The Embarrassment of Riches

September 12, 2010

When they bought the Dodgers, Jamie and Frank McCourt were the perfect dysfunctional couple. But a toxic divorce has brought their nauseating excesses ($150,000 for haircuts?) to light and crippled one of baseball's proudest franchises

Peter O'Malley rides the elevator every morning to 1988, and when he gets there, Orel Hershiser greets him at the door. O'Malley, whose family owned all or part of the Dodgers for more than five decades, sold the team 12 years ago, but up here in 1988 it feels as if he never parted with it. He takes care of his business interests out of an office in downtown Los Angeles—suite 1988—decorated with a drawing of Dodger Stadium, a model of Dodger Stadium, photographs of Dodger Stadium during the day and at night and even under construction. O'Malley's assistant, Dianne Mesa, is also his curator, guiding guests from the picture of Hershiser celebrating the '88 World Series championship (the Dodgers' last) to the one of Sandy Koufax boarding the team plane and the one of Hideo Nomo high in his windup. "You can't trust Dianne," O'Malley cautions. "She just started with us." She has been with him for 49 years.

These are the Dodgers—stable, sentimental, old-fashioned and old Hollywood, with an image as pristine as their home whites. But 19 stories down and one mile up the road, a pair of impersonators are dragging the franchise through an ugly divorce case, dumping it into a toxic fishbowl usually reserved for the town's pop stars and B-list actors. The diva litigants are Frank and Jamie McCourt, who left Boston six years ago to buy the Dodgers, assuming fame would come with the purchase. On the day in 2004 that they took over the team from Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, Frank invoked the O'Malley tradition, gushing at a press conference that "family ownership has returned to the Dodgers," as if one family was the same as the other. Shortly afterward, in a more honest moment, the McCourts told their staff, "The Dodgers are the business. We are the brand."

Last week the McCourts took to the second floor of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown L.A. and demonstrated their newfangled definition of family ownership. (The divorce trial, which began on Aug. 30, will resume on Sept. 20 after a two-week recess.) Frank was flanked by six lawyers, one of whom was once described in the American Bar Association Journal as a "litigation assault weapon." Jamie was flanked by five attorneys, one of whom represented Al Gore before the Supreme Court after the disputed 2000 presidential election. Frank's team also included a divorce lawyer who represented Cary Grant. Jamie's included one who represented Tom Cruise. The respective teams marched down the marble corridors in their tailored suits, pulling dollies with tens of thousands of pages in exhibits, past children toddling into adoption hearings and custody disputes .

"You can't hearken back to the family-owned Dodgers when there is no greater metaphor for family dysfunction than this," says Mark Vincent Kaplan, a prominent family lawyer in Los Angeles. Kaplan represented Kevin Federline in his divorce from Britney Spears three years ago, a case that ran up approximately $1 million in legal fees. The McCourt case will generate about $20 million in legal fees, making it one of the most expensive divorce trials in the history of California. McCourt v. McCourt is a custody dispute, like so many cases on the courthouse's second floor, only the Dodgers are the child in the middle, and no one with the child's best interests in mind wants either side to prevail. "I'm a Dodgers fan," says a lawyer on the case, "and it's terrible."

He could be referring to the scene in the courthouse or the one at the ballpark, where the back-to-back National League West champions were eight games out of first place through Sunday. Slugger Manny Ramirez has gone to the White Sox; manager Joe Torre is contemplating retirement; and superagent Scott Boras suggests that talented lineup reinforcements won't be on the way this off-season. "Twenty-nine other teams will have an advantage over [the Dodgers] this winter," says Boras, which implies that L.A. might even be interested in chasing top free agents after running away from them in recent years. The Dodgers led the major leagues in attendance last season and rank third right now, but they are conducting business like a minimarket.

O'Malley can escape up in 1988, surrounded by the vestiges of better days, but then he makes his regular Starbucks run and is confronted by a fan base at a boil. Last Thursday morning he ordered the usual—venti soy latte iced, easy on the ice—and a man smoking a cigarette told him, "Peter, this is a mess. You've got to do something." O'Malley, 72, might have been taken aback if he hadn't heard the same plea at a different location the day before and the day before that. It has become part of his routine: He gets a venti, and the patrons get to vent.

