Friday, May 21, 2010

What's best is not always what's easy.

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A few days ago, ESPN's Jerry Crasnick wrote about several overdone storylines for his weekly feature 'The Starting 9." His chief gripe? The ongoing McCourt divorce saga. Crasnick wrote:

No celebrity enjoys seeing his or her personal life played out for the world to see, and Frank and Jamie McCourt are pushing the envelope big-time. There's a Web site devoted to their split, with links to newspaper stories and court documents about "slush funds'' and money spent on hairstylists and vacation trips. Everything in Dodgerland -- from the Matt Kemp-Ned Colletti spat to Joe Torre's future -- inevitably seems to come back to Frank versus Jamie.
Dodgers fans are entitled to ask some hard questions when the team payroll drops from $100 million to $95 million and the big offseason pickups are Vicente Padilla, Jamey Carroll and Reed Johnson, but the McCourts' marital squabbling is a better fit for TMZ than ESPN. This movie has played out already, and it ended with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner hanging from a chandelier before crashing to the floor.
There are lots more sordid details to come, with a trial scheduled for Aug. 30 to determine custody of the team. On second thought, the McCourt divorce is a baseball hybrid of "War of the Roses'' and "Kramer vs. Kramer.''

I couldn't agree more with Crasnick that much of the divorce news is better-suited for TMZ than ESPN. We spend very little time here talking about the more sordid items, and that is by choice. To me, it's not an issue of fair or unfair, private or public. Simply, I'm just a ton more interested in this unprecedented look into how a professional sports team is run. As has been ably noted, fans and media, generally, would be naive to think that many (if not most) teams engage in the complex, intricate processes in play here.
Silent partners, sleeper equity, slush funds, minimization of tax liabilities, funneling money through several entities...that's just how it works. And I find it all fascinating. So, while Crasnick's point concerning the cratering of the McCourt marriage is well taken, this stopped being about Frank and Jamie, the couple, a long time ago. More than anything else, the issue at the heart of things is the erosion (some might say evaporation) of the relationship between the Dodgers and the team's large, devoted fanbase.
This is a test case for what really matters in sports today. As I type, the Dodgers are the hottest team in baseball, nearly fully recovered from an extended season-opening slump. Despite myriad injuries resulting in the inexplicable presence of Garret Anderson, the club is performing at a high level. And the acrimony between the organization and its fans hasn't kept the denizens of Chavez Ravine from supporting their Dodgers; the club is third in average home attendance despite the dismal start. Really, the club is right where we expected: headed toward a meaningful September on the field.
September, of course, has meaning in a courtroom as well. And that is why the divorce still matters. The outcome of September's litigation will shape the direction of the franchise in the short, medium, and long term. The ownership of the club is the most important issue facing the Dodgers today. I'm tremendously excited watching Clayton Kershaw (the player) become Clayton Kershaw (the idea). And I'm anxious for baseball's best offensive outfield to, you know, play together at some point. And Lord knows I have a lot of my own feelings invested in Chad Billingsley's don’t-call-it-a-comeback.
But in the absence of clarity concerning ownership, what happens on the field has a depressing tinge: we don't know if any of it really matters. And that's where this is still a little about Frank and Jamie. Not pools, or bodyguards, or drivers, or Project Jamie, or Frank's aloofness. No, this is about figuring out just who (or what) is going to own this team when the dust settles.
Many of us have a pretty clear notion of how the future should look. Mark Cuban has long been a popular choice, and I've heard calls for Eli Broad, Jerry Buss, and even (jokingly) David Glass and Al Davis. Still, many fans' leader in the clubhouse is the always-popular Anyone Else, famous also for his exploits as a backup NFL quarterback and opponent of incumbent political candidates.
And that makes sense. The McCourts had some credibility issues early on--just who are these people, and what are they doing in Los Angeles?--and it was rumored they didn't have the money to make this work. Toss in a healthy amount of public awkwardness, a pinch of financial short-sightedness, and a couple dashes of postseason failure and you've got some problems on your hands. The secret ingredient, of course, is an ugly divorce pulling back the curtains on team finances, and exposing ownership's long-term goals for the franchise--goals which probably don't match fans' expectations.
So rises the cry for Anyone Else. There's a problem, though: not so long ago, the McCourts were Anyone Else. The previous ownership was so eager to be rid of the Dodgers that it sold the club at a bargain basement price, encouraging the sort of leveraged transaction enabling the McCourts to buy (and then operate) the club. And, in a masterstroke, Fox ownership justified the price (and hamstrung the McCourts) by cutting a sweetheart deal for TV rights. Gate receipts and merchandise sales are neat and all, but control of the media rights is what separates baseball’s minor deities from its titans. Because Fox held the TV rights, the McCourts had to turn to the sort of financial sorcery so loathed by the fans today.
