- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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There was a lot of headshaking going on six years ago when baseball approved the sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers to Frank and Jamie McCourt. To some inside the game, the logic behind the McCourts being awarded the team seemed as specious as their financial liquidity turned out to be. Some baseball people viewed their ownership of a flagship franchise as a bad idea speeding toward the game like a torpedo.
Now, as the 2010 season draws to a close, the torpedo has struck a direct hit. The McCourts are in a free-fall for all the public to watch, live in divorce court, California-style; and their grand bauble -- the Dodgers, historically the beacon of continuity, respect and backroom influence -- has crumbled on and off the field. Even worse, the team is being defined by a word that hasn't been associated with the franchise since World War II: unstable.
The collapse is an extraordinary example of greed and unaccountability gone wild in a decade already full of them. Piece by litigated piece, the most important West Coast franchise in the game is being tarnished, and the skeptics who doubted the McCourts in the first place are swallowing the bittersweet aftertaste of being right.
It wasn't that the McCourts were bad people; they were merely unprepared to be playing in the deep end of the pool with the Dodgers. When baseball turned the team over to the McCourts, some saw it as a consolation prize for the game turning Frank McCourt down in his attempt to acquire his home-town team, the Red Sox, 2½ years earlier.
McCourt was valuable to baseball because of the parcels of land (parking lots) he owned in Boston that could be used as a potential new home for the Red Sox. But he did not have the money to buy the Dodgers and offered a bid that was heavily leveraged. Nor did McCourt have connections to Los Angeles; from the start, he was viewed as an outsider there.
There were other candidates with far better pedigrees: Los Angeles developer and philanthropist Eli Broad offered to buy the team, mostly with cash. Former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth formed a group to look into purchasing the team, as did Los Angeles real estate mogul Alan Casden. All had more money, visibility and ties to L.A. than the McCourts did.
During the early part of 2004, when the sale was nearing approval, high-ranking baseball officials questioned the amount of debt McCourt was taking on to purchase the team, and whether baseball was ignoring its own guidelines that require a 60/40 equity-to-debt ratio in a potential owner's bid. It was clear from the start that McCourt as the owner of the Dodgers was both a high-risk endeavor and an example of how baseball will add a member to its club if it wants to.
Perhaps the McCourts were ownership-worthy somewhere, but not of this particular important franchise.
The Dodgers, after all, are one of the four most important franchises in postwar baseball history, along with the Yankees, Red Sox and Cardinals. They've been a financial powerhouse, sitting on privately owned land. But somehow, baseball managed to overlook the signs that the McCourt group might have been woefully underfunded and lacking in the actual, cold hard cash it takes to run a franchise. It awarded the McCourts the team, even though they had to borrow $145 million from News Corp., the seller, to swing the deal.
So in a dizzying deal perhaps characteristic of the 2004 times when greed ran unchecked and unqualified people were awarded houses they couldn't afford and banks earned massive short-term profits they knew were illegitimate, McCourt sold himself as a family owner in the tradition of the famous O'Malleys and was given sole ownership of the proud Dodgers for $430 million. He financed the purchase with very little of his own money; McCourt put up his land holdings in Boston as collateral for the remainder of the sale price. Over time, the value of that collateral turned out to be worth less than half the actual sale price of the club; a week ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that McCourt had sunk the Dodgers into a $433 million debt hole as of last year, and that three major financial institutions -- including Citibank -- turned him down as he sought additional funding to run the club.
That $433 million debt comes as the Dodgers have nearly doubled team revenues since McCourt purchased the team.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of 10th grade math could argue the McCourts didn't possess enough capital in 2004 to deserve the club.
But they were attractive to baseball, nonetheless, for at least one reason: They fit into Bud Selig's obvious and not always unreasonable no-mavericks master plan, designed to facilitate ownership groups that stay in line. The McCourts might have been underfunded, but they could be counted on to vote the right way on important league-wide baseball issues. They wouldn't embarrass the commissioner with challenges to Selig's authority or bad public behavior. (That latter part hasn't worked out so well as details of the divorce trial become known.)