O'Malley is reluctant to talk about the McCourts—he developed his reputation by avoiding sound bites, not serving them up—but he recognizes that a mortified city needs a voice. "It's embarrassing," he says. "There has been a total disconnect between the McCourts and the greater Los Angeles community."

Before each day in court, Frank and Jamie are asked to stand, raise their right hands, take the oath and say, "I do." They look tan, slender and serious, staring straight ahead at all times. Jamie's Jewish parents, who did not attend the couple's 1979 wedding because they disapproved of their daughter marrying an Irish-Catholic, sit in the front row. Last Friday, Jamie sipped from a coffee cup scrawled with the name JEFF, conspicuous given that she has been accused by Frank in court filings of having an affair with her driver, Jeff Fuller. Frank, a real estate developer who started out in the 1970s by building parking lots in Boston, took the stand; L.A. Weekly reported that he blinks 75 times per minute under questioning. Dodgers supporters inched forward in the gallery, one wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with VLADIMIR SHPUNT, the name of the Russian physicist and spiritual healer whom the McCourts hired to send positive vibes to the team. "I don't think I want to be a lawyer anymore," said the Shpunt fan, 19-year-old Dexter O'Connell, a sophomore at the University of Chicago.

The case hinges on one word in a post-nuptial agreement that was drawn up in 2004. The McCourts signed six copies of it, but the copies are not identical—in three of them the Dodgers are included in Frank's separate property; in three others they are not. While Frank's side claims that the inconsistency was caused by an innocuous clerical error, and all six copies should have included the Dodgers among his assets, Jamie's side charges deceit. She signed the agreement that gives Frank ownership of the team, but her attorneys argue that she did not read it or know what she was signing—despite her having received a law degree from Maryland and an M.B.A. from MIT.

The thousands of court documents filed in this case—"We have cut down a forest," says a lawyer involved—serve as tinder for burning any credibility the couple ever had. The documents detail the lifestyle of the vulgar rich, stretching even L.A.'s relaxed boundaries of excess: nine properties with a total value of more than $108 million, seven country-club memberships, $800,000 per year paid for private security, $600,000 per year paid through the Dodgers to two of their four sons who did not have titles with the team, $400,000 paid in 2007 alone to an employee to run a charity and $150,000 per year paid to a hairstylist who coiffed the McCourts five days a week.

Lakers fans sitting courtside might be able to relate, but not Dodgers fans populating the upper deck. "Jack Nicholson isn't here," says 32-year-old Steven Sotelo of East L.A., who has a Dodgers logo tattooed on his right forearm and was seated high above first base on Sept. 1. "The O'Malleys felt like one of us, like our family. These people don't feel like family at all." The McCourts are an emblem of their era, eager to spend, slow to pay. According to court documents and statements by Frank's lawyers, he did not put down any of his own money to buy the Dodgers and watched his checking account dip as low as $167,000 last year. According to court filings by Jamie, he has legally circumvented all state and federal income taxes since 2004. "His livelihood is doing projects on borrowed money," says Frank's attorney Steve Susman, the assault weapon himself. The Los Angeles Times, in concert with an accounting firm, reported last week that Frank is $433 million in debt and has been turned down three times in the last year for additional financing to run the Dodgers. Major League Baseball, which approved McCourt's ownership bid with some of his parking lots as collateral, declined to comment on the case.

The McCourts are starring in a quintessentially L.A. story, but the city is the victim this time. As Frank stammered through a cross-examination on Sept. 1 by David Boies—Gore's guy during the recount—the Dodgers mustered just three hits in a loss to the Phillies two miles away to remain nine games out of first place. Callers to the postgame show debated the cost of the suits Frank wears in court, and in the Phillies' clubhouse, first base coach and former Dodgers second baseman Davey Lopes shook his head. "What's happening now is not what I grew up with," Lopes says. "If there was ever a story about the O'Malleys in the newspaper, it was always positive." Back then family ownership meant a Christmas party every March at spring training, with Santa Claus handing out gifts to the players' children; ice-cream socials for the staff every day the Dodgers were in first place; a week in Hawaii for employees and their spouses to celebrate the team's 25th year in L.A. and another week in Rome to celebrate the 1988 title.

