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The Inside Track | Mike Penner SOUND AND VISION

Mickey Mouse Just Edges 'When Bad Teams Attack'

October 15, 2003|Mike Penner

As baseball sitcoms go, Fox versus Disney was never as consistently sidesplitting as "The Amazin' Mets" or "Get a Load o' Those Cubs." Mostly, it was funny-sad in the same way Pedro Martinez playing matador with Don Zimmer was.

Oh, there were periodic moments of genuine hilarity: Kevin Malone's "There's a new sheriff in town." Tony Tavares' "Somebody said to me, `You can't trade 25 guys.' I said, `Why not?' " But during the Fox-Disney siege of the Freeway Series (circa 1996-2003), most of the laughs generated were at the expense of the fans.

With last week's announcement of Frank McCourt's agreement to buy the Dodgers from Fox, a tumultuous chapter in local baseball history is about to close. Arte Moreno bought the Angels from Disney in May, McCourt is riding in to save 3 million Dodger fans from Fox.

Totals for Fox and Disney:

Two runs, occasional hits, lots of errors.

Fox's run, which lasted from 1998 to 2003, didn't produce a division championship or playoff appearance, but it did achieve the corporation's No. 1 objective with the Dodgers: beating Disney to the regional television beachhead and getting Fox Sports West entrenched, at the expense of Disney's planned and eventually scrapped ESPN West.

Disney's run, which officially began in 1996, suffered some of the most embarrassing growing pains in big league history -- cheerleaders on top of the dugout, pinstriped periwinkle pajamas on the players. But somehow, the Mickey Mouse company managed to hang in long enough to burn out with one miraculous, inexplicable October, resulting in the 2002 World Series championship trophy and scores of investigative reporters looking into when and where Michael Eisner cut this deal with the devil.

Missions accomplished?

Disney left us with a World Series we will never forget. Fox left us with "Best Damn Sports Show Period."

Who'd have predicted that epitaph in the winter of 1995-96, when all of Southern California watched warily as Disney tried to complete its purchase from the Autrys?

In many regards, Disney's ownership of the Angels and Fox's control of the Dodgers mirrored each other. Disney ran the Angels for seven full seasons (1996-2002), Fox had the Dodgers for six (1998-2003). A statistical breakdown:

* Number of 90-victory seasons: Angels 1, Dodgers 1.

* Average number of victories per season: Angels 80.7, Dodgers 84.8.

* Average number of games finished behind the division champion: Angels 15.3, Dodgers 12.7.

* Managers used -- not counting interim replacements: Angels 3, Dodgers 3.

* Managers replaced or fired during season: Angels 1 (Marcel Lachemann, '96), Dodgers 1 (Bill Russell, '98).

* First-place finishes: Angels 0, Dodgers 0.

The Angels reached the 2002 playoffs via the wild card. And that one charmed October is the great equalizer for Disney. In 1999, the Angels finished 25 games out of first place. In 2001, they wound up 41 games back. Disney put the Angels on the market in '99, couldn't find a taker and hired an investment bank to ease the process just before the start of the 2002 playoffs.

Disney was looking to unload when -- bang! -- a World Series exploded in its face. No one saw it coming. No one should ever expect it to happen again. But there it was, an Angel World Series victory -- televised by Fox, covered day to day by Fox Sports Net, engineered by a former Fox employee named Mike Scioscia.

Eisner was so confused, he asked for directions to Edison Field ("It's right across the street from the Pond." "Where?") and once he got there, he saw so many people applauding, he automatically began taking bows. It would be like Georgia Frontiere taking credit for the St. Louis Rams' Super Bowl victory because she moved the team out of Anaheim.

Oh, wait. That really happened too.

Most of the time, Fox and Disney arm-wrestled as clumsily as Ben Kingsley and Gabriel Byrne did in "Weapons of Mass Distraction," the 1997 HBO satire featuring two media moguls backstabbing each other in pursuit of a pro football franchise they could build network programming around.

Scorched by the trade that will forever be its Dodger legacy -- Mike Piazza to Florida -- Fox determined that throwing money at the problem just might be the solution. So Kevin Brown got $105 million. Cha-ching! How do you like that, Dodger fans?

This was early in Fox's ownership of the Dodgers, in December 1998. It was an industry-rattling move and the Angels, not wanting to be upstaged by the new fools on the block, coughed up $80 million for Mo Vaughn.

Once-bitten, Disney quickly retrenched. No more monster contracts. If anything was going to be spent, it was going to be spent to keep players Tavares wanted -- and some he didn't -- and invested in cheaper labor, also known as the farm system.

Fox continued its wild shopping for a while -- Darren Dreifort got his $55 million while the getting was good -- then, suddenly, Rupert Murdoch declared the war over -- hooray, hallelujah, Fox won.

The Dodgers never made the playoffs under Fox, but those weren't the standings that interested Murdoch.

"Strategically, it was the right thing to own the Dodgers while we were building our cable [sports channels]," Murdoch's son, Lachlan, said on Charlie Rose's TV show in January. "I think that strategical imperative has passed now."

Fox crushed Disney in the regional television playoff. Fox Sports Net is here to stay, Fox holds the Dodger broadcast rights for at least the next 10 years, ESPN West went nowhere but south.

But is anybody else better for the experience?

Angel fans would have to say yes. Before Disney, Anaheim had a dank, depressing baseball stadium and a baseball reputation that was worse. Now, the fans have Edison Field and, fluke of the century or not, they will always have 2002.

A World Series ring ... or Tom Arnold?

Dodger fans can tell you which legacy they'd prefer.

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