It goes without saying that the ownership situation is messy now. Even as a happy, intact family unit, selling the Dodgers would require the McCourts to untangle a string of affiliated companies and debt facilities so complicated it's taken several months of expensive discovery just to unveil them. Should Jamie win half the team or a cash award so great the team must be sold, it's going to happen at a discount, and an entity which might not have the wherewithal to operate the Dodgers would be encouraged to bid. Sound familiar?
The impassioned cries for Anyone Else are understandable, reasonable, and entirely defensible. But I'd urge everyone to consider just what that means: several likely years of turmoil. The sale itself would be an arduous, difficult process, and the new owner would likely experience significant growing pains. What's more, there are just fewer folks out there right now who can afford a baseball team than there were three years ago. A fresh start has its advantages, to be sure--especially if whoever's next is a true Southern Californian. But it's likely to be a long, painful slog.
There is a significant possibility that the right answer for the long term is Frank McCourt. It's hard to argue with the team's success during his regime, and all indications are that he has moved past the perilously-thin margins characterizing the early days of McCourt ownership. The team is profitable, the fans are still engaged, and there is room to grow. Perhaps, with the financial strictures of the divorce behind him, he'll be able to invest in the future of the organization, addressing shortcomings of the last few years. The TV rights come back in-house after the 2014 season, which will make the Dodgers all the more valuable. And, if things don't work, a sale several years down the line will be without the urgency that would dramatically devalue the club in a sale this winter.
I'm not ready to throw my full support behind Frank just yet. Emotionally, it's difficult to embrace a figure who has brought so much negativity to the Dodgers. But maybe that's my point: there is no panacea here, no cure-all. Clamoring for Anyone Else is emotionally and philosophically justified, but we should be careful to remember that Anyone Else comes with problems, too. And this is where we come back to the divorce as a test case for fans' attitudes towards their teams: what do we want? 
If we want a fresh face we can relate to, an owner for whom the Dodgers are the reason to exist, an owner who truly understands what the Dodgers mean to Los Angeles, then yes: Anyone Else could be that owner. But Anyone Else could also be a relatively faceless group of investors that sees the Dodgers as a vehicle for growing and accumulating wealth. The team might be available for a song this winter, and those TV rights are so close you can taste them. Anyone Else might be everything we've grown to distaste about Frank McCourt, but at least he's cut his teeth as an owner. 
If we want to win above all else, Frank McCourt could be the answer. He’s got more money than even his wife knew, he’s had some experience in figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and he’s learning how to stay out of the way. And there’s another factor at work, here, too: should he come out of this mess with the team intact, he’ll need to win. It’s the only way back into the fans hearts (and wallets). I know it, you know it, Frank knows it. Say it along with me, Frank, “The difficult events of the last several months have made me reconsider my priorities, and after my sons, the Dodgers are the most important thing in my life.” And so begins the rest of the McCourt era. If, over the course of several years, Frank’s actions match his words, everything is forgiven.
It’s with a great deal of reluctance I sing the praises of Frank McCourt, Potential Long-Term Solution. And, obviously, whatever degree I support Frank is based only on what we know; yet more skeletons may lurk. But my interest in the entire fiasco has never been about Frank or Jamie, pools or jets, stadiums or campaigns. It’s always been about the Dodgers.
So, for the moment, I’m not going to write Frank off. However these next few months play out, my end-game is the same: I will support the candidate best able to sustain an organization I can be proud to call my own. As it is with analysis, the past only matters to the extent it colors the future. And, for everything that’s happened, I’m not sure the future is better left to Anyone Else than Frank McCourt. Not quite yet, anyway. Lord knows we've got plenty of time to sort it out.
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15 comments:

  1. Way to go. That was excellent analysis. I find myself agreeing (almost reluctantly).

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  2. Well-reasoned and well-said, sir. In a world full of devils, sometimes it really is the case that the devil you know is a better option than the devil you don't know. :-/

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  3. I can't quit you, DodgerDivorce.com. Excellent analysis and opinion, sir.