When problems arose, longtime general manager Fred Claire made sure the O'Malleys were insulated from them because he believed owners should remain the ultimate ambassadors. "It's embarrassing to see everything exposed," says Charlie Blaney, a former Dodgers farm director and the current president of the Class A California League. "Every family has disagreements, but you do it in the privacy of the family."

The current owners' public sparring is not the only thing that sets them apart from what once was the Dodger Way. O'Malley worked 12 hours a day at Dodger Stadium; the McCourts work at separate offices in Beverly Hills. O'Malley went more than a decade without raising ticket prices; the McCourts revealed a plan—never executed—to nearly double ticket prices during their ownership. O'Malley employed two general managers and two managers in 28 years as president; the McCourts have had two G.M.'s and three managers and have plowed through no fewer than seven public-relations gurus alone, one of whom plotted a course for Jamie to become president of the U.S. "They have complete turnover all the time," says a former executive. "It never stops."

If owners are judged solely on wins and losses, the McCourts have been a success. The Dodgers reached the NLCS in each of the past two seasons, despite spending the least of any major league team on the draft and international signings. The McCourts could get away with it because they inherited so many promising young players—outfielders Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, first baseman James Loney, starter Chad Billingsley and closer Jonathan Broxton—who were making near the major league minimum. General manager Ned Colletti cleverly traded for Ramirez and Casey Blake in 2008, but only after persuading their former teams to pay most of their salaries.

This year, though, karma caught up to the McCourts. Young players stalled, in particular Kemp (whose sinking production and shoddy defense led Colletti to question his effort earlier this season) and Broxton (who was stripped of the closer's job last month). Ramirez was injured and indifferent before the Dodgers waived him last month, and adequate replacements were never in place. Torre has worked under caricature owners before—George Steinbrenner, most notably—but he is 70 now and talks longingly of attending his daughter's high school softball games.

The pennant race will bypass Los Angeles, but there is more at stake in the McCourts' divorce trial. If Frank wins, he retains ownership of the Dodgers, and his lawyer says he will keep them. If Jamie wins, she and Frank will share ownership, and her lawyer says they will have no choice but to sell. Dodgers supporters are rooting for Jamie as if she were the second coming of Kirk Gibson, but lawyers expect the losing side to mount an appeal, so fans turn their hopes to Judge Scott Gordon, an L.A. native and former Santa Monica beat cop, to invalidate the postnuptial agreement and order a sale.

The last time the Dodgers were on the market, a bid was submitted by Eli Broad, a billionaire philanthropist with a passion for preserving L.A. institutions. Broad planned to bring in O'Malley as chairman, and even though he lost out to the McCourts, he'd be among the favorites to succeed them. O'Malley would not comment on such speculation, but he is reminded of it every day over his latte.

He is needed in 2011.

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The McCourts are starring in a quintessentially L.A. story, but the city is the victim this time.

PHOTOPhotograph by REED SAXON/APWHO GETS THE KIDS? As the McCourts fight over who owns the team, the players will likely sit out the postseason. PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI IMAGING; JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (TEAM)[See caption above] PHOTOKEITH BIRMINGHAM/SAN GABRIEL VALLEY TRIBUNE/ZUMAPRESS.COMDODGER BLUES Disappointing play from All-Stars such as Kemp (top), who has a near-career-low OPS and was criticized by Colletti, and Broxton (center), who has been shaky as closer, have taken L.A. out of the NL West race and given Torre (left) and starter Chad Billingsley (far left) plenty of reasons to hang their heads. PHOTOKEITH BIRMINGHAM/SAN GABRIEL VALLEY TRIBUNE/ZUMAPRESS.COM[See caption above] PHOTOGREGORY BULL/AP[See caption above] PHOTOCHRIS WILLIAMS/ICON SMI[See caption above]

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