LOS ANGELES — It didn’t take long for Earvin Johnson, Stan Kasten, Mark Walter and the rest of the Guggenheim Baseball group to show that — as Magic himself used to say when he was leading the Lakers to five NBA titles —it’s winnin’ time.
Lakers fans may be used to that sentiment under the ownership of Dr. Jerry Buss, but to Dodgers fans who haven’t been near a World Series championship since 1988, that was an alien concept.
Tuesday, Andre Ethier became the first beneficiary of the Dodgers’ new ownership group that paid Frank McCourt $2.15 billion to buy the team earlier this season. Either signed a five-year, $85 million guaranteed contract that will keep him in Dodger blue until at least 2017. It could morph into a six-year, $100 million deal if Ethier has enough at-bats in 2016-17 to vest an option year.
The move clearly stamps the new Dodgers owners as serious about spending money to build a winner.
Ethier, 30, went into Tuesday leading the National League with 53 RBI, and is now the leader in another category: highest-paid right fielder in Dodgers history.
He’s also the third-highest-paid Dodger of all-time behind Matt Kemp (eight years, $160 million) and Kevin Brown (seven years, $105 million).
When the Guggenheim group bought the team from McCourt, GM Ned Colletti was adamant about wanting to make Ethier a priority long-term signing, along with Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who will be next on Colletti’s agenda.
At the initial news conference introducing the new owners, Johnson, Walter and Kasten promised they’d spend whatever it took in order to return the Dodgers to the elite ranks on a consistent basis. Spending to improve their talent base and farm system — virtually non-existent in the final years of the McCourt regime — no longer was a roadblock. The money is there, and the decision-makers reiterated many times that they are willing to spend it.
Eithier and the Dodgers had been talking since early in 2012 about various deals, yet neither side acknowledged much activity in coming to an agreement.
Turns out they were closer than anyone in the media knew, as Ethier reported during Tuesday’s news conference at Dodger Stadium.
After thanking the Dodgers and his agent for getting the deal done, he said: “Obviously we had some things to get done, some hoops to jump through, but we got it done. And we kept it secret from pretty much everyone, and that’s pretty remarkable.”
So when Ethier denied reports over the weekend that the two sides were close, he knew better.
What isn’t in doubt is that the Gold Glove-winning Ethier — thanks to management that is reportedly worth $125 billion — is being paid among the elite at his position.
“I’d like to thank (Mark) Walter and the Guggenheim for allowing (me) to be your first signing,” Ethier said, as his wife Maggie and his parents smiled in agreement.
That such a lucrative deal was at the top of the Dodgers’ to-do list was a little surprising to some, since Ethier had a falling-out with the team over medical issues last season.
He accused the club of putting him in the lineup despite the fact he was dealing with a right knee injury that eventually required surgery. And things didn’t seem much better as spring training rolled around in February.
Ethier snapped at reporters early in camp, saying he was there to get ready for the season, that he wasn’t friends with them and wouldn’t sit and talk to them like they were having a bar room conversation between buddies.
However, in the Dodgers home opener on April 10, Ethier celebrated his 30th birthday with a walkoff homer to beat Pittsburgh 2-1, and except for a recent slump that saw his average dip from the .320s to the .280s, he’s had a tremendous season.
Along with the league-leading 53 RBI, he also had slugged 10 homers, and 30 of his 66 hits had been for extra bases. He’s a virtual lock for his third All-Star Game representing the Dodgers, and any hard feelings between the sides now seem to be a thing of the past.
He’s also been great for the media to deal with, replacing the injured Kemp as team spokesman. And he’s become part of the community in Los Angeles through his various charitable endeavors, which he said played a part in him wanting to remain a Dodger.
“It’s taken a long time — seven years — to develop the relationships (in the city) that I have,” said Ethier. “It would definitely be tough to move to another place and start new relationships. Now I can move ahead with what I’m doing and get even more involved.”
He also talked about his on-field partnership with Kemp, who was very vocal about wanting the Dodgers to keep Ethier for the long term.
“There’s a lot of quality one-two punches out there, but as far as all-around play, I think we give any of them a run for their money,” Ethier said.
“(We) know each other real well, and we’re two guys who do (the job) defensively and offensively. Like I said, we’ll give any of them a run for their money. I’m hoping we’ll get Matty back soon and continue what we’re doing.”
Ethier apparently has taken on some new duties in addition to right field. He’s become the chief recruiter for any free agent who might be looking for a change of scenery.
“(Management) has assured me they’re going to do everything possible to make a championship a reality in L.A.,” he said.
“And let it be known to all you players out there who are going to be looking for a team in the next couple years — don’t be afraid to look at the Dodgers. Consider this the team that’s going to be out there (in) the forefront, searching for players and playing at the top (of the standings) every year.”