After Frank McCourt bought the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004, the team won its first playoff game in a decade and a half. Between 2003 and 2009, revenue nearly doubled. At least in some circles, hopes were high.
And yet here we are: Fans have been clamoring for the heads of Frank and Jamie McCourt (divorced but still battling over ownership of the team) for more than a year. And on Wednesday, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig seized control of the team, snatching it at least temporarily out of the hands of its fractious owners.
Frank McCourt's highly leveraged purchase of the Dodgers and his array of loans over the years have loaded the team with more than $400 million in debt; that and other factors have now crippled the Dodgers financially to the point where he had to borrow $30 million earlier this month just to make payroll. That red flag among others raised to a new level the worry that has nagged fans since McCourt arrived from Boston — does he have the financial ability and resources to operate the team?
The McCourts, never fan favorites, have watched their public relations go from dismal to disastrous, especially as their bitter divorce has played out in the media, and they have heard the constant calls for them to sell, pack up and leave town. Selig remained publicly silent on the McCourts' personal problems and, wisely, never stepped in. But he has made the right decision now by taking over the team, promising to investigate the muddled and precarious finances of the famed franchise and to appoint a trustee to take over day-to-day operations.
Running a ball team is not a popularity contest, but it is a challenging business, and there are serious and urgent questions to be answered about the organization's financial stability and Frank McCourt's ability to steward it.
And though a baseball team is a private business, it is also a public trust of sorts, subject to the scrutiny and broad authority of the powerful commissioner of baseball. Rarely does the commissioner take over a team, but now that he has, we would like to see him handle this in a manner that is transparent, timely and fair. The trustee
he appoints should be someone respected, and impartial. Although Angelenos might prefer a well-known civic leader, it will
probably be a baseball executive who is not a household name. What's most important is that the trustee be independent and fair, and that he or she be more focused on the Dodgers than on the politics of major league baseball.
There are numerous financial questions about the Dodgers that need to be answered. Where do the McCourts' expenses end and the Dodgers' funds begin? And, more important, what about the proposal that Frank McCourt presented to Selig earlier this month — a 20-year television contract with Fox (which currently has the rights to televise Dodgers games) worth at least $3 billion. The Dodgers' owner believes that would be sufficient to cover the costs of his divorce, to pay down the debt and begin to improve the team and the stadium. Selig has neither approved nor dismissed that idea. It should still be examined as a possibility, not rejected out of hand or given the pocket veto treatment.
Many fans regard Frank and Jamie McCourt as house-buying, high-living
parvenus who care less about the team than they do about themselves. (Admittedly, they might not care how the McCourts live
if the team were winning.) But it's not a crime to live lavishly and, in Los Angeles, they are hardly alone in that pursuit. It is a moral crime of sorts for them to finance their extravagant lifestyle with Dodgers earnings that could have been plowed back into the team. Frank McCourt has been severely criticized over the years for not spending enough on top-tier players and for not investing in player development to the extent that he promised he would.
All that makes it look like he and Jamie McCourt were enriching themselves at the expense of the organization. That alone isn't sufficient grounds for removing the team from Frank McCourt, but it speaks badly about his skills and commitment to building a winning team.
What the Dodgers — and Los Angeles and major league baseball — need is an owner who wants to compete and has the money and the business acumen to do so, period! (For such an owner, crowd security would never be an issue. He or she would understand that providing good security is as much of an insurance policy to the owner as it is to the public. It's simply a cost of doing business.)
The Dodgers, a fabled franchise that integrated baseball in 1947 with Jackie Robinson, are a cherished institution. Although this may be a time of uncertainty for the McCourts, the Dodgers and the team's fans, it's heartening as well. Selig's action is a step toward putting the management of the team back on a healthy path. It means
that outside experts will get to the heart
of the financial mess and begin to fix it. If the best remedy requires the McCourts to go, then so be it. For now, let's just get a timely diagnosis of what it will take to cure the ailing team.