Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Well, what do you know.

I guess I'm back from my bloggy vacation. A few days ago, the Times' Bill Shaikin (who else?) reported that Frank McCourt has added famed trial lawyer Stephen Susman to his legal team. Susman, who says it was always the plan for him to take the lead on Frank's case if a trial became a likelihood, claims that "everyone" would like to see the case settle. 

The problem with that, of course, is that you don't really hire the Stephen Susmans and David Boieses of the world if you don't expect to go to trial. Unless, that is, these expensive lawyers are meant to frighten the other side into settling. Now that both Frank and Jamie have superstar trial litigators, though, such showmanship seems a little unnecessary. After running through Frank and Jamie's respective flotillas of attorneys, Am Law Daily provides a final nugget of interest, which I'll quote from Shaikin's piece:
Susman said he has teamed with Boies on occasion, including a current case in which the two are representing commercial fishermen harmed by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Susman said he could recall facing Boies in two trials, with each lawyer winning one.
"This is the tiebreaker," Susman said.
We're slowly drawing toward a conclusion, as the trial is set to begin on August 30. As of now, I'm not inclined to believe this is destined for a quick or quiet settlement. The closer she pushes to trial--and the more noise she makes--the greater Jamie's leverage (and eventual windfall). For Frank, the value of settling the case peaked long ago, well before the bombs started going off around the organization. Simply put, Frank and Jamie's combined interest in settling is much less now than it might have been several months ago.
Thanks to those who expressed support either by comments or emails. As I said, I don't intend in the least on stepping away. It's just been a hectic few weeks.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Checking in.

Hi all...sorry things have been so slow around here lately. The lack of posts is a product of two factors: first, there just isn't a whole lot going on in divorce-land. Unless you're big into the "what will Joe Torre do?" sort of thing. For a number of reasons, I'm not. He does this dance nearly every season, going back to his New York days. What's more, I'm not convinced he's worth the money and drama. But that's neither here nor there.

The second reason things have slowed is that, in addition to a dearth of news, I started a new job last week. My schedule will even out some in the coming weeks, but I've been awfully busy trying to get started on excellent terms. The market is still rough, and I'm grateful to have a job. So, for the next couple weeks, unless some divorce news smacks us in the mouth, posts will probably be sparse.

This isn't meant to be a break or sabbatical or time off. I just don't feel like forcing posts out when there's not much going on, and it just so happens this lack of news occurs at a "good" time for me. Rest assured that if anything floats my way, it'll make this site quickly.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Jamie tells Frank to pay up.

According to TMZ, Frank has not paid Jamie the required amount of temporary spousal support, some $637,159 per month. It's unclear from the report how far behind on the payments Jamie alleges Frank has fallen, but it appears that Jamie is again barking up the Dodgers perquisites tree. Frank, according to the report, has not paid Jamie because he believes she owes him millions. Withholding her allowance, it seems, would be some sort of set-off exercise.

Saddled with expenses related to the former couple's several properties, Jamie claims her monthly expenses run about $1 million, including tens of thousands of dollars for personal expenses and donations. This, to me, is where this story starts to lose touch with reality. Say someone loses their job but has a fair amount of money saved, enough so they wouldn't have to change their lifestyle. Wouldn't that person, until their situation stabilized, at least consider the necessity of their expenses in the interim?

Among her monthly bills, Jamie lists just over $30,000 in professional fees. This tells me her lawyers are still working on IOU's, and they intend to recover their costs from Frank's side. Several of Jamie's attorneys cannot be billing much less than $1,000 per hour, and I would be floored if they're managing to rack up as little as $30,000 each month in fees. Saying all this hand-wringing over money issues is a game of chess overcomplicates things; really, neither side wants to set the precedent of paying the bills, even as we're mere months away from a final resolution. We hope.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Team Jamie makes another mid-season acquisition.

