LOS ANGELES -- Only now, with the divorce trial settled and the bankruptcy court satisfied, with tens of millions spent on legal fees and hundreds of millions taken in personal loans, with the franchise finally up for auction and buyers mercifully preparing bids, Frank McCourt is doing something for the Dodgers.
He is on the verge of re-signing Matt Kemp to an eight-year, $160 million contract, which should be no great accomplishment, considering the Dodgers are the flagship baseball team in the nation's second biggest television market and Kemp is a 27-year-old home-grown center fielder who nearly won the Triple Crown the past season.
But coming from McCourt, who rarely pursued top free agents even when he felt flush, allowed the Dodgers' famed international academies to wither and allegedly plundered $189 million from the club coffers for his own use, it is the most generous parting gift anyone could have imagined.
Owners looking to sell franchises typically strip down their roster to as many minimum contracts as they can find, so as not to scare potential buyers with unwanted debts. McCourt seemed to have been following such a playbook for years. He could have easily tabled negotiations with Kemp, let him play out the final season of his contract, and allowed a new owner to determine his value next winter. But Kemp would have been a free agent, with the Yankees and Red Sox ready to bid, and Dodgers fans left to curse McCourt all over again.
"Matt is a great player, one of the best players in baseball," McCourt said Monday at Mona Park in Compton, where he dedicated a new youth field from the Dodgers. "I just want to continue to make the right decisions for this franchise as long as I own it. That's my responsibility."
McCourt has been driven by ulterior motives since he arrived in L.A, so every action is accompanied with suspicion. Maybe McCourt's advisers believe the franchise is more valuable with Kemp. Maybe MLB pressured him into the move.
"People don't know him," said Kemp. And yet, thanks to all those divorce filings, no fan base has ever known more about an owner. Reading about the legion of PR gurus McCourt hired, and the hairstylist he employed for $150,000 a year, one aspect of his personality becomes clear: He cared deeply about his image, or at least he did, before he took a blowtorch to it.
McCourt is not rehabbing his reputation with one signing. He is not rehabbing it ever. But if he is going to be blamed for mismanaged amateur drafts and gang members tailgating at Dodger Stadium, he earns at least one nod for signing Kemp. It's as if he trashed a house he is about to put on the market, but then felt guilty and installed granite countertops.
Despite numerous reports, Kemp and McCourt said the contract was not completed, though they are close. Like most of McCourt's business transactions, this deal comes with considerable risk, an eight-year commitment to a player who has had one superlative season. In 2010, Kemp batted .249, stole just 19 bases in 34 attempts, and feuded with coaches. Dodger officials expressed disgust at his lack of maturity.
In 2011, he raised his batting average 75 points, stole 40 bases in 51 attempts, won a Gold Glove and led the National League in home runs and RBIs. Kemp lacks the extensive track record of free agents Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, but he can do everything on a baseball field except pitch. He is the rare talent for whom the phrase "five-tool player" was coined.
When McCourt bought the Dodgers in 2004, they were set to harvest their best crop of prospects in more than 20 years, Kemp included. McCourt did not make a lot of splashy signings, but nobody seemed to notice, because the Dodgers won three division titles with a handful of young players on minimum salaries. Now that those players are nearing free agency, they must be paid competitive wages. McCourt has taken care of Kemp; the next owner will probably have to handle ace Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers' farm system is not what it was in '04 -- McCourt neglected Latin America, a traditional stronghold -- but with Kemp and Kershaw, two cornerstones are in place for a quick fix.
Kemp expressed two wishes Monday, beyond his $160 million:
1) "I hope fans are still behind us 100 percent," he said, and without McCourt, they will be.
2) "I want other big-time free agents to consider L.A.," but that is probably not happening. Dodger fans cannot expect to ink Pujols or Fielder during a sale. They must be content with Kemp this winter and hope for more next.
McCourt's public appearance Monday was the first since he agreed to sell the franchise, and while he expressed remorse for the last two years and hope that a transition could be carried out smoothly, he saved most of his comments for the field dedication. When McCourt started the "Dodgers Dreamfields" program, he planned to create 50 new youth ballparks. The one at Mona Park is No. 16. As he addressed the students from Martin Luther King Elementary School in Compton, McCourt said: "You can do whatever you want with this field. I hope you have fun. I hope you make friends. I hope you play baseball. And I hope you take care of it, because it's yours."
In seven years as Dodgers owner, he did not make many friends on his field, and he messed it up in a hundred different ways. Oddly, he is now starting the cleanup, before somebody else comes along to finish it.