The reason baseball commissioner Bud Selig appointed Tom Schieffer as emissary to oversee the day-to-day operations of the Los Angeles Dodgers while leaving the New York Mets alone for now is the vastly different history of the teams' ownership groups.
In New York, the Wilpons -- Fred and his son Jeff -- generally have tried to act in the best interests of their team for 30 years. They certainly haven't used the club as their personal piggy bank, which is what Frank McCourt appears to have done in his seven years in Los Angeles.
Upon making his announcement last week that he would appoint someone to take over the Dodgers finances and day-to-day operations -- on Monday it was announced that it will be Schieffer, a former Texas Rangers president and U.S. ambassador -- Selig said he had "concerns" about the Dodgers. Selig worries about the Mets, too, but with 30 years of mostly positive history from the Wilpons' association with Major League Baseball, he's giving them a rope instead of a noose.
It's true the Mets and Dodgers both have financial issues, but that's about where the similarities seem to end.
The Wilpons don't have a perfect hiring record (besides their choice of Bernie Madoff as their main investment adviser, on a lower scale there were clubhouse attendant and accused steroids-peddler Kirk Radomski among other sketchy clubhouse characters), but many of their employees have stayed for decades. In contrast to the beloved one-time Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, who treated employees like gold, McCourt has hired and fired many fine executives over the years, seemingly on a whim, many of them public relations people who had the impossible task of making him appear sympathetic. Selig himself hired one of them, Dr. Charles Steinberg, who now works under him in Milwaukee.
(Incidentally, McCourt, looked as if he needed P.R. help when he tried to publicly paint Opening Day as an overall success even though Giants fan Bryan Stow was beaten into a coma outside Dodger Stadium. At the time of the assault, McCourt had no director of security. The security problem became a burr to Selig in recent days, people familiar with his thinking say. The incident has been cited by some baseball people as the "last straw'' for McCourt.)
While both owners' offspring are on the team payrolls, people around the Dodgers aren't quite sure what the McCourt kids do for their high salaries. Although Jeff Wilpon, the Mets' COO, has run into a rough patch the past couple years with the team's disappointing fortunes and attendance, no one says he isn't working. He is said to begin his workday at 7 a.m.
McCourt's Dodgers' payroll sank as low as $83 million last year, below that of the mid-market Twins. The Mets' payroll remained the highest in the National League in 2010 at $140 million (though the Phillies have flown past this year).
The Wilpons spend money on improving the team, though some may argue that they don't always pick the best players. Meanwhile, the evidence suggests McCourt has used his team's money not always to improve the club but often as a personal bank. McCourt was cash poor at the start -- his tenure began with a $100-million-plus loan from Fox -- and he is now reported to be $400 million in debt, and that doesn't even count what he's going to have to pay soon-to-be ex-wife Jamie once their divorce is finalized. Sources say the settlement with Jamie will cost Frank McCourt $200 million, or thereabouts.
The McCourts bought multiple homes in each of two of the most upscale enclaves in the country, Malibu and Holmby Hills (the better section of Beverly Hills) at the same time he was running into financial straits. The Wilpons live well but not on Mets money.
One ownership person referred to McCourt's ugly stewardship of the Dodgers as "a ----storm from the start."
While the beginning wasn't especially auspicious for McCourt, the true ugliness of his tenure wasn't fully revealed until his recent public divorce trial with Jamie played out. Among other unflattering revelations was the allegation that the McCourts took $100-million-plus from the team while managing not to pay taxes for seven years (an IRS investigation came to light the same day Selig made his announcement about the Dodger takeover last week, and according to one person with connections to the team, it was the IRS that sent the Dodgers office into a panic).
SI has learned that McCourt needed a $25 million loan in September before the recent $30 million loan from TV partner Fox, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, which McCourt needed to make payroll. Because that one was a personal loan, it didn't require Selig's approval. That annoyed Selig, but what really shocked some folks was the timing of the loan.
"It's inconceivable he ran out of money in April,'' one baseball lawyer said. "Where did all the season-ticket money go? This is the first payment of the year!"
The Mets also have had well-documented severe short-term cash problems -- the Wilpons got a $25 million loan directly from MLB last November to meet operating costs -- but unlike McCourt they do appear to use baseball revenue exclusively for baseball expenses. While the McCourts' were underfinanced to start their Dodgers tenure (they borrowed more than $100 million from Fox to complete the team purchase, and overspent once they got the team) the Wilpons' problems are precipitated by one very foolish investment that had nothing to do with their baseball dealings -- yes, the Madoff mistake. That whopper of an error is compounded by a downturn in New York real estate (Fred Wilpon and co-owner Saul Katz, who is Fred's brother-in-law, are co-founders of a successful real estate company) and the poor play the past few years by the Mets, which led to a league-high decrease of 600,000 in attendance at beautiful Citi Field from 2009 to 2010. That combination of Madoff, on-field struggles and a real-estate downturn was referred to by one competing owner as a "triple play'' of bad karma for the Wilpons.
