Angelenos have focused their ire and attention over the past week on the Bostonian among them and the unspeakable acts he’s committed.
Not Whitey Bulger, whose alleged unspeakable acts happened long ago and far away from his Santa Monica hideaway. I refer, rather, to Frank McCourt, owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who, since he arrived from Boston to take ownership of the club in 2004, has driven it into the ground and, on Monday, into bankruptcy.
The very idea of the Dodgers filing for bankruptcy boggles the mind. Forbes estimated the club’s value last year at $727 million — fourth among baseball’s 30 teams. Yet as the end of the month loomed, it was apparent that McCourt could not meet payroll.
The unraveling of the Dodgers began soon after McCourt and his wife, Jamie, arrived from Boston, but the particulars have become public only since the McCourts embarked on contentious divorce proceedings last year. It turns out that the McCourts loaned themselves more than $100 million from the club to fund a lavish, multi-mansion lifestyle. As the franchise plunged into the red, Frank McCourt declined to increase ballpark security, even in the face of growing gang attendance. On Opening Day, a Giants fan was beaten unconscious — he’s still in a coma — in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium. Since then, public concerns about security, the team’s performance (it’s under .500) and pervasive disgust with the McCourts have cut attendance to near all-time lows.
Recently, Frank McCourt received a $2.7 billion offer from Fox for the team’s future broadcast rights. He acknowleged, however, that at least $150 million of that money would go to Jamie McCourt as part of her divorce settlement. At that point, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced that he wouldn’t approve the contract with Fox and appointed a trustee to take over management of the club. Selig was preparing to put the Dodgers up for sale (a move well within the commissioner’s powers) when McCourt filed for bankruptcy, hoping that it might enable him to retain ownership.
And so, the two institutions that have contributed the most over the past 50 years to Los Angeles’s sense of itself, to its amour propre, to its development not just as a big city but a great one, now languish in bankruptcy court.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Times were the linchpins of L.A.’s civic betterment. In 1958, Walter O’Malley brought the Dodgers west from Brooklyn and poured money into a club that was to win multiple championships with such iconic stars as Sandy Koufax and that boasted sports’ greatest, most literate and entertaining broadcaster, Vin Scully. (I’ve long believed that kids who grew up listening to Scully got at least a 30-point bump on their verbal SAT.) Always the most spatially and governmentally scattered of cities — there are 88 municipalities in Los Angeles County — L.A. lacked most forms of common civic identity until half the town began listening to Scully.
Two years after the Dodgers arrived, Otis Chandler became publisher of the L.A. Times. He transformed what had been a parochial and narrowly partisan journal into one of America’s great newspapers, home to the kind of intelligent civic conversation that the city had previously lacked.
A great newspaper, like a great sports club, over time becomes an element of civic identity and a kind of public trust. The Times and the Dodgers, however, were distinctly private properties. And during the past 15 years, the next generation of O’Malleys and Chandlers unloaded their properties on out-of-towners who had no feel for the role these iconic institutions had played here. The Times ended up in the clutches of Sam Zell, a newspaper-hating Chicago real estate wheeler-dealer who bought its parent company with a loan from the employees’ stock ownership plan, saddling it with unmanageable debt, while his minions slashed the staff and plunged the company into bankruptcy.
The stories of the Dodgers and the Times can be read as parables of a particularly vicious form of capitalism that America has come to know too well the past few decades: a new owner takes over a venerable firm and extracts what he can for himself, decimating the company and damaging the community in the process. Due to peculiarities of baseball’s institutional structure, however, Selig may have the power as commissioner (depending on the bankruptcy proceedings) to help the other stakeholders in the Dodgers — the players, the fans, the city itself — win back their team. Would that the rest of the American economy had the same institutional checks and balances as our national pastime.