The L.A. Dodgers, Sold into Freedom

Last night’s announcement by Frank McCourt that he has agreed to sell the L.A. Dodgers is being greeted in Los Angeles with the kind of rapture that would follow the abolition of smog or the resurrection of Marilyn Monroe. From the mayor to his political opponents on the Board of Supervisors to virtually every damned blogger in town, McCourt’s withdrawal has been greeted as the necessary prelude to restoring one of L.A.’s signature institutions—a key component of the L.A. identity—to its former glory.

The saga of the Dodgers under McCourt is just one part of a chronicle of civic decline that has plagued Los Angeles for years. Since McCourt and his then-wife Jamie purchased the Dodgers in 2004 from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation—though they didn’t have enough money to fully pay up, and it’s suspected that News Corp closed the deal in full knowledge of that fact, and in full anticipation that the McCourts would show their appreciation by continuing to let Murdoch’s sports networks broadcast the club’s games—the Dodgers have plummeted steadily downward. Bottom was reached during the past season, when a Giants fan was beaten into a coma in the stadium parking lot, and attendance collapsed as details of the club’s finances were revealed in the McCourt’s divorce proceedings, in which the McCourts were alleged to have siphoned $189 million in club funds for their personal use. In a court declaration, Jamie McCourt wrote that “Frank and I enjoyed the many perquisites and benefits that come with owning a Major League Baseball team,” which, she went on to spell out, included annual salaries for both of them that came to $7 million combined. The McCourts’ purchases far exceeded what their salaries appeared to support, though, including adjoining estates in Malibu beach, adjoining mansions down the block from the Playboy Mansion, and similar extravagances in other cities. As the team struggled, and as the great Vin Scully, now 81, continued brilliantly and valiantly broadcasting their games, fans seethed at the resources not being spent to bring the city the kind of team to which it had long been accustomed.

With reports of the McCourts’ financial difficulties and their lavish spending seeping daily out of the divorce proceedings, Major League Baseball, in the person of Commissioner Bud Selig, forbade Frank from re-upping the club’s broadcast rights with Fox Sports for a multi-decade, $3 billion deal. He feared that a lot of that money would go not to the club but to Frank’s divorce settlement to Jamie. Unable to close the deal, McCourt took the club into bankruptcy this summer (where it joined L.A.’s other signature institution, the L.A. Times, which has been tied up in the three-year-and-still-onoing bankruptcy proceedings of Tribune Corporation). With McCourt reportedly fearing that he couldn’t meet his debts to Jamie and others without the sale of the broadcast rights, he agreed last night to sell the club, the ballpark, and its parking lots—a package that may well cost the buyer, whoever that turns out to be, close to $1 billion.

The decay of Dodger ownership can be read as a kind of parable for the decay of American capitalism. In the '40s, the team was partly owned by Branch Rickey, the man who hired Jackie Robinson to integrate the national pastime. His share was purchased by a very smart Brooklyn attorney, Walter O’Malley, who famously, when he couldn’t convince Robert Moses to let him build a new Brooklyn Stadium, moved the team to Los Angeles, thereby making the national pastime truly national for the first time in its history. (Before the Dodgers moved, baseball extended no farther south or west than Kansas City.) With Scully at the microphone and Sandy Koufax on the mound, the Dodgers drew the biggest crowds in professional sports, and the franchise flourished.

In the mid-'90s, however, the team had passed to O’Malley’s son Peter, who, for reasons largely related to taxes, sold it to Murdoch’s News Corp., which then unloaded it on the McCourts a decade later. The saga of Dodger ownership hit bottom a couple of months ago when Bill Burke, a local wheeler-dealer, announced that he had assembled an investment consortium that was offering to buy the club, the lead investor in which was a state-owned Chinese bank. Angelenos had been having trouble imagining a worse owner for the club than the McCourts, but the notion that the Dodgers would be controlled, in essence, by the Chinese Communist Party (which controls the government that controls the state-owned banks) managed to do the trick, and the idea went nowhere. (The two leaders of the L.A. Communist Party in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Dorothy Healey and Ben Dobbs, both of whom I got to know in later years, were great Dodger fans, but I can state with assurance that in their latter-day democratic socialist incarnations, they would have been appalled at the Chinese CP owning their beloved Dodgers.)

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa insisted today that the new purchaser be local, as some of the rich folks whose names are being bandied about are (notably, Ron Burkle, who also owns the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL team and is one of the you-can-count-‘em-on-the-fingers-of-one-hand pro-union major investors in the country). One of L.A.’s problems is that over the past three decades, virtually all of its locally based major businesses—the Times, the movie studios with the exception of Disney, the aerospace companies, the banks—have been bought by corporations headquartered elsewhere. It would be nice to see the citizens of L.A. pony up collectively to buy the club, much as the far-fewer citizens of Green Bay did with their local Packers, but that’s probably asking a lot. Purchase by a relatively benign local billionaire will do—indeed, be a great step forward.

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