Frank McCourt shows no fear
During a one-on-one interview, it's clear he believes all will end well with the Dodgers
LOS ANGELES -- Went to Frank McCourt's office for a few minutes Friday. His request, not mine. He was doing the local media circuit, a round of one-on-ones with selected reporters as opposed to the national news conference/conference call he had held immediately after meeting with a contingent of Major League Baseball officials two days earlier, a contingent that conspicuously didn't include commissioner Bud Selig.
First thing I noticed when I walked in was the layout. It had been four or five years since I had been in there, and some minor construction had taken place in the interim. It used to be a big, airy office. Now, we were seated in an L-shaped anteroom that used to be part of that larger room. McCourt's actual, working office had been walled off from the rest of the room, and the door to that inner office was closed.
It didn't occur to me until after I walked out 20 minutes later that it was the perfect metaphor, yet another layer of insulation between McCourt and the real world -- and any hint of the prevailing public opinion within it that has almost universally turned against him.
The 20-minute interview would provide even more evidence of what I already knew: That this is a man who clearly is convinced this is all going to work out, that he is going to live happily ever after as owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers despite all the seemingly impossible obstacles that have to be overcome before that can happen.
Among the many topics we covered was Tom Schieffer, the man MLB appointed to oversee the club's financial operations. McCourt had spoken with Schieffer for the first time by phone Thursday, then met with him face-to-face earlier Friday. McCourt described those conversations as "cordial," but he said that, so far, he still isn't really clear on exactly what Schieffer's role will be.
"There was discussion about his intentions," McCourt said. "I would say his intentions seemed fine, but they weren't necessarily square with some of the instructions we got. We have had some mixed messages from MLB that this is not a takeover and he is here just to monitor what is going on, [but] we have heard from him that he is in control.
"We agreed we want to get more clarity on that."
McCourt didn't want to speculate on what his own role will be with Schieffer around, but Schieffer told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne on Friday that McCourt can conduct business as usual as far as approving player moves as long as they fall within the same budget McCourt set at the start of the season.
We hit on a few other subjects as well, including, at McCourt's behest, his desire to apologize to the fans for mistakes he has made. They included, in McCourt's words, embarrassing the community, the team and the fans. I asked for specific examples of those mistakes, but McCourt, as he so often does, spoke only in vague, albeit contrite, generalities.
"I look back on who I am as a person and the way I was raised, and I think I was susceptible to some of the lifestyle stuff," McCourt said. "That isn't who I am. I take responsibility for my actions."
I assumed he was talking about the sometimes hazardous trappings of being wealthy in Hollywood, but I asked him to clarify. Again, generalities, but it wasn't too difficult to read between the lines.
"I grew up very modestly," he said. "I have worked hard my whole life. I have been fortunate. I love this town, and I love this community. It's my home. I think I got a little bit out in front of my skis, and I learned some lessons."
There has been at least one report in recent days that McCourt is a target of an IRS investigation, but he denied that.
"Other than the normal audits, there is no truth to that," he said. As for what he meant by "normal audits," he insisted that businesses are audited on a fairly regular basis. "I have been in business since the 1970s," he said. "It's just normal audit activity, nothing extraordinary, nothing I am concerned about."
I asked him if it was true that, as has been widely reported, the $30 million loan he recently received from Fox was needed to meet his player payroll for this month. His non-answer -- he said he needed the money to meet obligations, but that he wasn't sure whether the team's payroll was one of those specific obligations -- fell short of an outright denial.
"I don't know the answer to that question," he said. "I know businesses have obligations and ... something had to be done sooner or later. I just don't know the precision of the timing of it."
McCourt readily conceded the concerns that led him to take out that loan are still there going forward in terms of his ability to meet those obligations, presumably including the player payroll. But he also continued to insist that all those problems would go away if Selig would simply approve the agreement McCourt has in place with Fox -- worth, based on various reports, anywhere from $1.6 billion to $3 billion, with $300 million in up-front money to go from Fox to the Dodgers -- for a new regional sports network.
McCourt said that agreement has been in the works for about six months but it has been a goal of his since he bought the club in 2004. He also said he met with baseball officials early last summer and "outlined our business plan going forward," and that it received a figurative stamp of approval from those officials.
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The one fact McCourt can't seem to get around, though, is Selig's refusal thus far to approve the deal, something McCourt says he finds inconceivable, especially given his stated willingness to amend the agreement in whatever way MLB demands as long as it remains in line with similar agreements other clubs have in place.
McCourt still wouldn't say whether he plans to sue Selig or MLB over that refusal. But before I left the room, I felt it was important to ask McCourt one more question, given his apparent refusal to acknowledge even the most remote possibility that his current financial difficulties eventually will force him to sell the club.
If that approval from Selig never comes, and consequently the agreement with Fox is never implemented, what is McCourt's fallback plan to preserve his ownership?
"This is the plan," McCourt said. "Baseball knows this is the plan, and there is no reason why this plan shouldn't be approved. It is preposterous to think that the commissioner of baseball is sending someone [Schieffer] in who may or may not be a receiver at a time when we are in complete compliance with baseball's financial rules, are current on our [financial] obligations, haven't asked for a penny from the emergency fund and have a multibillion-dollar transaction ready to be signed and implemented."
As I got up to leave, shaking hands with McCourt and a couple of his top lieutenants who sat in on the interview, it occurred to me that this final answer was vintage McCourt. He has been accused at times of being arrogant, an adjective that would seem to fit a man who never believes he needs a Plan B because he never concedes in the slightest that his Plan A won't work exactly as he envisions it.
Seven years after McCourt bought the Dodgers, though, it is difficult to imagine that back on Jan. 29, 2004 -- the day McCourt's purchase of the team was finalized and right around the time I was moving to town and taking over the beat at one of the local newspapers here -- that he envisioned his Plan A leading him to where he is today.
McCourt might not think he needs a Plan B. But all indications are that where ownership of the Dodgers is concerned, Selig and Major League Baseball are already working on theirs.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.