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  4. Hah! Fine analysis, Josh. I must say that, over the years, I'm inclined to hate the McCourts less than I did at first, though I do find myself looking at alternatives at every opportunity.

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  5. I agree with everything you wrote, and it's a great analysis.

    That said, if I had a gun to my head I'd probably pick Anybody Else. And I'm not a risk-taker.

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  6. The author, Josh Fisher, puts forth the proposition that if Frank McCourt is forced to sell the Dodgers, we might end up with an owner who is a bigger scumbucket than dear old McCheap. I can't help myslef. I feel I'm forced to reply out of good conscience and my undying hope that the Dogs will, in fact, win another world series title in my lifetime.

    So, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t? I don’t buy that malarkey for a minute. Sure, there’s a chance we end up with a bigger arsehole as owner. I suppose there are worse human beings than Frank, but you’d have turn over a million rocks before you’d have a chance to find one.

    If Frank is forced to sell the team the odds are way better than 50-50 we’d end up owned by a better person than McCheap. Scan the league and tell me how many true bastards outside of NY and LA really run franchises?

    And the Commissioner can veto any sale as being bad for the game. Now, I’ll concede that Selig is a 24 karat arsehole himself, but he has to realize that if he let’s a McCheap clone get his paws on the Dodger franchise, it will hurt the entire national league. Imagine what happens to the league if LA fans get fed up and boycott games, both live and through MLB cable/computer deals? It would be an economic disaster.

    I also have to further beg to differ with the author of that piece on McCheap’s divorce on almost every point he thinks he’s made. The recent depression was manipulated by a handful of people that made a small percentage of the population obscenely rich while eliminating the middle class and stealing from the “poor boxes” for the lower classes and homeless. This new group of gazillionaires has created a huge pool of potential buyers that would be able to throw billions at the Dodger payroll and never need to earn penny one. They could use the team as a legitimate tax shelter and make money by losing large amounts of it. Or they could become owners just for the prestiege factor and the economic power it would bring. Sure, the lot of them should be sharing cells with "Bubba" in a Federal Pen and they're crooks. But any of them would make a better owner that Perfectly Frank.

    No. we are damned lucky our team found itself and turned things around. If Kurveshaw was still walking as many as he fanned and getting his but handed to him before he managed to get through 6 innings, if C-Note still pitched like “Lucky Buck” instead of a million C-notes; if Ely didn’t arrive and save our butts, if Ethier didn’t turn into a Ted Williams clone overnight, if Manny still looked like the Manny of last year after the suspension, if Looney still looked mediocre with a bat in his hands, if our bull pen still was blowing chunks, if we didn’t find a .300 hitting ss who can pick it and throw accurately off the scrap heap. If, well you get the picture. This team is winning right now in spite of an owner who refused to go find a starter when we desperately needed one and has been filling holes with cheap geezers and wannabes furiously trying to hide holes with a fresh coat of the cheapest paint he can find….

    How long do you think he’ll be able to produce a contender using smoke, mirrors and way more than his share of fantastic good luck?

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  7. I know you really don't believe that LA fans would boycott baseball. But I see the point you're trying to make there.

    Also, the roster composition is not Frank's fault. The homegrown cost controlled talent on this roster is ridiculously good, and the payroll is low for market size but is plenty good enough to win. I suppose you could blame Frank for letting Ned sign Pierre, Schmidt and Jones, and for dealing Santana and Bell for what amounts to pretty much nothing, but why not just blame Ned.

    That's why I said that I disagree with Josh and that if forced to choose I'd go with Anyone Else. Part of me realizes that Frank has learned some since his first couple of years, but now that he understands what front office stability should be like goes and extends Ned Colletti who if you judged objectively against any other GM would grade out horribly. There just aren't many good decisions you can give credit to Ned for, no matter how many NLCS appearances we have.

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  8. I can’t say that I solely agree, but conversely I’ve never really thought of it quite such as that before.

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