I hope we remember this sort of thing if Jamie ends up winning, and she says it was all about the club from day one:
[Former Al Gore Aide Mark Fabiani], one half of the crisis communications team dubbed the "Masters of Disaster" along with former Gore aide Chris Lehane, was part of Gore's legal team during the Florida standoff -- a team headed by Boies. Now Fabiani is joining Boies again on behalf of Jamie McCourt, the estranged wife of Dodgers owner Frank McCourt.
The McCourts are locked in a nasty divorce case that could affect the team and even put its ownership in question. For Dodgers fans holding out hope for a quick resolution, the hiring of Fabiani seems to be a step in the wrong direction.
In a fitting indication of just where Jamie McCourt stands at the moment, Fabiani's last known engagement was helping Goldman Sachs weather the PR maelstrom associated with its recent fraud accusations. That arrangement ran into some trouble, though, when it surfaced that Fabiani's business partner, Chris Lehane, began slamming potential GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman for her Goldman Sachs connections. Fabiani and Lehane are the two name partners in their eponymous firm, and it stands to reason that one of them couldn't promote G-S while the other attacked it.
Sort of delightful in its symmetry, isn't it? In making her case for the highest award possible, Jamie has exposed the Dodgers in ways that have certainly been harmful to the club. All the while, her desired endgame is to own the team, leading it into the future. I'm not saying what she's done is wrong; rather, it might just be misguided. As I see it, she has next to no chance of being approved by the rest of baseball's owners, due largely to the circus surrounding the team because of the divorce. Owning a baseball team isn't a right conferred upon the wealthy; it's as much a popularity contest as anything.
But hey, popularity is Mark Fabiani's game, and he plays it well. I wouldn't put it past him to help Jamie regain a great deal of public favor; at the moment, neither Frank nor Jamie is tremendously well-liked by the public, so there's certainly room for growth. I'm not sure, though, how much he'll be able to help her get the votes necessary to own a baseball team. But honestly, she's got bigger concerns at the moment. She's got to get paid, and she's got to fix her public reputation. Mark Fabiani can help her with the first part by addressing the second.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

V Power

If read one story this millennium about a Russian with healing powers the Dodgers paid several hundreds of thousands of dollars to channel positive energy their way, make it this one, by the LA Times' Bill Shaikin. The worst part, in my book? The implication that Mr. Vladmir Shpunt's heightened awareness of things might have influenced the decision to ax general manager Paul DePodesta and manager Jim Tracy. That or the part where the Dodgers commissioned Shpunt to fix Jayson Werth. Yeah, one of those two. Or maybe the part where this Shpunt fellow has used the Dodgers' success to embark on a career of helping athletes through healing touch and positive juju transmission.

Strange all around. For everyone's sake, the Dodgers had better make a Godfather offer to Zach Lee. Each new  revelation of frivolous spending paints the depressed player budget a darker shade of black.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Your move, Logan.

As you've probably read by now, the Dodgers used their first round selection in tonight's draft on Zach Lee. Lee is a talented young high school pitcher with good velocity and impressive feel for his off-speed stuff. Lee is a tremendous athlete overall, and that's the problem: he has a two-sport scholarship to LSU, where he would man the mound and take snap under center for the Tigers. The price of persuading him to choose professional baseball is reportedly $5 million. While, because of the nature of his scholarship, his bonus can be spread out over several years, whether the Dodgers can sign him given their current financial situation is a big unknown.

It's entirely possible the Dodgers want to sign Lee and are willing to pay the price. After all, it even makes good sense--at a time where team spending might be restricted, the opportunity to pay for a player Lee's caliber over several years (rather than all at once) is a huge plus. This could really represent the best possible outcome. The Dodgers get the high-end talent that will cost even less this year than a slot pick. Given the club's current plight, Lee is a perfect fit.

There's also, of course, a more cynical interpretation. Skeptics might say the Dodgers took Lee because of his extravagant demands, rather than in spite of them. By setting themselves up to get in a losing battle with Lee's camp, the Dodgers might hope to get away with not paying a first round pick at all this season. And it wouldn't be a terrible baseball decision, either. If the Dodgers are unable to sign Lee, they will get an extra pick in next year's draft, widely considered to be loaded.

So for now, let's take a wait-and-see approach. Tonight, I'm optimistic. The Dodgers have the chance to spread the bonus over time and acquire another talented young arm. While the system is light on impact position players, the organization is relatively talent-rich in pitchers, which is never a bad thing. Earlier today, I practically begged the club to make a bold move and leverage the draft system in the team's favor. Tonight, from my perspective, there's a great chance they've done just that.

Kudos on step one, Logan. Now comes the hard part.

You can catch great coverage of Zach Lee, the player, at several other Dodgers sites, including Memories of Kevin Malone, True Blue LA, Vin Scully is my Homeboy, and Dodger Thoughts. Tony Jackson also has a piece up with some excellent quotes from Dodgers brass.

Draft day

If the formatting ends up goofy, my apologies. I'm publishing via the e-mail method...normal way is down.


