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Fans Say Dodgers' Likely Buyer Has 2 Strikes Against Him

January 26, 2004|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

Dodger fans might have hailed Frank McCourt as their savior, the man who would rescue their team from the clutches of the increasingly indifferent and occasionally infuriating corporate ownership of Fox. But as McCourt awaits formal approval of his bid to buy the Dodgers, many of those fans have risen up against him.

As the Angels and their dynamic new owner threaten to overshadow the Dodgers in a market they have long ruled, McCourt has yet to explain how he would meet that challenge. He hasn't even introduced himself, and in the meantime a caricature has emerged of a New England carpetbagger with one hand held out for money and the other behind his back, hiding a plan to blow up a beloved local landmark.

That image has fueled campaigns against McCourt on the air, in letters to The Times and other newspapers, on the Internet and at City Hall.

Joe McDonnell, co-host of a talk show on KSPN-AM (710), said he never has heard such vitriol toward an incoming owner during his 28-year career in Los Angeles radio. Dodger fans call in to rip McCourt daily, with McDonnell leading the charge by tagging him as "McBankrupt."

Even Keith Gregory, an Oak Park lawyer who roots for the New York Mets, said he does not trust McCourt with the civic pearl that is the Dodgers, explaining his fears by invoking the local standard for professional sports disgrace.

"The worst thing that could happen is for the Dodgers to become like the Clippers," Gregory said.

On Thursday, major league baseball owners are expected to approve McCourt, a Boston real estate developer, to replace News Corp.'s Fox Group as majority owner of the Dodgers. The purchase price of $430 million includes the team, Dodger Stadium and its surrounding parking lots -- a total of 300 acres near downtown Los Angeles.

McCourt has said nothing publicly during the four-month approval process, in accordance with the recommendation of major league officials. However, as details emerged of McCourt's plan to finance the purchase largely with loans, voices of outrage grew within the community.

"It's been stipulated by Major League Baseball the Dodgers are a money-losing organization," said Jon Weisman, a Los Angeles writer and editor who runs the independent Dodger Thoughts website. "So why is a cash-poor guy getting in?"

Commissioner Bud Selig and his lieutenants also have stipulated that the more money a team spends on players, the more likely it can achieve and sustain success. If McCourt must pay off his loans, fans wonder, will he have enough revenue left to pay high-salaried stars, or will he get rid of them and field a less-talented team?

Or will he make his money by demolishing Dodger Stadium, developing that prime land and moving the team elsewhere in the city?

"It's not the Lincoln Memorial, but Dodger Stadium is a treasure," Weisman said.

In one segment on McDonnell's program last week, sentiment ran overwhelmingly against McCourt.

First caller: "It's a sorry day for Dodger fans to see such a storied franchise go down the toilet."

Second caller: "This guy has no business buying a refrigerator, let alone a baseball team. The fans are the losers."

Third caller, an Angel fan giddy at the tenuous fate of the Dodgers: "Big Brother up the street is in shambles."

McDonnell, calling the proposed deal "an absolute disgrace," suggested that owners would have rejected it long ago if not for their desire to pacify Fox, which pays them $2.5 billion over six years for national television rights in a contract up for renewal by 2006.

He provided listeners with the fax number to Selig's office and urged them to drown the commissioner in objections.

One fan prepared an online petition opposing the sale and provided a link from the Dodgers' website. On the Angel website, Dodger fans pleaded for Angel owner Arte Moreno to vote against the sale. One Dodger fan, posting on numerous team sites under the heading "Help Me Save My Organization," begged for contact information so he could lobby owners with personalized e-mails.

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn privately encouraged and publicly embraced an eleventh-hour bid by philanthropist and businessman Eli Broad, a proposal contingent upon McCourt's failure to win approval this week.

On Wednesday, the day before owners are expected to welcome McCourt into their ranks, the Los Angeles City Council is scheduled to vote on a resolution urging that the Dodgers be sold to a local buyer.

"I understand it's a business transaction and the views of legislators at any level are not directly relevant," said Jack Weiss, the councilman who introduced the resolution. "But, at some point, it's a business that runs on public opinion. I thought it appropriate to support this publicly, since so many people in Los Angeles would appreciate a return to local ownership."

The people of Los Angeles also would appreciate a return to glory. The Dodgers' annual attendance has been more than 3 million 18 times in the last 26 years, a milestone the Angels first accomplished last year.

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