It's been a rough year and a half for Frank McCourt.
Since announcing his split from his wife of 28 years two Octobers ago, McCourt has watched his team go from having the best record in the NL in 2009 to finishing next-to-last in its division in 2010. Things got even worse for the Boston-born developer in December, when a judge ruled to invalidate a postnuptial agreement that would have given him sole custody of the Los Angeles Dodgers (estimated worth of more than $1 billion), setting the stage for the court to potentially divide the couple's assets down the middle under California community property law.
The Dodgers' fan base would no doubt have welcomed a superstar free-agent acquisition, such as Carl Crawford or Cliff Lee, in the offseason but instead got Juan Uribe and his career .300 on-base percentage. McCourt's cash-flow problems have taken the team out of the discussion for the game's top players, to the chagrin of many fans already fatigued by his expensive and seemingly never-ending divorce trial.
We recently asked fans what McCourt could do to help his public image and asked them to tweet their responses (followed up with email, in the cases more than 140 characters were needed). We also had some experts weigh in. Here are some suggestions:
"I would like a groveling apology for using a public trust as a private cash machine," tweeted Dodgers fan Mike Branom, 39, of Tempe, Ariz.
While that is unlikely to happen, professional image consultants agree that a mea culpa moment with fans could help turn the tide of bad publicity.
"I'd bet that half of his season-ticket holders have been through a divorce and would be pretty understanding if he told them, 'Look, I've just had the worst year of my life, and I'm sorry my personal life affected you all, but my eye is on the ball now,'" said Steve Rosner, co-founder of 16WMarketing, a Rutherford, N.J., based sports marketing firm that counts Cal Ripken Jr. and Hakeem Olajuwon as clients.
Gene Grabowski, senior vice president of crisis management firm Levick Strategic Communications, agreed. "We have a saying in this business that silence is arrogance with the volume turned down," said Grabowski, who has worked with embattled athletes and was named PR Week's Crisis Manager of the Year in 2007. "Continuing to be flippant with the media and let his lawyers do all the talking will not win over fans or other baseball execs."
Indeed, McCourt did not address his divorce once with the media this offseason and limited his public appearances to charity events, at which he said it was "inappropriate" to discuss how the trial affected the team or when it would be resolved. Rosner pointed to the press conference Alex Rodriguez held to address his steroid use as a blueprint for changing the discourse. "He said he was sorry, he offered his own explanation, took a couple of questions, and that was it," Rosner said. "You barely heard a word about it the rest of the year."
2. Improve the fan experience
Many fans say that little things would go a long way toward making them happy.
Christopher Carley, 34, of Woodland Hills, Calif., echoed the feelings of many Dodgers supporters when he tweeted, "Going to a concession stand, getting food & returning to your seat in the span of a complete half-inning would be keen."
Rio Rivera, 19, of Hacienda Heights, Calif., had a simple request: "He should ban the playing of Don't Stop Believing." It is the archrival Giants' battle cry.
Matt Rigali, 36, of San Diego, tweeted his wish that the Dodgers stop blasting pop music during half innings and go back to letting famed organist Nancy Bea Hefley provide the soundtrack solo.
Debbie White, 52, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., is a partial season-ticket holder in the reserve level. She said even minor upgrades to concession stands and bathrooms would go a long way in improving her time at the stadium.
"Fix up Dodger Stadium from the top down," tweeted White. "Do Top Deck & Infield Reserve, not Loge. Doing Field first was a slap to fans."
3. Lower the price to park
While this is unlikely to happen with McCourt's financial situation, many fans say they'd be more likely to go to games if he lowered the price of parking from $15.
"How about lowering Dodger stadium parking to $10?" tweeted John Peale, 58, of Santa Barbara, Calif. "The Angels only charge $8."
That might be a nice gesture but it also might not make sense for McCourt right now.
"It'd be strange if he said, 'We're lowering prices because I dragged you all through a messy divorce,'" Rosner said. "Plus, at the end of the day, he's running a business."
4. Raise the parking price to $20 and use the extra cash to sign Albert Pujols
Rich Rodriguez, 37, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., tweeted that McCourt has two options:
"1) He could sell the team. 2) Get Albert Pujols."
Indeed, if McCourt is going to keep the team beyond the 2011 season, experts and fans agree he is going to need to make a bold play to change public perception that he can't afford to pay top-notch players.
It is looking increasingly likely that Pujols, perhaps the best player of his generation, will be a free agent after the season.
"Donald Trump was nearly bankrupt in the early 90s and he bounced back by changing the world's perception of him," Grabowski said. "Signing Pujols would certainly do that for McCourt. This situation is still fixable, but he's got to do something big."
Peale, who expressed a wish for $10 parking, said he would gladly pay $20 for a spot and proudly wear his Pujols shirt to the stadium if the club signed the slugging first baseman.
5. Just win, baby.
"If the Dodgers had played better on the field last year, would this even be an issue?" Rosner asked.
Many fans agree. "WIN. And I mean it. Winning heals all wounds," tweeted Rob Franz, 46, a Dodgers season-ticket holder from Westchester, Calif.
Molly Knight is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.