Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 24, 2011

Bud Selig Moves To Shut Down The Circus In L.A.

More than a year has gone by since I lamented the hard luck of Los Angeles Dodgers fans, supporters of a team whose performance on the field was both overshadowed and hamstrung by the soap opera in the owner’s suite. Little did I imagine at the time that all these many months later the melodrama would not just still be going on, but also have actually gotten worse.

While the lengthy and nasty divorce proceedings between Frank and Jamie McCourt drag on, it’s been more than four months since the Los Angeles Superior Court sided with Jamie and ruled that a 2004 marital property agreement was invalid, thus quashing Frank McCourt’s claim that he was the sole owner of the Dodgers. Rather than clarifying the ownership situation, the ruling left it up to the parties to negotiate a resolution; an event that seems utterly unlikely given the public enmity between husband and wife.

While the question of whether one or both of the McCourts own the team remains open, the public record of the divorce proceedings has revealed just how much damage they have done to the financial health of the Dodgers since buying the franchise from Fox Entertainment Group in 2004.

A Boston real estate developer, McCourt had originally tried to buy the Red Sox when the Yawkey Family Trust put that team up for sale. Only after losing out on that effort to a consortium led by John Henry did McCourt turn his attention to the opposite coast. There were early warning signs in the very structure of the purchase, including as it did a $145 million loan from Fox. But the leveraged deal was unanimously approved by the other owners in January 2004.

What the divorce court record shows is that in the seven years since, the Dodgers have plunged even deeper into debt, to the point where the team is now burdened with $433 million in long-term debt. Earlier this year Commissioner Bud Selig, who must approve all team loans, blocked Frank McCourt’s attempt to borrow another $200 from Fox. As the new season got underway, McCourt took a personal loan of $30 million from Fox, which was beyond Selig’s purview. Without the cash infusion McCourt would not have been able to meet payroll.

Meanwhile Frank and Jamie McCourt were having no trouble meeting their own personal expenses. Between 2004 and 2009 they took $108 million in personal distributions from the team, using the money to buy real estate and fund an extravagant life style.

Finally this week, Selig had seen enough. On Wednesday he seized control of the team, using his broad powers as Commissioner to “protect the best interests of the club, its great fans, and all of Major League Baseball.” In the next few days Selig will name someone to serve as his representative to run the team. Beyond that, it’s widely rumored that his next step will be to force the sale of the franchise. While it is unlikely the McCourts will choose to go quietly, their options are limited. The Commissioner’s powers are extraordinarily broad, and the game’s anti-trust exemption effectively blocks lawsuits. Marge Schott didn’t want to relinquish control of the Reds in 1999. Despite bankrupting the Rangers, Tom Hicks wasn’t anxious to sell the team last year. But in both cases the Commissioner got what the Commissioner wanted.

For Dodgers fans, Selig’s action must feel like at least the beginning of the end of a bad dream. Lacking a local connection, Frank and Jamie McCourt have never been especially well-liked. While the team has had its moments on the field under McCourt ownership, going to the playoffs four times, it’s been more than two decades since their last appearance in the World Series. Dodgers fans know that they root for an historic franchise, one responsible for integrating the majors and opening up the west coast at a time when Kansas City was the Great Game’s westernmost outpost. From Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella, to Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, and on to Don Sutton and Kirk Gibson, the names that have worn Dodger blue include a legion of the game’s greatest.

That proud history has given way to the recent lunacy of Mannywood and, following the team’s home opener against San Francisco this year, the ugly and savage beating of a Giants’ fan in the parking lot outside of Dodger Stadium. It’s been more than a decade since I attended a game at Chavez Ravine. Obviously much can change over that period of time, and apparently much has; for when I saw the Dodgers play on a lovely summer evening personal safety wasn’t remotely a concern. After the tragic event Frank McCourt acknowledged that cuts had been made to stadium security details. With all of that, the ongoing divorce drama, and a 2010 finish below .500, it’s no wonder that season ticket sales are off and that attendance at a game against the Cardinals earlier this month was the lowest in seven years.

Selig’s bold step won’t turn things around overnight. Indeed, in the near term it’s certain to produce more questions than answers and inhibit general manager Ned Colletti’s ability to improve the team as the current season unfolds. But if it eventually leads to new, more enlightened and less self-involved ownership, Dodgers fans will rightfully rejoice.

Owning a franchise in any of the major professional sports offers many perks, but it also imposes a fundamental responsibility. That is to never forget that were it not for the fans, there would be no franchise. The fans fill the seats, partake of the concessions, buy the souvenirs, and subscribe to the cable television packages. They endure any number of indignities, from skyrocketing ticket prices to personal seat license fees to being charged admission to watch their team practice to prolonged losing streaks. And still they come. They come to cheer their heroes on the field, firm in the belief that this season, that this game, will be something great; that it will be a memory fondly invoked years from now.

The McCourts manifestly enjoyed the perks of team ownership. But Bud Selig had to act when it became clear that at the very least they had forgotten their fundamental responsibility. More likely, they never really understood it in the first place.

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