After nearly 20 months of bitter, contentious litigation, the most important person in the McCourt divorce turns out to be just the man you might expect.
Commissioner Bud Selig must now decide whether to approve or reject a $385 million pact between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Fox. That agreement would pave the way for the Dodgers to remain in McCourt hands, pending the outcome of a one-day trial on Aug. 4 to resolve conclusively whether Frank McCourt owns the Dodgers outright or the club is community property shared by him and Jamie McCourt.
A recent California Court of Appeals case involving the marriage Frankie Valli, lead singer of The Four Seasons, appears to be favorable to Frank McCourt's position on the issue set for the one-day trial. In that case, California law's presumption that the way a couple titles a property trumped the general presumption that all property acquired during a marriage becomes community property. The Dodgers have always been titled in Frank McCourt's name alone. While sources close to her camp indicate Jamie's legal team is already preparing an assault on the Valli case's applicability, Selig must be prepared for the possibility that Frank will prevail that day, firmly entrenching him in the owner's box for years to come.
Selig may have the power to render that court date meaningless by blocking the Fox deal between now and Aug. 4. Indeed, the McCourt settlement is expressly conditioned on Major League Baseball's approval of the massive television rights pact. Preventing the execution of the Fox agreement represents Selig's best chance to force Frank out of baseball.
Selig, of course, intervened in Dodgers operations several weeks ago when he installed former Texas Rangers president Tom Schieffer to monitor the flagging Dodgers. Many have suspected that Selig hoped to let Frank's ownership die on the vine. As soon as the Dodgers failed to meet their financial obligations, Selig would seize control of the team. Amid reports by the Los Angeles Times that Frank had "no chance" of making the club's June 30 payroll, Selig recently appeared to be perhaps just days away from this outcome.
Instead, Jamie McCourt's last-minute consent to the Fox deal forces Selig into a delicate position: Either he blesses the transaction and stomachs Frank's presence in the exclusive club of MLB owners or he blocks the agreement, risking the perils of almost certain litigation.
Selig could block the deal, claiming baseball's investigation into the Dodgers finances and operations is incomplete. At that point, if Frank were to fail to make the June 30 team payroll, Selig could exercise his powers under the MLB Constitution's "best interests of baseball" clause and seize the club. That seems plausible, as Frank and Jamie's drawn-out divorce has been said to have embarrassed baseball, and Selig may view Frank's latest cash crunch as the last best opportunity to close the books on the tumultuous McCourt era.
However, another set of books might keep Selig from executing Frank's ouster. Blocking the proposed Fox deal, and effectively neutering Frank's ability to raise enough cash to save the team, would leave baseball vulnerable to litigation brought by Frank. And, in that litigation, Frank would likely seek to make public the business records of all 30 clubs and baseball itself.
One of the dominant stories in American sports is the ongoing NFL lockout, and not far behind it is the looming labor strife in professional basketball. MLB's agreement with its players association ends after the 2011 season, but the sides have long been considered to be close enough to avoid a work stoppage. If the way money moves into, out of and among MLB franchises becomes part of the public record, the players may well desire a much bigger piece of the pie than they currently enjoy.
The McCourt divorce litigation has revealed Dodgers ownership took more than $100 million out of the club over the last several years. Documents unearthed last summer showed the Florida Marlins, one of baseball's lowest-spending teams, used their income from revenue sharing to turn a combined profit of $49 million in 2007 and 2008. The same round of newly uncovered documents showed the low-budget Pirates turned profits well into eight figures over those same two years.
Should financial documents be made public as part of a lawsuit brought by Frank McCourt against Major League Baseball, and should those documents show that the owners are, indeed, doing much better than they claim, striking a new collective bargaining agreement may become quite complicated.
Additionally, litigation over the question of MLB's power to control an owner's business decisions and essentially force him out of baseball presents the potential for jeopardizing MLB's carefully guarded exemption from the nation's antitrust laws. That exemption allows the commissioner's office to restrict owners' activities at a degree far greater than in other American professional sports.
In the days leading up to Selig's decision on the proposed Dodgers/Fox television rights contract, you can be sure Dodgers executives, and likely Frank McCourt, are making very clear the risks MLB would be undertaking by blocking the deal. While Frank's prospects of actually winning the potential litigation may be in question, simply forcing its prospect on MLB may be enough to win Selig's approval of the Fox pact.
It is difficult to imagine Selig has not already considered the possible labor ramifications of a lawsuit from Frank McCourt. Selig's installation of Schieffer and subsequent inaction on the television contract thus far suggests he is willing to withstand a serious challenge from McCourt. If he is supported by owners around the league, he may allow the Dodgers to fail regardless of the risks of litigation.
So now we wait for a decision from Selig on the Fox deal, a decision that is a de facto announcement of his intentions regarding McCourt.
Representing the interests of the 29 other owners and, indeed, the game, Selig has two options.
Approve the deal and allow McCourt his Aug. 4 opportunity to secure his ownership of the Dodgers for the foreseeable future.
Reject the deal and ready the game for a lawsuit from a man not averse to extended litigation.
Your turn at bat, Mr. Commissioner. The pitch is on its way.
Josh Fisher is author of the website "Dodger Divorce."