McCourt has proposed multiple ideas for Major League Baseball that involve him taking on even more debt. He first asked Selig to approve a loan from Fox and most recently suggested a front-loaded deal with Fox. Selig rejected the first plan and is likely to do the same with the second. Meanwhile, the Wilpons have played ball with MLB by reluctantly agreeing to sell a large minority stake in the team (at least 25 percent). Reportedly, there are four finalists for that stake -- two are hedge fund bankers Stevie Cohen and Anthony Scaramucci -- all of whom want the agreement to include a provision whereby they would become majority owners should the Wilpons run out of cash, which is a distinct possibility. Ultimately, the Wilpons and Katz may not be able to keep the team. However, in the event their settlement with Madoff trustee Irving Picard is a lot more reasonable than the $1 billion he reportedly seeks, a figure one securities attorney called a "reach," they would appear to have a shot.
McCourt is said by sources to be considering a fight with MLB over control of the Dodgers. That would seem to be an unwinnable battle for him, given his track record of poor decisions on Elysian Way. Even a casual baseball fan can see his ownership of the Dodgers is no longer in the best interests of the game.
Upon becoming Dodgers owner in 2004, McCourt signed paperwork guaranteeing he wouldn't sue Major League Baseball, which MLB people fully intend him to disregard. Even if McCourt's lawsuit were allowed to proceed in spite of that document, he has lots of hurdles between him and a victory in court, not the least of which is financial. He's already in the hole $55 million to Fox, $200 million-plus to Jamie (word is, it's at least that much) and who knows what to lawyers.
In the meantime, MLB has appointed a worthy man to oversee the Dodgers' flagging operation. Schieffer was Rangers' president from 1991-95 in the years of George W. Bush's ownership, and later worked as an ambassador to Japan under President Bush. Two competing owners say Schieffer is the right guy with the right experience for this daunting task. He will be setting the operating budget once he has a handle on the books, and will have veto powers over any expenditures, all the way down to office supplies. He may also hire a couple experienced pros to assist him. "Schieffer is a good man and a good choice,'' one competing owner said. "He's a good 'ol boy (from Texas) who gets along with others and might even get along with Frank.''
The appointment of Schieffer is a step in the right direction. But what the Dodgers really need is new ownership.
• The Indians are one of the big early surprises. One competing GM said he is shocked. "From seeing them in spring I thought they'd be horrible,'' that GM said. But the Indians had other ideas. Indians GM Chris Antonetti said about whether the team could contend: "We felt we had a very talented roster. But our success depended on staying healthy and how quickly our young guys took a step forward.''
• Yes, Sam Fuld's Stanford University teammate Jed Lowrie should have made last Friday's list of big early surprises. Another oversight was the Royals' Alex Gordon, the former No. 2 pick overall who is finally living up to the expectations.
• Meanwhile, Carl Crawford, who manned leftfield in Tampa in the years before the Legendary Sam Fuld, hit his first home run Sunday and appears to be shaking the worst slump of his career. One Red Sox person said he didn't believe it was the new contract or change in teams that affected Crawford (now up to .187) but conceded "that a slump that long has to get into your head.''
• Vernon Wells, the player the Angels signed after failing to land Crawford, isn't hitting any better. He's at .175. What's worse, one of the players traded to the Blue Jays to get him, Mike Napoli, had the highest home-run percentage in baseball at one dinger per every 8.4 at-bats, as mentioned on ESPN (Napoli has five in 42 at-bats).
• West Coast Offense? That term doesn't really apply in baseball thus far. All six West Coast teams are in the second half of the scoring list. The Dodgers have been surprisingly OK offensively (they're 16th with 88 runs), the Angels aren't terrible (19th, 85), and then come the Giants (20th, 81), Mariners (24th, 76), A's (25th, 75) and Padres (30th, 62).
• Barry Zito was never in any danger of being cut. But one thing the Giants might want to think about is trading him when he comes off the disabled list. While most of the rest of the Giants' rotation is comprised of strikeout pitchers, Zito pitches to contact, not a good thing as the Giants' defense currently looks.
• The Braves are understandably concerned about their offense, which enters play Monday ranking 14th in the National League in batting average, 15th in on-base percentage and 13th in slugging percentage.
• The White Sox must be concerned, too. Hitting coach Greg Walker probably won't be in trouble because 1) he's a great guy, and 2) he's a great guy whom Jerry Reinsdorf loves.
• The Brewers are getting a lot of criticism for extending Ryan Braun until he's 37 for $105 million. But another way to look at the deal is that it is a victory for a small-market team to be able to afford such a commitment. The Brewers have really captured the city in recent years.
• There is some consternation over the shape Phil Hughes showed up in this year. But Yankees people seem hopeful he is regaining his former velocity.
• The word on Justin Duchscherer had been that baseball people thought he was "soft.'' And Duchscherer has now pulled what may be a first: He admitted in a Men's Journal interview that he himself believes he is a soft man in a sport full of harder men. It was a very interesting admission. Duchscherer has been very good when he's been able to pitch in his career, but due to a variety of ailments it isn't certain when he'll make his Orioles debut. In the meantime, the interview has made him a more sympathetic figure.
• Prediction: Selig will get his wish and Albert Pujols will stay a Cardinal. No inside information, but the Cardinals waited until Matt Holliday was a free agent until making him their best offer. History will likely repeat, it says here.