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ON BASEBALL

Talk of Sale Wasn't Out of the Blue for Daly

January 22, 2003|Ross Newhan

Robert Daly was in New York on Monday, where he reported the temperature to be 14 degrees, much too bitter to be construed as an invigorating break from the hot seat that comes with being chairman of the Dodgers, a position that now could become even hotter as the flames of another potential distraction licks at a franchise that has known only turmoil since News Corp. bought it in 1998.

Now, only five years later, five years in which those nearly five decades of comparatively peaceful O'Malley ownership have quickly become a faded memory, the $15-billion-a-year media giant has hired a New York investment firm to facilitate the team's sale.

Now, suddenly, there is an official and public posture to a process that had been conducted quietly and privately behind the scenes.

Now, perhaps, uncertainty could become as thick as the midsummer smog, the clubhouse and executive office focus shifting from the field to finance as Fox searches for an operator with enough resources in an unstable economy to spend, say, $600 million or more on a franchise claiming millions in losses in a sport that now finds its corporate owners running for cover.

Make no mistake: Fred McGriff still might attract much of the media microscope at Dodger Stadium, but it seems inevitable that he will have to share it at times with Dave Checketts or Alan Casden or some other possible buyer, a notion that Daly disputed from the warmth of his Manhattan hotel room, pointing out that Disney has had the Angels on the block for three years and it didn't disrupt their advance to a World Series title.

"If that's what distraction gets you, I'll take it," Daly said.

The flip side, of course, is that until the Angels became a sea of red phenomenon over the second half of the 2002 season, there was seldom the microscope on Anaheim that there always is on the Dodgers. It also can be said that Disney's attempt to sell frequently became the fodder for distracting stories questioning ownership's direction, payroll and desire to win, the type of stories that have already infiltrated a winter in which some have cited the Dodgers' unwillingness to go over the new luxury tax threshold as an illustration that the dollar now comes first under sale-minded Fox.

The prospect isn't encouraging, but Daly is undeterred, insistent that organizational focus starts from the head down ("my head, and I'm a thousand percent convinced I won't be distracted," he said) and, look, he added, this process is being handled by News Corp. and Allen & Co., and isn't it also possible that the Dodgers are immune to distractions by now?

After all, Daly recalled, he has already worked through that "mess I inherited" in which the "general manager (Kevin Malone) wasn't talking to the manager (Davey Johnson)," and now, he said, he has "accomplished my first mission" of putting a staff and organization together and "now I want to accomplish the second mission of pouring champagne on my head, which is my dream."

He dreamed about the Dodgers growing up in Brooklyn, but now, barely into his fourth year after buying 5% interest with the understanding he would have decision-making authority after News Corp. established the yearly budget, the clock may be ticking on that second mission -- which Daly said he accepts and understands, having been apprised of the process by News Corp. executives from the start ("nothing goes on that I don't know about," he said), having been quoted as saying he expected the club to be sold at some point and having reiterated that belief in staff meetings.

"You have a non-core asset that's losing money," he said. "If someone walks in and offers the right price I would fully expect the club to be sold and would totally support and understand that decision."

The right price will depend on whether Murdoch includes the cable assets. How a sale would impact Daly and his 5% interest isn't clear, but he said it was doubtful that he could encounter a better relationship than the one he has had with Murdoch, Peter Chernin and other News Corp. executives and that after many years of operating CBS, Warner Bros. and now the Dodgers, he has no desire to be anything less than the boss.

"I'll never say never, but my gut feeling is that I won't stay if the club is sold," he said.

But could he and would he consider organizing his own ownership group?

"I think that would be a hard thing to do right now economically," Daly said. "Two or three years ago you might have found a lot of people with a lot of extra Internet and tech money, but now I don't know if there's anybody I could go to with the idea of buying out the Dodgers at a high price. I mean, you'd have to have a passion for baseball and a willingness to risk a difficult business. If people came to me I'd talk, but I don't think it would be an easy thing to do."

It won't be easy finding a buyer. The Angels have been out there at probably half the price or more with limited action, which is why, Daly said, that this could be a long process that never reaches fruition and why he and the club can't get caught up in it or distracted.

If that's wishful thinking, it's also true that turnover and instability are part of the industry now. The O'Malley era is long over. The Dodgers aren't alone. Since George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees in 1973, the other 29 teams, including six expansion teams, have had a combined total of 94 ownership groups.

Five years ago, Fox talked about the historic glory of the Dodgers, the marketability of the brand. Now an investment firm is marketing the brand in a different way. It would be nice to believe that a new owner, if there is one, will stay awhile, but that too is probably wishful thinking.

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