Big debts and custody fight: Why MLB took Dodgers

As he read each report coming from Los Angeles, baseball

Commissioner Bud Selig grew more and more concerned.

Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and his wife, Jamie – the team’s

former chief executive officer – were trading bitter accusations

during a three-week divorce trial that centered on which of them

owned the franchise of Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax and Tommy

Lasorda.

Then Frank McCourt fired Dennis Mannion, the team president.

Having already burdened the team and its real estate with more than

$450 million of debt, McCourt wanted to take out additional loans

and was having trouble securing them. He retained a high-powered

law firm and wanted to negotiate a new front-loaded television deal

that would give the club more cash he might withdraw for

himself.

Then on opening day, a San Francisco Giants fan was severely

beaten outside Dodger Stadium, highlighting a security problem fans

have complained about for years. The fan remains in a medically

induced coma. And there were worries the Dodgers would not make

their first player payroll on April 15.

Finally, Selig had enough. He took the extraordinary step

Wednesday of saying Major League Baseball was taking over

operations of one of America’s most famous teams, the one that

integrated the national pastime, broke Brooklyn’s heart and paved

the way for coast-to-coast expansion. The takeover is possibly a

prelude to Selig forcing a sale of the franchise.

”It wasn’t one thing,” a high-ranking baseball executive said

Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity because only Selig was

authorized to speak on the situation. ”It was a series of things

that just kept building.”

Once a model, the Dodgers now are just a mess.

The team began play as the Brooklyn Bridegrooms in 1890 (several

of the players had gotten married in the leadup to the initial

season). The club later became known as the ”Trolley Dodgers” –

shortened to ”Dodgers” and ”Superbas” – and was affectionately

labeled ”Dem Bums” as it failed to win the World Series year

after year until its first title in 1955.

After the 1957 season, Walter O’Malley moved the Dodgers to Los

Angeles, persuading the Giants to go west with him to San

Francisco, and his team became a prototype franchise with a

sparkling modern ballpark that regularly led baseball in

attendance.

But the Dodgers haven’t won a World Series since 1988, when they

were still owned by the O’Malley family. The Fox division of Rupert

Murdoch’s News Corp. bought the team in 1998, then sold it to

McCourt in 2004.

Speaking Thursday, a day after his announcement, Selig wouldn’t

go into details about why he decided to take over the team. He is

expected to appoint his new head of the Dodgers early next week,

the baseball executive said.

Selig did draw a distinction between the problems of the Dodgers

and those of the New York Mets, a team that is not only struggling

for cash but is mired in the Bernard Madoff investor fraud scandal.

While Mets owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz are seeking to sell a

minority stake in the team, McCourt was becoming more and more

leveraged.

”There are a lot of differences between the Mets’ and Dodgers’

situations,” Selig told the Associated Press Sports Editors.

”Comparing the Mets to the Dodgers, not only is it not true, it’s

just not accurate.”

Baseball officials were worried that money coming into the

Dodgers from a new deal with Fox would be redirected to McCourt

personally and would not be used for team operations.

Steve Soboroff, hired Tuesday as the Dodgers’ vice chairman,

said baseball’s concerned were unjustified and Selig’s decision was

”irresponsible.”

McCourt’s planned deal ”should be the model for other baseball

teams. But Frank is being picked out,” Soboroff said. ”He said,

‘We meet these requirements.’ Other teams, like in New York, don’t.

He’s being picked out and selected.”

Now, Soboroff said, any team expediture over $5,000 must be

approved by MLB.

Former Dodgers manager Joe Torre said he talked with Selig about

the move, and that he hopes it produces a healthy franchise.

”It’s obvious the organization needed to be tended to, paid

attention to, and I know it wasn’t easy for the commissioner to

come up with the decision that he did,” Torre said.

League takeovers of troubled teams have occurred in other

sports. The NBA purchased the New Orleans Hornets from George Shinn

in December. The NHL bought the Phoenix Coyotes in U.S. Bankruptcy

Court in November 2009. In addition, the NHL and lenders to Dallas

Stars owner Tom Hicks installed former baseball team executive Tony

Tavares as the team president in January.

But baseball has never had a situation quite like this. In the

case of the Montreal Expos, MLB purchased the team in 2002 from

Jeffrey Loria, who in turn bought the Florida Marlins from John

Henry, who in turn headed the group that acquired the Boston Red

Sox. And last year, Selig dispatched MLB executive vice president

John McHale Jr. to Texas in a behind-the-scenes move to assist the

sale of the cash-strapped Texas Rangers from Hicks to a group

headed by Nolan Ryan.

”It had a great ending,” Selig said. ”Everybody walked away

happy.”

Selig has broad power to act under the Major League

Constitution, the agreement that binds the 30 teams. Article II

states his functions include ”to investigate, either upon

complaint or upon the commissioner’s own initiative, any act,

transaction or practice charged, alleged or suspected to be not in

the best interests of the national game of baseball.”

While his power over players is limited by the union and its

labor contract, he has full authority over teams and management

employees.

”It is true when people come into baseball, they do sign a

document that they will not sue baseball. That’s been true

forever,” Selig said.

Some have tried, including George Steinbrenner of the Yankees

and Charlie Finley of the Oakland Athletics.

”Yeah, and they’ve lost,” Selig quickly added.

Team executives have speculated over the next Dodgers head.

Among the candidates mentioned were McHale, former Atlanta Braves

and Washington Nationals chief executive Stan Kasten, former Giants

executive vice president Corey Busch and former San Diego Padres

president Dick Freeman.

They will have a mountain of debt to climb out of: $384 million

of long-term debt on the team and $73 million on the Chavez Ravine

land where Dodger Stadium sits, a lawyer familiar with the Dodgers’

financial arrangements said, speaking on condition of anonymity

because the team has not announced those figures.

Fans primarily care about one number: wins. They see McCourt’s

ouster as a positive.

”He’s out! Great news!” season-ticket holder Martin McGinty

said, giving a thumbs-up.

”I was hoping something like this would happen. Everything

they’ve done has been terrible,” he said of the McCourt family.

”They didn’t spend money on anything.”

For those who say they bleed Dodger blue, the descent of the

team has been upsetting.

”I’m saddened by the whole issue. And I think I’m in shock

about the whole issue,” said former pitcher Don Newcombe, now a

special adviser to the chairman. ”I don’t know where I’d be or

what I would have been without the Dodgers.

”I was playing in the Negro Leagues in 1946,” Newcombe said.

”The Dodgers in that era were unique. It was different than any

other sports entity. And they became the biggest entity in major

league sports, and were responsible for so many things happening.

The Dodgers really started the civil rights movement.”

Associated Press writers John Rogers and Greg Risling in Los

Angeles contributed to this report.