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Slugging fielder or youth fields?

The McCourts wonder if Dodgers fans want them to spend millions on free agents during tough economic times.

November 26, 2008|Dylan Hernandez | Hernandez is a Times staff writer.

Would Dodgers fans react negatively if the team were to pay big money to free agents when the nation's economy is in sharp decline and many Americans are losing their jobs?

That was the question posed by Dodgers President Jamie McCourt as she made an appearance with her husband, team owner Frank McCourt, Tuesday at an event where it was announced the club's charitable foundation would help build 42 youth fields around Southern California.

"If you bring somebody in to play and pay them, pick a number, $30 million, does that seem a little weird to you?" Jamie McCourt asked in an interview at the Evergreen Recreation Center in East Los Angeles. "That's what we're trying to figure out. We're really trying to see it through the eyes of our fans. We're really trying to understand, would they rather have the 50 fields?"

The Dodgers recently made a two-year, $45-million offer to slugger Manny Ramirez that they later withdrew, and the McCourts seemed to be hedging against lavish spending during a time of such great economic uncertainty.

Jamie McCourt said the fact that the majority of contracts were guaranteed was a significant issue.

"I think, oddly enough, maybe if things weren't guaranteed, then we could pay for it," she said. "If people can't play anymore, it's like, 'Oh well, see ya.' Different story. Whatever money they are guaranteed could be money that we could otherwise have given to community."

The cost of the project to build youth fields is unknown, but the Friedman Foundation has committed to donating as much as $5 million, matching every dollar spent on the endeavor by the Dodgers Dream Foundation up to that amount.

Frank McCourt said that while he and his wife contribute money out of their own pockets to the Dodgers' charitable causes, the team and its foundation are separate entities and the funds to pay for the fields won't be taken out of the team's operating budget. But he too said the Dodgers had to re-examine their priorities.

"To me, it's more, how do we prioritize?" he said. "Where should we be investing?"

Frank McCourt said the Dodgers' top priority remained to field a winning team. He said the team's payroll, which was around $120 million this year, hasn't been determined for next season.

Jamie McCourt said that while the Dodgers might be more cautious, they wouldn't shy away from pursuing such big-name free agents as Ramirez and CC Sabathia. But her husband hinted that the Dodgers might not offer Ramirez a contract better than the one that elicited no response whatsoever from agent Scott Boras before it expired.

"We wanted to move quickly during that exclusive window to do something that we felt was very aggressive and very bold, particularly in light of the economy, to see if we could wrap it up very quickly while we had the exclusive right to do so," Frank McCourt said.

"The ball's in their court. I would add, though, that there's nothing that's gotten better in the economy since that period of time. Interpret that how you'd like."

Because of the economy, Frank McCourt was asked, had the Dodgers overpriced the tickets for spring training games at their new facility in Glendale, Ariz.?

He said no, adding that only a small percentage of tickets cost $90. (Actually, they can cost as much as $125 for "premium" games.) He called the other seats, which range from $18 to $30 for "regular" games and $20 to $35 for "premium" games, "very affordable."

"And keep in mind," Frank added, "there's also going to be the berm seating at the ballpark," referring to tickets to sit in the grass behind the outfield fences, which will cost $8 or $10, depending on the game.

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dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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