The architect of the rebuilt Dodgers’ ownership sat back Friday and took a long look at the plans and drawings of the last two years.
Then Bud Selig smiled.
The pain of a fractured franchise was gone. Calcium was filling in, healing underway. The anguish that the longtime commissioner of baseball had felt for the last two years had faded. It was a long process, sending Frank McCourt on his way and eventually welcoming the Guggenheim Group, a.k.a. Magic’s Men.
“I watch a lot of games,” Selig said. “I’d turn on the Dodgers game and see all those empty seats, all those no-shows. It just made me sad. That’s the word. Sad.”
Friday was a good day for Selig, on more fronts than just the now-financially viable Dodgers. He had attended a statue unveiling at Miller Park in Milwaukee for his longtime friend and nationally known comedian Bob Uecker. When he was the Milwaukee Brewers owner and president, Selig hired Uecker to be the Brewers’ play-by-play announcer. That was 1971, and Uecker is still on the job.
Uecker’s statue was added to a cluster that includes Hank Aaron, Robin Yount and Selig.
Selig likes to walk past and ask passersby which statue doesn’t belong.
Fortunately for the Dodgers, Selig was much more than a statue when the McCourt ownership started to unravel under a pile of debt and the odor of an ugly divorce. When Dodgers fans learned from divorce documents that their ticket and hot dog money had been helping pay for half-a-dozen home mortgages and a lifestyle of the rich and famous, they responded in the most effective way they could. They stayed home.
“This was the Dodgers,” Selig said. “It was a franchise with wonderful, historical background. It was great victories, memories, Ebbets Field. Who could have believed it would be them? It had to be fixed.
“I understood what was going on, how powerful this was,” he said, referring to the fan reaction. I told myself I had to keep my eye on the ball, go slowly. The process was painful. Time spent was enormous. But I kept coming back to the same thing, and I say this understanding how valuable each major league franchise is.
“This was the Dodgers. Think about that. The Dodgers.”
Selig eventually seized team operations, appointing former Texas Rangers executive Tom Schieffer to run the Dodgers. Then he rejected McCourt’s plan to fund his own bailout through a TV deal with Fox that, McCourt said, would have made him whole again and allowed him to retain the team. Selig said no, that would merely provide funds for McCourt to pay off personal bills, not improve the team.
During this time, Selig was taking hits from fans and media for allowing McCourt to buy the team in the first place, back in January 2004. Selig understood that no amount of explaining the pickle he was in would mollify all the fans. The team was owned by Fox, which was not only a business partner of Major League Baseball as rights-holder to All-Star and postseason games, but also wanted out as owner.
“They wanted it sold right away,” Selig said.
Other than McCourt, who passed the financial tests applied at that time by Selig and his ownership committee — several groups bid more but were judged to be lacking in other areas — there was nobody else.
“I fully understand the second guessing that caused seven years later,” Selig said.
ESPN.com columnist Gene Wojciechowski nicely summed up McCourt ownership when he wrote: “The McCourts had as much business buying an MLB club as Charlie Sheen has buying the Christian Broadcast Network.”
We flash forward to present-day Dodgers Blue Heaven.
Wednesday night, at a Times special events program at Dodger Stadium, new president and part-owner Stan Kasten spoke to a gathering of several hundred Dodgers fans. They seemed to enter warily and depart happily. Selig said Kasten is ideally placed and more than capable.
The team is in playoff contention. The new owners have spent like drunken sailors to boost the talent base. Fans are coming back, and not just in drips and drabs. Vin Scully announced he will return next year, which may be worth the $2.15 billion Guggenheim’s Magic (Johnson) Men spent to get this done.
That number, of course, is part of the smile on Selig’s face these days. When that happened, the going price of every MLB franchise jumped. Think of the house next door to your fixer-upper selling for millions.
“The night the judge announced the $2.15 billion, I was stunned,” Selig said. “Then I was very happy. At a meeting in July 1998, I told the owners to judge me on their asset value.”
Picture the next baseball owners meeting, a big boardroom and 29 very wealthy people falling over each other to pull out the chair for Selig.
As for McCourt still being around, with a slice of Dodger Stadium’s parking lot and a vague real estate deal with the Guggenheim people, Selig refused to comment. Asked if, like the rest of us, he’d prefer McCourt owned fishing boats in Iceland, Selig refused to comment again.
And why should he? When you win the war, who needs to quibble about the little battles along the way?