Selig's method of ownership control has been effective by and large. A united, uncontroversial owners front explains at least in part how Selig has engineered an unprecedented era of labor peace. Generally, he hasn't had to deal with special interests -- they existed in the old Ted Turner-Marge Schott-George Steinbrenner days -- that undermine the commissioner's agenda.
Although he's burned at the suggestion for nearly a decade now, Selig's fingerprints were all over the 2002 sale of the Red Sox to John Henry and the 2005 sale of the Oakland Athletics to Lew Wolff, who was a Selig fraternity brother eons ago. (Baseball's ownership group is so cozy now that Henry, who beat out McCourt to buy the Red Sox, purchased McCourt's $16 million home in Brookline, Mass.)
More recently, Selig has resisted the advances of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in the sales of both the Cubs and the Rangers. Both of those franchises wound up in the hands of more palatable, less combustible owners. So the plan has been working, and for a time it appeared that Selig's endorsement of McCourt would, too, despite his financial shortcomings and lack of connection to Southern California.
After a curiously early departure of general manager Paul DePodesta, McCourt brought Ned Colletti to the front office and hired Joe Torre as manager. Then came the star power of Manny Ramirez, and the Dodgers were playing for the pennant in consecutive years (2008 and 2009), something the franchise hadn't done since it reached the World Series in 1977 and 1978.
In the case of the McCourts and the Dodgers, though, the "safe" ownership cigar exploded in Selig's face after the first few puffs. And now it's apparent that Major League Baseball failed the Dodgers and the McCourts failed the baseball fans of Los Angeles.
Torre did his job, doing what Joe does best: Provide soothing credibility and stability while winning ballgames. By any real measure, the Dodgers hadn't been part of the championship conversation for more than 20 years until Torre arrived. The team's last World Series appearance (and victory) was in 1988. Since realignment in 1994, every team from the NL West has appeared in the Series except the Dodgers.
Torre brought them back, but in the middle of it were McCourt's card tricks. The Ramirez deal was subsidized heavily by the Red Sox. The Dodgers re-signed Ramirez last offseason, but at a heavy cost. After the 2008 season, the best pitcher on the free-agent market was a kid from California who by all indications wanted to remain in the NL and play for the historically pitching-rich Dodgers in their great pitcher's park. But when the time came to make the move, the Dodgers were silent. Maybe the most obvious evidence that McCourt didn't have the financial means to be a big-time owner is that the California kid, CC Sabathia, went to the Yankees without even an offer from the Dodgers and helped New York win the 2009 World Series.
And now the Dodger resurgence is looking more like a mirage, starting with the McCourt family values. The divorce case has revealed that the couple who borrowed so heavily to acquire the team spent lavishly on their personal lives and took money from the team (more than $100 million as reported by the LA Times). They've exemplified the worst excesses of greed and materialism and recklessness, spending millions while pillaging the franchise. According to court documents of the Dodgers' financials, two of the McCourts' children were on the payroll at a total of $600,000 per year, though one is not listed as a full-time employee and the other is a graduate student.
The team is fighting to finish with a .500 record on the field. Worse, the legitimacy it gained through Torre and consecutive trips to the NLCS is deteriorating. Torre looks weary; his contract is up at the end of the season, his team is uninspired and he has nothing left to prove. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, when the Dodgers lost to San Diego on Tuesday and fell to 69-70, it was the first time a team managed by Torre was under .500 this many games into a season since his 1984 Braves finished the year 80–82. If McCourt is forced to sell the team, new ownership will have to repair the broken trust with the fans and rebuild a shattered organization. If McCourt survives the divorce case and can keep the club, he will have even less money to operate the franchise than before.
Ramirez is gone, waived to the White Sox but not before he had a hand in deconstructing his own Hall of Fame monument. While a Dodger, the news broke that -- along with fellow Boston legend David Ortiz -- his name was on the infamously leaked list of 2003 positive tests for performance-enhancing drugs, and last year, Ramirez was suspended 50 games for violating the league's PED testing.
Ramirez's deceit was just the latest fraud in a series that began with Selig & Co. awarding a franchise to an owner on criteria other than merit. Perhaps it's appropriate that it happened in Los Angeles. There may be no better setting for being exposed as something you aren't than in a place like Hollywood, where the chief export is make-believe.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.