By now you don’t have to be a fan to know that Major League Baseball doesn’t want Los Angeles Dodger owner Frank McCourt around anymore. The league putting the team in trusteeship and the team’s bankruptcy filing made that clear. Less clear, though, is why. Could the real reason for the enmity be that Frank, and former wife and (according to the court) current co-owner Jamie McCourt, inadvertently revealed one of the game’s trade secrets? When their messy divorce proceedings splashed their lavish ways, nepotism and tax evasion all over the news, Baseball Commissioner (and former Milwaukee Brewers owner) Bud Selig was, for the record, shocked – shocked! – to learn that there were venal millionaires operating a baseball team.
MLB’s preferred public image, you see, is of a league run by sportsmen (and the occasional woman.) As an LA Times sportswriter put it just the other week, “A major league baseball team is more than a flashy business, it's a public trust.” Baseball, let us remember, enjoys immunity from antitrust law, so cultivating an image of moral probity, with obligation to the fan overriding profit motive, is a part of doing business. And just to make sure no one misinterprets anything, baseball teams don’t generally make their finances public.
For many, the bankruptcy itself may stand as all the proof they need as to why McCourt should leave the game, but a closer look suggests that the LA owner’s original and greatest sin may have been flaunting the ordinariness of baseball as a business – one where people are in it for, well – the money. Once MLB took control of the team’s operations and then disallowed the extension McCourt had negotiated on its broadcasting contract it was a foregone conclusion that the Dodgers would not meet their bills. But what made the League send a trustee into the Dodgers front office in the first place?
One thing it was not was the team’s performance. If the mark of a successful team owner is delivering a winning team to the hometown fans, the McCourts didn’t run afoul of the league on some measure of competency. First off, such things don’t happen anyhow. If they did, the owners of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that started the year with eighteen consecutive losing seasons, would presumably have been eighty-sixed some time ago. But even if there were such criteria, the fact is that – although it may be difficult to recall in the midst of its current losing season – when their partnership dissolved, the team had led its division in wins in four of the six McCourt seasons, something that never happened during the prior six years that Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Corporation ran the operation.
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As the divorce trial made clear, the McCourts themselves did well in all of this – very well. Documents entered into the dispute showed the couple making$108 million from 2004 through 2009, owning eight houses, and paying no federal income tax. And with the sons on the payroll for big bucks, the dubious finances of the team charity, the Russian healer hired to send “positive energy" to the team – well, it kind of wiped out a lot of the public’s good will.
The first charge to surface against the McCourts was that they were parvenus who didn’t actually have enough money to run a big league team. But given that the Dodgers had actually raised eyebrows by seemingly overpaying for talent, most notably with a $45 million two-year contract with Manny Ramirez, we soon heard that the real problem was that they were over-leveraged, that they had too much debt. In fact, MLB announced that it has a debt limit for individual teams and the Dodgers have exceeded it. MLB won’t say any more on that – because it doesn’t have to. According to the LA Times, however, the team is actually only one of nine (of thirty) teams currently exceeding that limit, which again suggests that the League’s problem with the ownership goes deeper than that. (The last known salary for Selig, by the way, was $18.3 million in 2007.)
Certainly Frank McCourt does now confront a serious cash problem – he’s got to figure a way to buy his wife out if he wants to keep the team. Was the broadcast contract extension he negotiated (with Fox) really was not in the best interests of the team or baseball as a whole, as Selig claimed when he blocked it? And did the McCourts really did make out better than all of the other owners – including the ones who routinely turn profits from losing teams? Well, maybe, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the McCourts’ real problem with the League Office is that they revealed to the world that baseball franchises might just be grubby little (or big) businesses with owners who act like a lot of people out there who have too much money and intend to keep it that way.