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BILL PLASCHKE

Dodgers' owners really cheated on fans

Even before the McCourts' divorce became public, there were signs that the team was falling apart.

October 30, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

Dodgers fans didn't need to witness this week's divorce wrecking ball to feel the rubble and cough the dust.

By the time Frank and Jamie McCourt chose to publicly level their marriage, their ownership legacy had already been disintegrating.

To those who watched the Dodgers fall three wins short of a World Series for the second consecutive season, perhaps none of the salacious allegations are as disturbing as the team's inability to trade for Cliff Lee.

To those who heard about the cleanup hitter taking a shower while his teammates took a bath, perhaps none of the ugly finger-pointing is as unsettling as the ownership's coddling of Manny Ramirez.

And, really, as embarrassing as the McCourts have behaved toward each other, has it been any worse than watching violent fans roam Dodger Stadium while celebrated stoner Snoop Dogg promotes the team on the video board?

By the time the McCourts started one divorce, another was already being finalized, between the team and the values that once made it so special.

This is why, today, if forced to choose between Frank or Jamie as a singular Dodgers owner, Major League Baseball officials would probably check "none of the above."

Nobody will publicly say it, but some think baseball quietly wants this team sold to anyone not named McCourt, these recent daily embarrassments being only the latest example of the sort of poor judgment not befitting a curator of what was once a national sports treasure.

While I have documented the McCourts' increased neglect in various forms throughout the season, it all crystallized before the first game of the National League Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

I was on the Dodger Stadium loge level, waiting in a 15-minute line for a hunk of a pizza.

On the mound, the Dodgers were starting the series with a not-yet-ace named Clayton Kershaw.

Down the concourse, two heavily tattooed guys were engaged in a loud and vulgar argument.

Then, once I reached the front of this pizza line, I was assisted by a typically slow and surly Levy Restaurant worker.

Clearly, what had stabilized as recently as last winter had suddenly gone very wrong.

Remember last winter? The McCourts were flush with success after the surprise hire of Joe Torre, the surprise trade for Manny Ramirez, the surprise trip to the NLCS, the opening of the new spring complex in Arizona, and nightly sellouts in a ballpark with new seats and a revamped field level.

Sure, Jamie McCourt had said some dumb things about building Little League fields instead of paying ballplayers, and I ripped her for it, but nobody seemed to much care, as everyone couldn't wait for the 2009 season.

Then it showed up, and the McCourts didn't.

First, the Dodgers lost Ramirez to a 50-game drug-policy suspension, a perfect opportunity for the owners to make a statement about the Dodgers' ethic and community values.

Yet, nothing. Frank McCourt publicly vowed to hold Ramirez accountable but privately kept him on a pedestal.

Ramirez was coddled with bodyguards and drivers and personal batting practices and never once even asked to acknowledge his mistake. The Mannywood section of Dodger Stadium became just another group of seats while he was gone, but souvenirs were still sold in his honor, and the moment he returned it was Mannywood again.

Not once was Ramirez sent the message that, with a baseball drug infraction on his record and steroids now apparently out of his system, Manny could no longer be Manny.

He thought nothing had changed. So he didn't change. Upon his return, he insisted on trying to be that same slugger, over-swinging at everything, trying to hit a five-run homer every time at the plate, refusing to acknowledge that his new body required new skills.

By protecting their star, the McCourts had endangered their team, which eventually fell through a huge hole in the middle of their lineup.

But there was another, bigger reason the Dodgers couldn't beat the Phillies again. This also involved the McCourts, whose insistence on building a team through prospects became just a smoke screen for an insistence on not paying a big salary.

It has been written here countless times since the end of July that the Dodgers would have been a serious World Series contender if they had been able to trade for an available ace starter like Cliff Lee.

The Phillies acquired Lee instead, and it is the Phillies who are in the World Series this week, using Lee to steal a Game 1 victory from the New York Yankees.

The Dodgers finished second in the Lee sweepstakes this summer because the Cleveland Indians judged the Phillies' prospects to be better. It turns out that the Dodgers didn't improve their offer because the McCourts would rather invest in the cheaper lower-level minor leaguers than pay the remainder of Lee's $6-million contract this year, plus his $9-million option next year.

At the same time the McCourts were scrimping on players, they were raising some of their highest ticket prices, using video messages to foster an unsettling street feeling in some parts of the stands, and, oh yeah, after one playoff game, I counted a full hour before the parking lot could empty.

Divorced or not, understand that when it comes to their fans, the McCourts have long since lost that loving feeling.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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