McCourt Adjusts to An L.A. State of Mind
With the trim build of a distance runner and a reputation for boundless energy and enthusiasm, McCourt made a name for himself in Boston with a series of savvy land purchases.
But he has also drew criticism from city officials who want him to sell or develop his real estate. "The mayor expects something to be built tomorrow. Frank wants to wait until the right time," said Kevin Phelan, a real estate executive with the Boston firm Meredith & Grew. Phelan has known McCourt for 30 years and describes him as "charitable, incredibly driven and equally comfortable around princes and paupers."
McCourt met his wife, who grew up in Baltimore, at Georgetown University, where he is now a member of the board of regents. (Asked for his opinion of relocating a baseball team to the Washington area, McCourt demurred, saying he did not want to "speak out of turn.") Jamie McCourt, said Phelan, is "Frank's full partner in all things. There is never just Frank, it is always Frank and Jamie."
The McCourts considered bidding for the Anaheim Angels -- purchased by Arturo Moreno last year for just more than $180 million -- but when the Dodgers were put up for sale, they focused their energies there. Soon, however, reports surfaced that they were not putting any of their own money into the deal and that they intended to move the team from its historic stadium in Chavez Ravine.
"We basically went from this soulless corporation to a guy that seemed to have a lot of crazy ideas and not enough money to make the team better," said John Wiebe, of Fresno, Calif., who runs a fan Web site, John's Dodger Blog.
After the deal was approved in February, Frank McCourt ruffled feathers when he reportedly chided a team official for giving a first-class plane ticket to legendary Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, who was on his way to spring training to help broadcast a game. His wife was ripped after criticizing team management for failing to draw enough fans (they attracted more than 3 million in 2003).
Just weeks into the couple's tenure, three of the team's top executives were either dismissed or resigned. "They don't know what they have. They don't know where they are," wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke. "They're just lost."
Meantime, south of Los Angeles in Orange County, the Angels, two years removed from winning the World Series, signed star right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, whom the Dodgers had also pursued. The Anaheim club recently began an ad campaign referring to the Angels as the "A-team," with the unstated implication that the Dodgers were second-rate.
"Artie [Moreno] has done a great job over there," McCourt said. "But this is a Dodger town and it always will be. People aren't gonna fall for marketing. Our fans are as loyal as any in sports and the team is deeply embedded in the community. I always heard that fans in L.A. were laid back about baseball, but the only difference between them and the Red Sox fans is that they don't take losing as hard. There's less crying in their beer."
But some longtime fans remain concerned.
"I'm worried about the direction of the team," said Los Angeles lawyer Bill Polkinghorn, 58, who said he has rooted for the Dodgers since they arrived from Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1958, but now turns down tickets offered by friends and colleagues. "A lot of what has made this team special is gone."
McCourt said the response he gets from fans at the stadium is more positive and has improved with the team's fast start. "They thank me for buying the team," he said. "Winning helps."
He promised at his introductory news conference to "quickly and decisively" upgrade the team, and quickly hired DePodesta, a 31-year-old wunderkind, away from the Oakland Athletics. To improve an anemic offense, he took a chance on mercurial Cleveland Indians outfielder Milton Bradley, who has been a qualified success, batting .270 with seven home runs, though drawing a suspension for an on-field tantrum.
He knows his work is not finished. "Without making any bold promises I can say that we will improve this team again by the end of July," he said.
"He spoke to us all during spring training," said Dodgers outfielder Juan Encarnacion. "He's been very open with the players, which makes us feel comfortable here."
Asked if he had mixed feelings about walking into Fenway Park on Friday night as a member of the opposition, he spoke of fond memories from his nearly five decades as a Sox fan, including watching an inside-the-park grand slam in 1961 and catching his first foul ball last year.
"It's a lot of fun to be there," he said. "And it'd be great to come back again [for the World Series] in October."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company