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"I'm Mad As Hell And I'm Not Gonna Take It Anymore" Between News Corp. and a new owner in hock, the author has lost all hope for the Dodgers

Feb. 09, 2004
Feb. 09, 2004

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Feb. 9, 2004

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"I'm Mad As Hell And I'm Not Gonna Take It Anymore" Between News Corp. and a new owner in hock, the author has lost all hope for the Dodgers

Last Thursday the Dodgers were sold into a future as bleak as
Steven Seagal's career prospects, and I am flashing back to the
moment when I realized things would come to this sorry end. It's
six years ago, and I'm with a movie producer who would claw his
own eyes out for the piles of TV money he envisions making on a
new series. He has hired me to write a pilot script--Spartacus
meets Dynasty, as God is my witness--but he briefly lets the
Dodgers intrude on our conversation. Rupert Murdoch's outfit,
News Corp., has purchased the team, and his Hollywood factotums
are taking over at Dodger Stadium. One of them is a friend of the
producer's, and the producer wants to make sure that I, a wayward
sportswriter, understand his friend isn't just another major
league pretender. "He's perfect for the Dodgers," the producer
says. "He's a great softball player." Softball? I think. What
does playing softball have to do with running a big league team?
But I utter nary a word in disagreement. I like money too.

This is an article from the Feb. 9, 2004 issue Original Layout

All I can say in defense of my craven silence is that it didn't
stop me from fearing that the Dodgers were doomed. Here was one
of baseball's storied franchises, right there with the Yankees
and the Cardinals, and it was in the hands of a media baron who
has never been demonstrably long on soul and a bunch of guys who
should have paid more attention to William Goldman. If you don't
recognize the name, Goldman is the Oscar-winning screenwriter
(All the President's Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and
on and on) who summed up the way Hollywood works in one perfect
sentence: "Nobody knows anything."

Let me count the ways Murdoch's boys have proved they didn't know
anything about running the Dodgers, either. They hired one
stupendously inept general manager; hamstrung a successor who
might actually be worthy of the job; hog-tied the payroll with
foolhardy long-term contracts; traded away future Hall of Famer
Mike Piazza; and lost the nerve to keep Gary Sheffield, the
abrasive slugger who replaced his big bat in the order. The
Murdoch Dodgers never had a sniff of the postseason--you have to
go back to 1996 and former owner Peter O'Malley for that--and for
more than a year they've failed to make the big move their
sad-sack batting order begs for. They've done business like the
Brewers, and if you think the sale of the team to Boston real
estate developer Frank McCourt will change that, I've got a
screenplay I'll sell you for a million bucks.

By my standards and, I assume, yours, McCourt is wealthy in the
extreme. But compared to some of his brethren in the big league
owners' lodge, he doesn't have two dimes to rub together. The
sale price for the Dodgers (including Dodger Stadium and training
sites in Vero Beach and the Dominican Republic) was $430 million,
and McCourt is reportedly financing more than half the deal with
loans, including a fat one from News Corp. Any other credible
bidders for the team were chased away by News Corp.'s insistence
that its Fox Sports Network retain the rights to Dodgers
broadcasts, just in case you wondered why Murdoch bought the team
in the first place. And so the Dodgers will be worse off than
ever.

They were already highballing in that direction when they
couldn't snag Nomar Garciaparra from the Red Sox as the byproduct
of Alex Rodriguez's ill-fated attempt to escape zillionaire
servitude in Texas. But this was a winter of great free
agents--surely the Dodgers could beef up an offense that, aside
from the execrable Tigers, was baseball's worst last season.

Once again the Goldman Rule applied. Miguel Tejada signed with
Baltimore before the Dodgers finished fantasizing about Nomar.
Then there was Milwaukee's Richie Sexson, precisely the kind of
thumper L.A. needs to bat behind Shawn Green, who mustered only
19 homers in 2003 after bashing 49 and 42 the two previous years.
But Sexson was traded to Arizona, a deal made doubly painful by
the fact that the Diamondbacks, like the Dodgers, play in the
National League West. Mindful that San Diego, another division
rival, had scooped up muscular Brian Giles in the middle of last
season, the Dodgers started sniffing out a trade for Magglio
Ordonez of the White Sox. When they struck out there, too, rumors
surfaced that they would be willing to settle for Paul Konerko,
whom they traded away in 1998 and who is coming off a season in
which his batting average dropped 70 points. A perfect fit for
the wrong-way Dodgers, obviously, but the thought of Vladimir
Guerrero still blowing in the free-agent wind offered hope where
I, and everybody like me, should have realized there was none.

