LOS ANGELES -- Got a chance, my first chance actually, to sit down with Tom Schieffer on Wednesday. Met him for lunch in the cafe up at the old police academy near Dodger Stadium, where we were joined by a Major League Baseball public-relations representative and an MLB-appointed security official.
If you haven't been there, it's not exactly high-falutin', as we used to say back home in Arkansas. But that was one of the first impressions I got of Schieffer, that for all his accomplishments -- running a big league ballclub, serving as a U.S. Ambassador to two different countries during the second Bush administration -- he is extremely down to earth and easy to talk to, the kind of guy who enjoys a burger in a greasy-spoon diner as much as filet mignon in a high-end steakhouse.
He also was refreshingly forthcoming about his first five weeks monitoring the Los Angeles Dodgers' finances, a job to which he was appointed by commissioner Bud Selig. Understandably, there were some questions he wouldn't answer and a lot of details he wouldn't provide. But many of the answers he did give were cryptic and transparent at the same time, a subtle confirmation, in my mind, of what those of us who have been paying attention to the questionable practices of embattled Dodgers owner Frank McCourt pretty much already knew.
"I don't think there is any question there is a strain between the franchise and the community right now," Schieffer said. "And that isn't the community's fault."
Although Schieffer was sent here by Selig to get to the bottom of this complex financial labyrinth, he is a baseball man at heart. As a former Texas Rangers team president who also owned a limited partnership in the club at the time, he gets what all of this is supposed to be about. When Schieffer walked into the press box before a recent game to pick up a scorecard and a game-notes packet, a media colleague of mine thought it was noteworthy enough to tweet about it, the colleague pointing out that he had never, ever seen McCourt do such a thing.
The one thing Schieffer hasn't done, and wouldn't do over lunch, is pile on McCourt, who had to take cash advances against corporate sponsorships just to make payroll this week and stave off a presumed takeover by MLB and who now must figure out a way to make payroll again in two weeks. Schieffer gave McCourt credit for being cooperative, especially after everyone got over that initial awkwardness that Schieffer knew he would encounter when he arrived.
Asked how often he and McCourt talk, Schieffer said, "Not much. He comes by every once in a while, and I'll see him. He might have a specific question he is asking. He came by Friday. It was pleasant enough."
As for how often he talks to Selig, that is another story.
"On a daily basis," Schieffer said. "I think it is fair to say he doesn't have a higher priority than this."
Schieffer's passion for the game comes with a deep understanding of the way things ought to be. Until now, Schieffer had never been associated with the Dodgers, but he is fully aware of their history, their tradition and the burning desire of so many in their fan base to revive all of that.
A few hours later, the Dodgers would have their three-game winning streak snapped in a 3-0 loss to the Colorado Rockies. The game would be played before an announced crowd of 36,975, more than 19,000 shy of a sellout, and this was on a bobblehead giveaway night, an event that used to guarantee a packed house.
There surely are a myriad reasons for the Dodgers' dropoff in attendance this season -- the per-game average through 31 dates is down more than 8,000 compared to last year's average -- but there is no denying a public backlash against McCourt is responsible for at least part of it.
Schieffer was adamant about his belief Dodger Stadium is a safe place to visit, but he conceded the public perception that it isn't, a perception that might have been building even before the Bryan Stow beating on Opening Day. Asked how to change that perception, Schieffer didn't really get into specifics.
"I think there are some things you could do that I would maybe reveal later on," he said.
For now, Schieffer often spends the games working his way around the ballpark, talking to longtime team employees, sitting in different sections, walking the concourses.
"A lot of people tell me they're worried about the franchise, that it isn't like it used to be," Schieffer said. "They want it to be what it has been in the past. … Every place I have sat, somebody has come up to me and talked about the Dodgers. I was really surprised that people would recognize me that quickly, but it was all ages, all parts of the ballpark. People really do care about this franchise.
"What was always amazing to me, and always heartwarming to me, was the emotional investment that fans make in a franchise. I felt that at the Rangers, but when you get a historic franchise like this one, the emotional investment is extremely high. It's a multi-generational thing. That first home game, we sat in Section 11, and we were approached by one man who had had season tickets for 44 years. His father had bought them. Another woman had had them for 30 years, and her father had bought them."
Schieffer hasn't limited these interactions to the paying customers.
"There are tremendously proud people who have worked for the Dodgers for many, many years," he said. "You can see that. They want the Dodgers to be what they have been in the past, and they do worry about it. … These people take great pride in telling people they work for the Dodgers, and they should. It's what we want them to do."
Finally, as the plates were cleared and the check arrived, I asked Schieffer one final question relating to all those fan and employee encounters he has had, both at the stadium and around town.
"Have you been approached by anyone in support of Frank?" I asked.
Schieffer laughed, then gave me the answer I fully expected.
"I'm not going to go there," he said.
And that was OK, because he didn't really have to.
Like I said before, cryptic and transparent, all at the same time.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.