This has been a trying year to be a Dodger fan. When a team loses on the field, all the problems get magnified, and dirty laundry gets aired. For the Dodgers, there is no dirtier laundry than that of Frank and Jamie McCourt.
Their high-profile divorce is a stain on the franchise that is in its 53rd season in Los Angeles. No matter if Frank or Jamie "wins" their divorce proceedings, several years of appeals will keep the franchise in the hands of a McCourt for the foreseeable future. Everything the Dodgers do is seen through the lens of the McCourt divorce. There is no getting around this fact of perception. However, the divorce is not the message, but rather the messenger. The real problem is the debt load.
For years, the worry about the McCourt ownership was that it was too leveraged with debt, and that eventually the Dodger payroll would drop. Through the spectacular reporting of Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times, we have seen that was, in fact, the very plan of the McCourts when they bought the team. The eye-popping buzz around this September 1 article by Shaikin was that the McCourts planned to drop payroll to $80 million in 2006, as part of their business plan submitted to Major League Baseball. However, the actual 2006 payroll was $98 million.
But, with all things McCourt, perception overwhelms reality. Again, this all gets magnified by the on-field disappointment of this year's team. Ownership troubles are easy to sweep under the rug when the team plays in two straight National League Championship Series after nearly two decades of playoff irrelevance. But when the team loses, as this year's team has, the it's easier to blame McCourt for not spending to get an ace (ignoring that starting pitching, right now, is the team's biggest strength) than to focus on the failure and under performance of core players like Matt Kemp, James Loney, Jonathan Broxton, and Russell Martin.
Part of the lack of faith in Frank McCourt stems from his disingenuous character. He is an owner intensely concerned about public perception despite constantly shooting himself in the foot. In a 2007 meeting with readers of Jon Weisman's Dodger Thoughts (myself included), McCourt was asked if the Dodgers would build a statue in front of the stadium as several teams have done in recent years. We all collectively rolled our eyes when McCourt said he would build a statue of the fans. It was classic McCourt, a lip service response that was pandering at least and dishonesty at worst.
Even former Dodger owner Peter O'Malley is fed up with the McCourts, telling Shaikin yesterday that "it would be best for the franchise and the city if there was new ownership." Part of me wants to remind O'Malley that perhaps the Dodgers wouldn't have been in this spot if he didn't sell the team to Fox, but there is truth to his words.
The Dodgers have their work cut out for them this offseason. With Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley as the only established starters signed for next season, the club will need two, if not three, starting pitchers either via free agency or trade. They also need a left fielder and perhaps an upgrade at either third or first base. The payroll is already estimated to be roughly $87 million next year before these potential moves, so it appears the payroll will need to increase from this year's $99 million.
Almost nobody thought the Dodgers would sign their first-round draft pick, Zach Lee, this year. Lee was slated to play quarterback at LSU, in addition to baseball, so he had unique leverage and was demanding a high bonus to sign a baseball contract. The prevailing thought was that McCourt and the Dodgers punted the pick so they wouldn't have to pay a draft bonus this year. However, the Dodgers did sign Lee to a club-record bonus of $5.25 million. It was spread over five seasons -- after all, deferring money is a McCourt specialty -- but the fact remains that Lee was signed, despite the perception.
The Lee signing was an important step, a glimmer of hope for Dodger fans looking for something to look forward to. Will McCourt increase the payroll this offseason? That remains to be seen, and I certainly understand the skepticism. Dodger fans don't want lip service. They want actions by McCourt, not words.