This is still Stan Kasten we’re talking about, and so beneath those one-name guys there’s a sign that reads, “I’d agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.” It was given to him by Mark Walter, the investment billionaire with whom Kasten purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers in March 2012.
In his latest act, the one that came after he left his presidency of the Washington Nationals, Kasten has devoted himself to restoring one of baseball’s crown-jewel franchises. On the field, the star-studded Dodgers will open their National League Division Series on Thursday night against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field, another one of Kasten’s former baseball homes. Off the field, the Dodgers have shed the remnants of Frank McCourt’s ruinous stewardship. Ticket sales have skyrocketed, life-size bobbleheads greet fans at the gates, gang members no longer scare away families in the bleachers and Magic Johnson is in the owner’s box.
Kasten, at 61 and three years removed from when he stepped down as Nationals president, is loving every second.
“People who know me, who are friends of mine, who are close to me, when I tell them this, they’re surprised,” Kasten said. “This is the best thing I’ve ever done. This is the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Kasten immersed himself in the Dodgers’ aura. When the Dodgers clinched the National League West, Sandy Koufax called to congratulate him. On his first week on the job, he went home and told his wife, “I got a call from Vin Scully today.”
“Yeah, what did he want?” she replied.
“You don’t understand,” Kasten said. “I got a call from Vin Scully today.”
After joining forces with Walter, Kasten introduced him to another one-name guy: Magic. The group’s successful bid of $2.15 billion for the Dodgers staggered the industry. It saw a loyal, latent fan base hungry to come back after McCourt’s divorce drove the team to bankruptcy. It saw a television rights deal expiring as the market for the Dodgers erupted.
“We knew we had an opportunity to buy something unique,” Kasten said. “People who hadn’t really thought it through or hadn’t analyzed it the way we had were surprised at the purchase price. But our short answer to that question — why’d you pay so much? — comes down to this: because it was worth a lot more.”
In January, the Dodgers reached a television rights deal that could be worth up to $8 billion over 25 years. They hired Janet Marie Smith, who designed Camden Yards and oversaw the modernization of Fenway Park, and poured $100 million into updates and improvements of Dodger Stadium. Season tickets sales have jumped from 17,000 to 32,000, and the Dodgers led the majors in home attendance.
They made splashes with players, too. They overhauled their international scouting operations, which led to the signing of Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig for $42 million. The Dodgers shifted the course of the franchise with a blockbuster trade with the Red Sox in which they took on the massive contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. They became an attraction: The Dodgers led the majors in road attendance, too.
“This is so much more important than anything else I could have done,” Kasten said.
The aggressive and expensive team construction brings up questions about what would have happened if Kasten had adopted the same strategy in Washington — or, perhaps more aptly, if he had been allowed to adapt that strategy. It is no secret Kasten’s advice often fell on the deaf ears of ownership. Kasten had his chance to make a splash in Washington with the opening of Nationals Park in 2008. The Lerner family believed it would be prudent to exercise patience, bottom out and then build.
The Nationals have landed in a good place — they have a 2012 division title hanging and, despite a letdown in 2013, a young roster set up to contend for more. But if Kasten had been given freer reign to pour resources into the team, the Nationals may have landed in a good place sooner, without two 100-loss seasons in a new ballpark.
Kasten, ever protective of ownership, did not make the connection between the disparate approaches he took in Washington and Los Angeles.
“The circumstances of any particular market are different,” Kasten said. “In Washington, whatever history they had was bad, and they hadn’t any history in 30-something years. There was a real need, first and foremost, to build one fan at a time. That is hard, but also it keeps expectations low, and you could take a longer time to build things up.
“Contrast that in L.A., which had this extraordinary history and legacy. The good news is you’ve got this built-in fan base. They never went away. They were always here. The responsibility that goes along with that is different. You can’t just sit here and say we’re going to wait four or five years for our long-term plans to take hold. You’ve got to deliver something to these fans now because of their support all these years.”
Memories of Washington
The Nationals remain a part of Kasten, never too far from his mind. In the winter, the Dodgers wooed free agent pitcher Zack Greinke and eventually signed him to a six-year, $147 million contract. During discussions in his office, Kasten revisited the Nationals’ pursuit of him prior to the 2011 season, when they tried unsuccessfully to convince Greinke to waive his no-trade clause.
“I didn’t know they were going to be that good,” Greinke told Kasten. “Did you?”
“I absolutely did,” Kasten replied. “Zack, I think they’re going to be the best team in baseball this year.”
The Nationals fell short of Kasten’s prediction, but he remains proud of the front office he oversaw in Washington and confident in the franchise’s course.
“I don’t know what happened,” Kasten said. “I wasn’t there, and no one can ever really know behind the scenes what happens. But I expect them to be among the best teams next year. It looks that way to me on paper. Whatever happened this year, it wouldn’t surprise me if they got it all straightened out for next year.”
Kasten says he loved his time in Washington. He watched a ballgame with two different presidents. He helped provide a virtual expansion team with infrastructure in a city that had gone without big league baseball for a generation. He freely admits it could not compare to his experience in Los Angeles.
“For everyone east of, say, Bakersfield in America, we all have these thoughts of how fun it is in L.A.,” Kasten said. “I can tell you now that I live here every day: It’s exactly that way.”
Could a more important job be ahead? Since Bud Selig formally announced his ensuing retirement last week, Kasten has surfaced as a dark-horse possibility to become baseball’s commissioner. Kasten did not knock down the idea, but he’s enjoying himself too much running the Dodgers, dammit, to concern himself with it.
“I’m flattered that people ask that,” Kasten said. “It’s very unrealistic. Let’s face it. But I will tell you this. I look at poor Bud’s job, having to deal with nuisances like me and every other team president and owner on a daily basis. Yes, his job is a lot more important than mine. But mine is way more fun.”