Guerrero, even with his sometimes balky back, is better than any
everyday player in baseball except perhaps A-Rod and Barry Bonds
and maybe Albert Pujols. So naturally it was the Angels and their
bold new owner, Arte Moreno, who signed him while the Dodgers
looked on helplessly, letting Anaheim--Anaheim!--trump L.A.
without a whimper. It has happened before, of course, the Angels
making off with the World Series in 2002 while the Dodgers
haven't been to one since 1988, when they last won a postseason
game. This time around they may have been relieved by their
disgrace. As Ross Newhan, the Los Angeles Times's perspicacious
baseball writer, reported, "Industry sources said [the Dodgers]
had made a legitimate offer for Guerrero before he signed with
the Angels but McCourt refused to approve it when Commissioner
Bud Selig couldn't assure him that a major investment might not
prompt some owners to oppose his purchase."

Such an absence of backbone and cash flow will never do honor to
a Dodgers legacy rich with memories of Koufax and Drysdale, Wally
Moon and Maury Wills, Lasorda's lip, the Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey
infield, Hershiser's gumption and Gibson's homer. But the truth
is that the decline began on O'Malley's watch, when the farm
system was allowed to wither and Pedro Martinez was blithely
traded for the less-than-immortal Delino DeShields. Too fragile,
the Dodgers said of Pedro. Too bad for them.

The Murdoch administration made everything except the farm system
worse. While the Dodgers wait for the kids to step forth--the
next Dwight Gooden, a young Moises Alou, you know the drill--they
continue to suffer the effects of Kevin Malone, a general manager
whose social gaffes made him seem like he was two steps out of a
tree. Worse, Malone overpaid for Green (six years, $84 million)
and, refusing to acknowledge that pitchers can crumble like
potato chips, signed the brilliant, dyspeptic Kevin Brown for
seven years and $105 million and the perpetually promising Darren
Dreifort for five and $55 mil. Both ended up in surgery, Dreifort
twice, and only Brown paid serious dividends when he was healthy.

Now, like Piazza and Sheffield before him, Brown is gone, shipped
to the Yankees for righthander Jeff Weaver, whose pummeling in
New York last season offers little hope that he will help
maintain the brilliance of the Dodgers' 2003 pitching staff: best
ERA in the majors (3.16), most shutouts (17), fewest hits (1,254)
and runs (556) allowed in the majors. All that, plus Eric Gagne's
historic 55 saves in 55 chances, and the Dodgers still won only
85 games and finished 15 1/2 behind San Francisco in the
National League West. So it goes when your offense is shut out 13
times, scores one run 27 times, two runs 21 times and three runs
24 times. G.M. Dan Evans, the anti-Malone who put together the
pitching staff, knows that won't cut it in the season ahead, but
the best he has been able to do with the purse strings tied is to
trade for the Marlins' Juan Encarnacion, hardly anyone's idea of
a siege gun.

Given this grim state of affairs, I'm left to wonder if the
Dodgers, and McCourt in particular, are counting on drawing three
million fans for the ninth consecutive season. It's a
possibility, considering the appeal of Dodger Stadium on a velvet
summer night and the number of knuckleheads who swat beach balls
instead of watching the game. But you can count me out when it
comes to encouraging mediocrity or worse from this once noble
franchise.

Fellow wayward sportswriter David Israel and I gave up our
Dodgers tickets last week--and great tickets they were, next to
the first-base photographers' well, three rows from the field.
When Israel delivered the news to the lawyer who made sure we had
them for 18 or 20 games a season, he persuaded the lawyer, a
certified Dodgers nut, to bail out too. But we're still talking
baseball, Israel and I. Angels baseball. They've got the makings
of a juggernaut--Guerrero and Bartolo Colon to go with Garret
Anderson, Tim Salmon and Troy Glaus--and we figure they'll be
worth the trip at least four or five times, though Anaheim at
rush hour seems as distant as Tanzania. To get there, I'll have
to pass Dodger Stadium. The only thing that would make me stop is
a flat tire.

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY TOM NICK COCOTOS/PHOTOS IN COMPOSITES: AP (3); GETTY IMAGES (3);ICON/SMI (2); ROBERT BECK
Compared to some of his brethren in the big league owners' lodge,
McCourt doesn't have TWO DIMES to rub together.