers through this difficult period.”
“When I was in baseball, people talked about the Dodger way. That’s a way that has been very successul over the years. Major League Baseball and the fans want it to be that type of franchise again.”
He later joked to reporters that this was merely the latest turn in a life that is starting to resemble that of “Forrest Gump” — he’s dabbled in politics, diplomacy, the energy industry, investment management and professional sports.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig’s announcement also noted, pointedly, that Schieffer will audit the finances not only of the team but of “all of the franchise’s related entities.”
Schieffer said he was given the final go-ahead by Selig in a telephone call he received at 11 a.m. Central Time (9 a.m. PDT) on Monday.
McCourt has divided the team, the stadium and the surrounding parking lots into separate business entities funded largely by revenue generated by the Dodgers, according to court records — raising eyebrows around the league, though McCourt has said he is in compliance with baseball’s financial guidelines.
“Tom is a distinguished public servant who has represented the nation with excellence and has demonstrated extraordinary leadership throughout his career,” said Selig, who announced last week that he would seize day-to-day control of the Dodgers. “I am grateful for Tom’s acceptance of this role.”
The Dodgers and McCourt, who was blindsided by Selig’s decision to intervene last week, declined to comment.
Schieffer served three terms in the Texas Legislature in the 1970s. He later served as then-President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Australia and Japan.
He was best known for presiding over a sensitive renegotiation of U.S. troop levels in Japan — where they should be deployed and how much Japan should pay for the privilege of hosting them.
More quietly, Schieffer also lobbied the Japanese government to expand its military support for the war in Afghanistan at a time when Japanese public opinion was moving against greater involvement in what were seen as America’s wars.
His primary task was to reassure the skittish Japanese establishment of abiding American loyalty during an era when China’s booming economy was making it the dominant Asian power.
Schieffer’s work earned him a Distinguished Public Service Medal, the military’s highest civilian award, for what the Pentagon described as tireless stewardship of relations between the United States and Japan.
But, according to friends and colleagues, Schieffer is first and foremost a baseball guy.
Visitors to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo during Schieffer’s tenure found tasteful displays of baseball memorabilia and vintage photographs. Schieffer was also a prominent supporter of the then-nascent World Baseball Classic, an international tournament promoted by Selig to market baseball as a global sport.
Back home, Schieffer had been an early investor in the business group, headed by Bush, that bought the Rangers in 1989. Schieffer served as the president of the Rangers from 1991 until 1999; for a portion of that time, after Bush was elected governor of Texas, Schieffer also served as general partner.
The Rangers franchise began play in eastern Texas in 1972 but had never been to the postseason. The team won division titles in 1996, 1998 and 1999 — though each playoff run ended quickly at the hands of the New York Yankees.
Schieffer was a constant presence at Rangers games, sitting in the front row from first pitch to last.
“He wouldn’t leave his seat, even if we were getting beat 15-1,” said Doug Melvin, a Rangers general manager under Schieffer. “He’d always stay down there until the last out.”
Schieffer’s most lasting legacy in baseball may be Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth. Schieffer was instrumental in the financing and deft political wrangling that preceded construction of the ballpark. Schieffer helped select the site of the stadium and was so intimately involved with the details that it was his idea to name stadium suites after Hall of Fame players.
The $191-million stadium, built in less than two years, opened in 1994. Featuring a brick-and-granite façade, it was received warmly as a handsome park melding the best traditions of the past, modern amenities and touches of Texas, such as the Lone Star insignia in the concourses — though critics griped that it should have been built with a roof to guard against the Texas weather.
“His blood and sweat is in that place,” said Rangers Executive Vice President John Blake.
Schieffer, a conservative Democrat, ran for Texas governor in 2009 but withdrew before the primaries. In Texas political circles, his candidacy was viewed as stalled because of the two worlds Schieffer had attempted to straddle in his professional life: Democrats didn’t trust him because of his close relationship with Bush; Republicans could not abide his identification with the Democratic Party.
Though navigating competing philosophies doomed him in politics, it underscored his ability to build professional coalitions, said James C. Langdon Jr., a partner at Schieffer’s law firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.
The Texas stadium deal, for example, required Schieffer to steer through a hornet’s nest of government officials, regulatory agencies and special interests, Langdon said. Many believe Schieffer’s advocacy cemented the community’s approval, by a 2-1 margin, of a half-cent sales tax to help fund ballpark construction — at a time when such votes are increasingly contentious and in a state where tax increases are a hard sell.
“He understands how to motivate people, build coalitions, make things happen, make things work,” Langdon said. “It’s a testament to his ability to manage and motivate people.”
Schieffer’s love of baseball dates to his boyhood in Fort Worth, said his older brother, Bob Schieffer, the CBS news stalwart and host of “Face the Nation.”
The Schieffer brothers were fans of the Fort Worth Cats, a farm club at the time for Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers. The Schieffers saw a host of future Dodgers in their minor league days, including shortstop Maury Wills and Hall of Fame outfielder Duke Snider.
“But they called him ‘Eddie,’ ” Bob Schieffer said. “He wasn’t even called ‘Duke’ then.”
“He is a baseball fan through and through,” Bob Schieffer said of his brother. “There is nobody in the country more qualified. He’s run a ballclub. He’s built a ballpark. He’s dealt with crisis management as an ambassador — real crisis management, where we’re talking about what to do about North Korea and nuclear weapons. I think he is just what Major League Baseball needs right now.… This is going to be a great day for the Dodgers.”
Because Schieffer is a lifelong fan, Langdon said, he will understand intuitively how important the Dodgers are to Los Angeles, and to baseball.
“There is nobody who ever grew up in baseball and grew up loving baseball who doesn’t know what a part of America the Dodgers are,” Langdon said. “Tom will embrace that and will not just look at it as a business opportunity but look at it for the love of the sport and for the community.”
Schieffer has taken his hits over the years, friends said.
One former Rangers manager said Schieffer lacked a “human touch,” and one former player, incensed at a trade, called Schieffer a “back-stabbing liar.”
In politics, Schieffer didn’t leave for better pastures; he left because he lost. When he was a young legislator, the influential magazine Texas Monthly labeled him “arrogant and — what is worse — ambitious.”
“He’s tough,” said Lyndon Olson, a close friend who worked with Schieffer in the Texas House in the 1970s, was President Clinton’s ambassador to Sweden and then served as a chairman of Schieffer’s run for governor last year.
“He’s very, very good in situations of conflict.… He can be one hell of a tough negotiator,” Olson said. “I’m told it’s a pretty complicated world over there. And I think he’s up for the task.”
Times staff writer Bruce Wallace also contributed to this report.