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Dodgers' New Owner Steps Up to the Plate

Boston developer Frank McCourt is formally approved by baseball, but initial comments offer few details about his plans for the team.

January 30, 2004|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

With his purchase of the Dodgers formally approved Thursday, Boston real estate developer Frank McCourt introduced himself to Los Angeles fans, offering considerable enthusiasm but few details about his plans for the team.

In a highly leveraged $430-million deal that is expected to to be completed next week, McCourt will assume control of the club and Dodger Stadium, as well as the Dodgertown training facility in Vero Beach, Fla., and other properties.

"Welcome to a new era in Dodger baseball," he said. "I'm mindful of the fact that it has been 15 years since your team last won a playoff game, and as far as I'm concerned that's way too long. My first objective here is to end that drought."

McCourt, 49, bought the team from Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which lent him more than one-third of the purchase price, a source said, and will retain the equivalent of a 9% ownership stake. The deal was approved unanimously by baseball's 30 owners in a conference call Thursday afternoon.

McCourt had been precluded from speaking publicly during four months of negotiations with News Corp. and Major League Baseball. In a Dodger Stadium news conference after the sale was approved, McCourt addressed widespread concerns voiced by fans, politicians, sports pundits and baseball officials about the transaction.

The purchase was financed largely through loans, which worried league executives. Fans feared there might not be enough cash left over to bolster a lineup that struggled offensively last season.

McCourt said "we need some players. We're going to get them." But with the team's payroll exceeding $90 million, he did not specify whom he wanted or how much more he would be willing to spend.

There had been speculation that the developer might seek to build housing on valuable stadium property near downtown. To that, he said: "We have no plans to do anything other than play baseball here at Dodger Stadium."

But other changes could be in store for the venerable ballpark at Chavez Ravine, including a corporate naming rights deal.

"We're going to consider doing whatever we can to increase the revenues of this franchise," he said. "We'll consider that along with any other good idea if it benefits the results on the field."

McCourt put to rest questions about being an absentee owner, saying that he and his family -- his wife, Jamie, will serve as vice chairman of the team -- will move to Los Angeles.

"I can't tell you how cold it was in Boston," he said. "We woke up [here] this morning, opened the door and it was glorious."

Terms of the deal remained unclear. McCourt said he committed more than $200 million, but baseball sources maintained Thursday he had taken out an unspecified bank loan and that none of the money was his.

News Corp. loaned McCourt $165 million and retained the equivalent of $40 million in equity, a source said. There are financial incentives for McCourt to find an investor to purchase that equity as soon as possible.

Baseball executives, who had postponed a mid-January vote to further examine terms of the deal, were satisfied.

"This transaction meets all of baseball's debt service rules and financial requirements in every way," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "We at Major League Baseball are confident that Mr. McCourt, as a rabid and knowledgeable fan and successful businessman, will devote the time and energy necessary to make the franchise a great success."

The McCourt family made its fortune in heavy construction, working on major Boston projects such as Logan International Airport, but baseball also runs in the bloodline. McCourt's grandfather was a part owner of the Boston Braves, and McCourt is a longtime season-ticket holder at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox.

As a younger man, he shifted from construction to development and earned a personal fortune buying cheap land in rundown South Boston, then converting it into parking lots for commuters.

Baseball came to know him in 2001 when he tried to buy the Red Sox. Last spring, an attempt to purchase the Angels also failed.

By October, he had been identified as a leading candidate to acquire the Dodgers from News Corp., which had grown weary of the team's annual losses reported at about $40 million.

There were hopes the deal could be swiftly completed, but the process proved laborious.

While the league pondered the reliance on loans, fans grew concerned because other teams were snapping up the best free agents. Just down the freeway, the Angels spent $146 million on big-name players, including outfielder Vladimir Guerrero.

Sources said the Dodgers did not pursue such signings for fear of jeopardizing the pending negotiations.

In the meantime, star pitcher Kevin Brown was traded to the New York Yankees.

A petition to stop the sale soon appeared on the Internet, and there were vitriolic letters to the editor in The Times and other newspapers. A sports radio host nicknamed the prospective owner "McBankrupt."

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