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True to the Dodgers

When Branch Rickey put Jackie Robinson on the field on April 15, 1947, the moment transcended Brooklyn or the Dodgers or even baseball. That day, the Dodgers erected a milestone in a history that includes President Truman’s integration of the armed forces, Brown vs. Board of Education and the election of President Obama. Ten years later, when owner Walter O’Malley decamped from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, he broke many New York hearts, but his move West, along with that of the New York Giants to San Francisco, reconstituted baseball as a genuinely national pastime and bound California into the nation’s broader culture. Rickey and O’Malley both are members of baseball’s Hall of Fame; more important, they are consequential figures in American history.

Frank McCourt is not. His time as the Dodgers’ chief executive is, or should be, at its end. In the interests of baseball and Los Angeles — and out of respect for the franchise he owns — McCourt should step aside. If he declines or continues to fight, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig should seize the team and sell it.

Those are not easy conclusions to reach, in part because McCourt has not been all bad for Los Angeles. He purchased the team in 2004, and that year the Dodgers won the National League West title for the first time in a decade. Since then, they have made the playoffs three times. Moreover, McCourt has made improvements to the landmark stadium and has invested in upgrading the roster. On the other hand, some personnel moves have been questionable; for instance, Manny Ramirez’ brief time in Dodger blue helped the team reach the National League Championship series in 2008, but that was overshadowed by his 50-game suspension for using banned substances.

It is off the field, however, where McCourt has failed most alarmingly. He has managed to take one of baseball’s most storied franchises and burden it with enormous debt and needless controversy. He’s wrangled with the commissioner’s office, which accuses him of hiding the team’s financial problems and which has now imposed its own monitor to oversee the club’s activities. Indeed, Major League Baseball finally discovered the extent of the team’s troubles just as everyone else did: when Frank McCourt and his now ex-wife, Jamie McCourt, ended up in divorce court.

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In voluminous legal filings, the McCourts laid bare their wanton spending and alarming debt. Most baseball owners are lavishly wealthy and run their franchises as hobbies. Not Frank and Jamie McCourt, who borrowed heavily to buy the Dodgers and then used the team’s revenue to help pay for their extravagant lives. Some analyses suggest that they drew as much as $100 million for themselves in salaries and perks. Even as the team’s debt deepened, they owned seven houses, belonged to seven country clubs and spent $150,000 a year on a hair stylist who visited them five times a week. Meanwhile, fans paid $15 to park and about that much again for a Dodger Dog and a beer.

Baseball does not require its owners to be perfect, and McCourt is not alone in struggling to lead the Dodgers. News Corp., which preceded him, was a lackluster owner as well, presiding over years when the team lost money and never made it to the playoffs. In fact, it was News Corp.'s desperation to unload the team that set the stage for McCourt to buy it. The company wanted out so badly that it was willing to finance a chunk of the $430-million price tag. McCourt was so hungry to get in (after having unsuccessfully tried for the Red Sox and the Angels) that he borrowed that and more and backed the News Corp. loan with nearly everything he and his then-wife owned. Selig signed off on that deal. He and the league’s other owners, who also approved, now share at least some of the blame for starting down the road to the current crisis.

Just as Major League Baseball may have misjudged McCourt, he miscalculated the business he was getting into. A risk-taker, he is accustomed to the fortunes of his businesses rising and falling and rising again. The mere fact that he’s held on to the Dodgers this long despite his problems — a costly divorce, borrowing to make payroll, the commissioner’s denial of his proposed TV rights deal with Fox and his descent into bankruptcy — shows his tenacity and determination to ride out most any storm.

But tenacity is not a substitute for judgment or principle. Although his entry into Bankruptcy Court may hold Selig off for a while, such temporary victories come at the expense of his business’ unofficial stockholders — the legions of Dodgers fans — and the long-term health of the team.

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Baseball teams are not conventional businesses. The league’s special status is even reflected in its exemption from anti-trust law. Its teams are franchises, and its owners answer to the commissioner, the fans and the nation itself. That demands a lot of an owner: enough wealth to buy a team and enough humility to serve its many masters. McCourt has neither the money nor the temperament to succeed.

The ownership crises are only glancingly reflected on the field. On the day McCourt declared bankruptcy, his players posted a 15-0 win. But the team dropped into last place two days later, and fans are subtly but unmistakably registering their offense. Attendance has plummeted, and the Dodgers, who once led the major leagues in crowds, now face the sharpest dropoff of any club.

Sooner or later, preferably sooner, the McCourt era will end. When it does, baseball can get right what it got wrong when it approved his purchase of the team. This time, Selig and the major league team owners should approve a financially stable owner with an intense interest in maintaining a roster of the best players in the game, and a keen understanding that the team is not a cash register but rather a cherished civic trust. This is the franchise of Robinson, after all, and of Sandy Koufax and Fernando Valenzuela and Hideo Nomo, of Tommy Lasorda and Vin Scully. It is as scrappy as Brooklyn, as eclectic and aspiring as Los Angeles. It deserves an owner devoted to its future and as admirable as its history.


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