Draft day is upon us, and the Dodgers have their usual pick late in the first round. This is, of course, a good thing. It reflects a successful prior season and suggests that there aren't many holes to be patched. Of course, things are not quite that easy. After this season, we'll lose Manny Ramirez and Hiroki Kuroda. The end of the 2011 season probably signals that Rafael Furcal and Casey Blake, too, are done with the Dodgers. And the farm system isn't in the greatest shape in the moment; there are no truly exciting position prospects outside of Dee Gordon, and even he has his blemishes. So it's a good thing the Dodgers' draft budget is robust, right? ESPN Los AngelesTony Jackson: 

[Y]es, [Dodgers assistant general manager for scouting Logan White] said, he does have enough money at his disposal to sign the players he drafts over the next two days -- especially because the Dodgers, as a consequence of going to their second consecutive National League Championship Series last fall, don't pick until late in the first round. 

"I think sometimes people tend to misunderstand or misinterpret that just because we're not spending the same amount of money as certain other clubs, the reality of it is that we're picking 28th." 

Logan White's done a good job picking talent over the years, so he's accrued a certain amount of goodwill, at least in this fan. But there's something decidedly, well, off about his comments here. It's quite true that the Dodgers, picking 28th in today's first round, won't have access to Jameson Taillon or Manny Machado, let alone Bryce Harper. Still, though, hard slotting hasn't come to the major leagues yet, and premium talent will be available for those clubs willing to spend.

In his final mock draft (Insider), ESPN's Keith Law has the Dodgers selecting Kaleb Cowart, a high school two-way player from Adel, Georgia. This would, indeed, be big news—Law believes that Cowart is seeking a $3 million signing bonus—well above the slot for the Dodgers' selection. It seems that Cowart, who has drawn comparisons from J.J. Hardy to Chipper Jones, has a very solid commitment to Florida State and no problem playing college ball if he doesn't get paid.

And there are probably a dozen (if not more) players just like Cowart—high first round talent, not willing to take slot money in the back half of the first round. Heck, just last year the Kansas City Royals took a player in the third round with a similarly solid commitment to play college ball. Instead, Wil Myers is carrying a .280/.390/.489 line for Class-A Burlington—at age 19. He took a bonus of $2 million to skip college.

In this unslotted world, that's how an advantage is gained: taking (and paying for) the best players. And the reality is that the Dodgers simply haven't even tried to play the game. Best I can tell, the Dodgers (under Logan White) have never gone above slot in the first round, and have exceeded slot by only a few hundred thousand dollars (and even that has been relatively rare). Especially as the team doesn't look to be a player for big-ticket free agents in the coming years, premium talent has to come from somewhere. Why not the draft?

The aversion to drafting slot isn't entirely due to financial concerns. There is pressure from Major League Baseball for teams to spend as the commissioner's office suggests. However, there's no evidence that such persuasive efforts have any teeth; going over slot is a fairly routine move now. The strategy is particularly enjoyed by consistently successful teams as a way to replenish talent despite drafting toward the end of the first round. It's one of the several ways large-market clubs preserve their competitive advantage. But what happens when a large-market club decides it wants to spend like a mid-market one?

The Dodgers happen.

I'm not saying we should judge the Dodgers for whatever decisions they make over the next two days. Or, for that matter, the bonuses they end up awarding. However, the draft is just like free agency, the trade market, and pursuit of international talent—taken as isolated events, none mean much. Read together, they show an organization's philosophy and direction. If the Dodgers want to be successful on a mid-market budget, they must spend smarter than they have been. Recognizing the value available in the draft would be a start.


Friday, June 4, 2010

Winning is everything.

"Unless Frank McCourt was visiting my home and trying to kill my cat, I doubt I would ever base my decision on attending a game on what the ownership does."

That comment, from Bob Timmerman, represents the majority of respondents to my little experiment of two days ago. Winning, affordability, and the gameday experience all outweighed personal feelings toward ownership, though the anti-Frank contingent was well-represented and admirably passionate. Still, the consensus was that people, generally, do not much care how sausage is made.

That's certainly in line with my own feelings on the subject. I'm a relatively unemotional consumer; I can count on one hand the number of stores I avoid based on non-business factors. I don't care a whole lot about which political party a company (or its management) supports, and, with a couple exceptions, I'm not particularly won over by a company's charitable efforts. Long story short, I'm a results sort of guy.

