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Dodger Damage Control

June 07, 2005|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

If this was L.A. baseball, then L.A. baseball was a mess.

The Dodgers were defending champions of their division, but they spent the winter defending themselves, ineffectively, against relentless criticism that ownership was cheap and management was clueless.

Frank McCourt, the owner, was baffled. He had moved his family from Boston, delivered a winner in his first year, attracted fans in near-record numbers and poured $20 million into upgrading the Dodgers' beloved stadium. Yet he was portrayed as a civic outcast.

Gary Ross was baffled too. Ross, the director of "Seabiscuit," loved his Dodgers. He adored the departed fan favorites, including Adrian Beltre and Paul Lo Duca, but he admired the creative approach of the general manager charged with replacing them, Paul DePodesta.

So Ross picked up the phone and called McCourt with a friendly admonition: You're getting hammered, buddy. Get some help.

"I wanted them to have the opportunity to tell their side of the story," Ross said, "and I wanted to put them in touch with people who could help them tell it."

Ross referred McCourt to Sitrick and Co., the public-relations strategists Hollywood keeps on speed dial. Halle Berry called Sitrick when she faced hit-and-run charges; Rush Limbaugh called amid an investigation into how he acquired the prescription painkillers to which he subsequently acknowledged he was addicted.

"For Frank McCourt, this is the best publicist he can have," said Hanna Pantle, senior director of media relations at BMI music. "I think this is the smartest move he's made -- hiring Sitrick and listening to them. They're the guys you hire if you have a crisis."

McCourt insists there is no crisis. So do his Sitrick counselors, one of whom now works full time at Dodger Stadium, in the office of one of the three top executives McCourt has fired in the three months since he retained the firm.

In 1994, embroiled in bankruptcy proceedings, then-King owner Bruce McNall turned to Sitrick.

Said McNall: "You look at their client list -- which includes me -- and that's not one that would make you think everything is hunky-dory or perfect."

*

Allan Mayer, the Sitrick executive primarily responsible for advising McCourt, swivels in his office chair and retrieves a copy of his biography. In the first two sentences, Variety calls his agency "Hollywood's most prominent crisis specialists" and ABC's "20/20" describes him as "the man to call if you're a star facing scandal."

That a storied baseball team that has employed Vin Scully and Tom Lasorda for more than half a century suddenly needs help explaining itself, Mayer said, does not constitute a crisis.

"A big crisis would be Milton Bradley getting caught shooting up steroids or something," Mayer said. "That's not what they have."

What they have is a riddle, the way Mayer sees it. Fox owned the Dodgers for six seasons, none of which included postseason baseball, and lost up to $50 million a year.

In McCourt's first season, the Dodgers won the National League West title, then won a playoff game for the first time in 16 years. They made money, albeit thanks to a $35-million stipend from Fox. They drew 3.5 million, the highest total in the National League in six years, and season-ticket sales jumped by 5,000 this year. McCourt renovated historic Dodger Stadium instead of abandoning it.

"It was a great story, but people didn't see it that way," Mayer said. "Why was that? It had to be the result, at least partly, of things that weren't being handled right on their end."

Click onto Sitrick's website, and these words appear, equal parts slogan and warning: "If you don't tell your story, someone else will tell it for you."

McCourt's ownership of the Dodgers started not with a clean slate but with a tarnished one. Upon the advice of major league officials, McCourt remained silent during the four months needed to scrutinize the complex financing of his purchase.

So others defined him to Los Angeles, painting him as a cash-poor New Englander who had failed in bids for the Red Sox and Angels. The business plan he submitted for major league approval outlined cuts in the Dodger payroll, numerous baseball sources told media outlets, including The Times.

McCourt's primary asset -- 24 acres of prime real estate along the Boston waterfront -- had long remained undeveloped and used for parking lots. Boston Globe columnist Steve Bailey invited readers to send in money and "help our parking lot attendant realize his dream of owning a major league team."

Times columnist T.J. Simers promptly tagged McCourt as the "Boston parking lot attendant," KSPN talk show host Joe McDonnell called him "McBankrupt," and Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss introduced a resolution urging local ownership.

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