Commentary

Owning the Dodgers … it's a messy job

McCourts' divorce proceedings likely will have adverse effect on team going forward

Originally Published: March 8, 2010
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- If I could do it all over again, I wouldn't be a sports writer. Instead, I'd own the Los Angeles Dodgers.

[+] EnlargeFrank McCourt
AP Photo/Jae C. HongFrank McCourt has been the owner of the Dodgers since 2004.

If I owned the Dodgers, I could put my two sons on the team payroll for a combined $600,000 per year, even though neither one actually works for the Dodgers.

If I owned the Dodgers, my soon-to-be ex-wife and I could pay ourselves a combined $108 million during the past six years but not pay the state or feds any income tax. Cool.

If I owned the Dodgers, I could fly on my Dodgers jet, have pricey floral arrangements delivered regularly to my Dodgers office and dine at the finest restaurants (no Dodger Dogs for me).

Best of all, if I owned the Dodgers, I could borrow $140 million against my future ticket sales. And don't tell anyone (because then everyone would want to own a big league team), but I'd plan on nearly doubling ticket prices during these next nine seasons while spending less on player payroll than I did in 2009. Those 3.7 million suckers, er, valued Dodgers ticket buyers wouldn't know what hit them.

Anyway, if I owned the Dodgers, I'd be Frank McCourt, who had to leverage himself up to his nose hairs to buy the team in 2004. And my soon-to-be ex-wife would be Jamie McCourt, who insists she owns half the Dodgers, too.

Under normal sports writing circumstances, I wouldn't touch these McCourt divorce proceedings with a foul pole. Divorce is a personal, private matter, and in this case, we're talking about two people who were married for 30 years and have four children.

But these aren't normal circumstances. That's because both Frank and Jamie want custody of the Dodgers. Plus, Frank's soon-to-be ex-wife detailed Frank's Dodgers plans in court documents. And the Los Angeles Times published the details of those documents. (What, you didn't spend $52,000 on clothes during the past three months?)

So, depending on how this divorce and ownership battle shakes out, you wonder whether Frank will keep the Dodgers. And if he does keep them, will he keep them competitive?

Frank, in several recent interviews, says he owns the team and has a written agreement to prove it. Jamie says the postnuptial agreement waiving her claim to the Dodgers is invalid. The Los Angeles Superior Court will rule on the case later this year.

As for the Dodgers' players, a few of them commented on the situation.

"It's really none of my business," Dodgers pitcher Chad Billingsley says.

"You hope they find a way to work together or just find a way to settle it," catcher Russell Martin says. "That's all you can hope for."

And this from third baseman Casey Blake: "It's something that obviously is real, so you do think about it a little bit, the effect it's going to have. You just hope that it doesn't affect, on a daily basis, the focus that this team has. You just hope that we can still go about our business."

And there's the rub: What happens if the McCourts' personal business becomes the team's business? What happens if the divorce bleeds down from the courtroom to the dugout?

Publicly, Frank says there is no scenario that will force him to sell the Dodgers. It's his team: The postnup says so; Major League Baseball says so. Meanwhile, Jamie, the longtime attorney, knows where all of Frank's financial bones are buried, and she hasn't been shy about excavating them for the court documents. So you wonder what other surprises she might reveal and whether those revelations could trickle down to a Dodgers franchise picked by many to win the NL West this season.

[+] EnlargeManny Ramirez
AP Photo/Mark DuncanManny Ramirez is entering the final season of a two-year, $45 million deal with the Dodgers.

Divorce can devastate a franchise. Just ask the San Diego Padres, who became fire-sale material after the 2007 divorce of then-owner John Moores. Frank, who was unavailable for comment, likely would argue that his circumstances differ significantly from those of Moores. And he's right -- for now.

But what does he do if the L.A. Superior Court rules in Jamie's favor? Or if he gets hammered in the financial settlement?

Something has to give. Frank already has lowered his 2010 player payroll from 2009 levels and, according to those court documents, projects only modest increases in payroll through 2018 while raising ticket prices at the same time.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers basically ignored the free-agent market during the offseason because, Frank said, they already have the necessary core parts. Martin backs him up.

"Obviously, I believe we can win the World Series," Martin says. "I think we have the talent."

But what if Dodgers GM Ned Colletti needs a big-ticket item for a late-season run? And I don't know whether Frank noticed, but that core group is going to get very pricey in the next few years. Closer Jonathan Broxton will become a free agent after the 2011 season, and Martin, Billingsley, first baseman James Loney and outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier will be free agents after the 2012 season.

Sure, it helps that the expensive contracts of Manny Ramirez, Rafael Furcal and Blake will come off the books soon, but it still will cost a lot of money to re-sign the young stars. Will the divorce make a difference in how wide, or whether, Frank opens his wallet?

The Dodgers are lucky to have crisis-management expert Joe Torre. He managed the New York Mets when their family ownership was in chaos. He managed the New York Yankees with George Steinbrenner attached to his eardrum. Now he deals with the McCourt situation.

If I owned the Dodgers, I'd think long and hard about selling the Dodgers. Frank has said no way, but people say lots of things before a trial.

"You try to insulate," says Torre, who recently spoke to his team about the McCourts and the related media attention. "I knew when I took that Yankees job … my priority was to have those guys worry about baseball and nothing else because there are so many distractions in New York -- and the owner was obviously one of them. But I had a bunch of grown-ups, too. And these guys are getting to that point."

If I owned the Dodgers, I'd think long and hard about selling the Dodgers. Frank has said no way, but people say lots of things before a trial.

This is going to get Shrek ugly or uglier. I mean, is it a good thing when Jamie's first court filing is more than 1,400 pages?

Frank might win the team, but depending on the judgment, Dodgers fans might lose. That's because there's a big difference between owning a team and being able to afford the honor.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

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