And, so, it seems, are most of you. I'd guess that my readers tend to be among the organization's most critical, so for a majority of the commenters to focus on the field rather than the owner's box is telling. This isn't to say people don't care who owns the team. Just that they separate their personal feelings from their rooting interests. 

Frank McCourt and team management would be wise to consider this dynamic carefully. I'd guess that Dodger fans would be relatively quick to find other ways to spend a few summer hours should the team enter a down cycle. If ownership is serious about keeping payroll at or near its modest-for-the-market level, management needs to spend much more efficiently than it does now. The Dodgers are remarkably lucky to have so much young talent--Kemp, Kershaw, Ethier, Billingsley, Broxton--under control so cheaply. But they'll start to get expensive pretty quickly.

The bottom line is that winning on $100 million per year is hard, let alone the club's rumored intent to operate a little bit under that. It can certainly be done, but the club must be much more committed to acquiring and developing top-end young talent than it has been in recent years. It has drafted too low to snag premium players without going over slot in the draft, and the system has suffered for it. There is no wave of talent in the minors ready to form a major league core like the team features now. If the dollars aren't there for premium free agent acquisitions, this team could struggle to compete as soon as 2012. 

I don't want to find out what attendance looks like when fans don't trust ownership and the team is losing. Neither, I'm sure, does Frank McCourt. But the reality is that if payroll stays where it is and management does not drastically alter its approach to the draft and amateur free agency, we'll all find out soon enough. 

Winning means a lot to Frank McCourt. It will put butts in the seats, which he needs. It will also heal the fractured relationship with the fans, which he wants.  The wins will begin to dry up soon, though, unless the Dodgers spend more or spend smarter. And, as a lifelong fan, I sure hope at least one of those things happens. 

Thank you all for responding so eagerly and thoughtfully to my call for opinions. I'm going to leave anonymous commenting enabled unless it turns out to cause problems. Judging by the comments left to the last post, I don't anticipate that becoming the case.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Dodger Stadium's empty seats.

Several times throughout this saga, we've discussed a pretty important core principle: while we outsiders can't pin down the degree to which the divorce is affecting team spending (if at all), the most direct way it could affect operations is if people stop showing up. In the past, I've guessed that such a thing just wouldn't happen; people care about the Dodgers first and foremost. If the team's winning, people will come. Steve Dilbeck, blogging at the aptly-named Dodgers Blog for the LA Times, speculates about a potential shift of the tides. Noticing what he perceives to be more empty seats than usual, Dilbeck asks some questions:
So if true, the question becomes why? Too much hyper interest in the Lakers? Too many unattractive teams early in the home schedule? Too many conflicts with school still in session?
Or could it possibly be a rebellion against ownership?
Whether it’s over their extravagant lifestyle, not paying taxes for six years, a shrinking team payroll or just their nasty divorce, many have seemingly turned against Frank and Jamie McCourt.
And the only way for people to ultimately protest is to stay away. To punish the McCourts by withholding funds.

Now, I haven't been to a game at Dodger Stadium this season, but I have watched many on television or online. Yes, there have been lots of empty seats. As Dilbeck notes, though, Dodger Stadium is now the largest stadium in the majors by capacity. Recalling my experience at the Stadium, mid-week games often feature patches of empty seats. Unless a name opponent is in town, the mid-week games are the least desirable; LA traffic is so dismal and people have busy lives. Growing up in Palos Verdes and San Pedro, going to a mid-week game was really a five-to-six hour commitment. 

Of course, that factors in significant time spent walking the Stadium after the game, searching for leftover trinkets and generally just seeing the place from a different perspective. Still, getting out takes so darned long that if you're not going to leave in the 8th, you might as well stick around a while. And even the traffic problems around the Stadium come back to just how well-attended the games have been. I know I'm wandering around a little here, but that's what happens when I tap my nostalgia reserves.

Getting back to the attendance-as-revenge angle, I'm not sure I see it. As Dilbeck ably discusses, even most of the empty seats have been purchased, so a consumer choosing to use his absence as a weapon is winning something of a Pyrrhic victory. You're paying Frank McCourt and the Dodgers to punish him. Yes, concessions and merchandise are big revenue drivers, and that all matters. But are we really at the point that we would burn paid-for tickets just to avoid giving Frank and the club money for beer, Dodger Dogs, and ice cream in a toy helmet?

I want you to tell me. I've changed the comment settings so that you can weigh in without an account of some sort. The question before you is: have you made a decision to attend a game based on your personal feelings toward ownership? Would you?