04.22.11

Frank McCourt and the Demise of the Dodgers

Frank McCourt bled the franchise dry before baseball officials finally stepped in. Buzz Bissinger on why the arrogant owner is even worse than you think.

There is simply no way to say with any degree of artfulness so I won’t even try:

Los Angeles Dodgers’ owner Frank McCourt is a vile piece of shit who not only ruined what was once the classiest franchise in all of sports but should also face legal consequences if allegations are true that he did reportedly not pay any taxes on $105 million he siphoned from the Dodgers’ for his own personal use.

Ruthless. Litigious. Nasty. Dishonest. That’s just a small smattering of the descriptions that the media have applied to McCourt, prima facie proof that all professional sports teams, like the Green Bay Packers, should be community-owned so fans don’t have to witness the destruction of an institution they love.

Some are saying they are shocked by Wednesday’s news of Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig appointing a trustee to take over operations of the Dodgers. Given McCourt’s track record, I have no idea why. Perhaps the most vigorous defense in his favor comes from Tommy Lasorda, a profane clown when he managed the Dodgers and even more of a profane clown on the talk circuit. Lasorda says McCourt really loves the Dodgers, which is like saying that Hannibal Lecter really loved his victims before he ate their livers.

There is precedent for the commissioner to force an owner out of baseball if he is killing the franchise. All Dodger Blue does now is bleed the red of humiliation and shame because of Frank McCourt.

McCourt’s face is a Rorschach of arrogant vanity, the perfectly coiffed white hair falling just above the ear on the sides and of fashionable length in the back, the sunglasses concealing the narrow eyes deep in squirrelly thought on ways to squeeze more money out of the franchise by raising ticket prices and lowering payroll.

There is speculation that Selig will actually try to force a sale of the Dodgers under the “best interests of baseball” clause, something he threatened with the Texas Rangers. The debt on the Dodgers is about $430 million, and the last straw for Selig came when McCourt took out a $30 million personal loan to make payroll.

Club vice chairman Steve Soboroff described Selig’s actions to reporters Thursday as “irresponsible,” citing a 20-year television contract with Fox valued at $3 billion. But the Dodgers have no credibility, and Selig is not one to make unnecessary waves.

Selig is clearly embarrassed by the allegations that have come out in divorce proceedings from his estranged wife Jamie McCourt, which revealed the millions that were reportedly taken from the Dodgers for personal use. In a court filing in 2009, McCourt said his liquid assets were less than $1.2 million and that he never used any money from the Dodgers' franchise for personal expenses. But other court documents indicate otherwise. Some of those uses are said to have included:

  • The hiring of two sons of the McCourts for a total of $600,000, even though it appears they may have done virtually no work for that money, something the IRS is reportedly investigating."
  • $150,000 a year on haircuts.
  • Seven country clubs.
  • Two homes in Malibu for $46 million and two in Holmby Hills for $26.5 million.

Most owners are and always will be insecure nerds no matter how many hundreds of millions they have inherited from their daddies for fun and games. It goes back to when they were kids, picked for baseball only because they owned not only all the bats and balls and bases but also a perfectly manicured stadium with a retractable roof.

At least most baseball owners like baseball, but I don’t think McCourt ever did. The elegant legacy of the Dodgers, stretching back into the days of Brooklyn and the leadership of Branch Rickey and then Walter O’Malley, meant nothing to him. As article after article indicates, his real interest was to develop a parking lot the Dodgers owned into a football stadium and other commercial property.

It is inaccurate to say that the Dodgers have not had success under the McCourt reign of self-enrichment: The team has made the playoffs four times. But as ESPN the Magazine pointed out, the credit belongs to General Manager Ned Colletti, who creatively structured deals to bring in free agents as McCourt lowered the team payroll from roughly $120 million to $95 million.

If Selig made a bold move in wresting day-to-day control of the Dodgers, he also made a terrible one in ever allowing McCourt to buy the team in the first place. But in the endless conflict of interest that is professional sports, it actually made perfect sense since Rupert Murdoch and Fox Entertainment, which televises MLB games, was fissuring millions on the team and wanted out. McCourt’s hatred for baseball was palpable—in trying to buy the Red Sox at one point he had plans to tear down Fenway and build a new stadium—but Selig ignored such sentiment in the best interests of Rupert.

McCourt purchased the team from Fox in 2004 for $431 million in a highly leveraged transaction. To do it, he reportedly took out more than $400 million in loans. He put up as collateral his only claim to fame as a real-estate developer in Boston: a parking lot. But it was a perfectly situated one, since portions of it needed to be used as a staging area for the “Big Dig” construction project building a tunnel through Boston. The state initially paid McCourt $30 million for 12 acres for eight years. He sued anyway, arguing that he had lost as much as $140 million between lower parking revenue and the ability to develop the site. In settling the suit, McCourt got an additional $32.5 million. That comes to $62.5 million, not bad for a no day’s work. By the time the McCourts bought the Dodgers, the value of the parking lot had escalated to $125 million, and that was enough to gain a $200 million loan from Fox.

The Internal Revenue Service is reportedly looking into charges that McCourt never paid any taxes on the tens of millions he is said to have siphoned from the Dodgers for personal use. The IRS is also reportedly investigating the hiring of the two sons, one getting his MBA at Stanford University at the time and the other working at Goldman Sachs.

My guess is nothing will come of it. McCourt will do what he was meant to do in life: Spend millions on legal fees to reduce IRS investigators into a state of delirium and surrender.

It is a good guess as well that McCourt has already hired an entire law firm to sue Selig. But baseball can and should steam ahead. There is precedent for the commissioner to force an owner out of baseball if he is killing the franchise. All Dodger Blue does now is bleed the red of humiliation and shame because of Frank McCourt.

Class has become crass. Tradition has been trashed. The time has come to tell this asshole to find himself another parking lot.

Buzz Bissinger, a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August . He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.