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Dodgers' Frank McCourt gets back in the game

Owner says he has no regrets about long silence since his divorce proceedings began.

January 23, 2010|By Dylan Hernandez and Bill Shaikin

Frank McCourt had the breakfast crowd eating out of his hand.

The Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce honored him Thursday for extending the Los Angeles Marathon to the Santa Monica Pier, and the Dodgers' owner stood up to say thank you.

"It's been a very quiet off-season for me," McCourt said, as the room erupted in laughter.

McCourt emerged from his self-imposed silence last week, granting his first interviews since his acrimonious divorce proceedings started three months ago, just as baseball's winter shopping season got underway.

As top free agents signed elsewhere, fans and analysts debated whether the divorce had paralyzed the team. On Thursday, as the Dodgers honored their promise to add a veteran starting pitcher by signing Vicente Padilla, McCourt said he had no regrets about staying silent for so long.

"I didn't feel it was appropriate for me, based on what was going on in my personal life, to be out there pretending nothing had changed," McCourt said.

McCourt said his decision to speak up was not related to the Jan. 15 deadline for fans to renew season tickets.

"I just felt there was a period of time where I had to step back and reflect, respect my kids, respect myself and respect the situation," he said. "The fans understood that."

Dodgers President Dennis Mannion said last week that the team had sold 23,900 season tickets last year and 20,700 this year. Dodgers spokesman Josh Rawitch said this week the team now has "equaled last season's total."

McCourt noted that the Dodgers have qualified for postseason play four times in his six years of ownership, one of the best runs in franchise history. The Dodgers also are coming off consecutive appearances in the National League Championship Series for the first time in 31 years.

However, as McCourt remained silent and the Dodgers did not join the bidding for the best free agents, the media spoke up. The Times Bill Plaschke wrote that the Dodgers' decisions were "all about the money." ESPN's Buster Olney wrote that the Dodgers were financially "locked down," and the Fox Sports duo of Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi wrote that the divorce had "forced the team" to avoid adding a significant salary without the subtraction of another.

Ben Porritt, whose Outside Eyes communications strategy firm coordinated Alex Rodriguez's admission of steroid use last year, said McCourt's silence made speculation about the Dodgers' finances "impossible to rebuke, because it crystallizes into fact among fans, bloggers, journalists and those who are following the story."

However, Mannion and General Manager Ned Colletti had consistently denied that McCourt would limit team spending because of the divorce case.

"He has two people speaking for the club, on his behalf," said former Dodgers spokesman Steve Brener, who runs a public relations firm in the San Fernando Valley.

Brener noted that former owner Peter O'Malley seldom spoke publicly, delegating that responsibility most often to his general managers.

Said Brener: "Peter basically let the people running the team run the team."

Porritt said fans prefer to hear the message from the owner, even if the message is exactly the same from someone speaking on his behalf.

"It's always different when it comes from the principal, as opposed to a spokesperson," Porritt said. "People want to hear from the man in charge."

McCourt appears to be re-emerging in the public eye. He attended the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation gala last weekend in Century City and the Santa Monica function this week.

With Colletti signing a long-term contract extension this winter and the Dodgers finalizing a managerial succession plan from Joe Torre to Don Mattingly, the Dodgers finally have stability at the helm.

"I said stability and continuity are the keys to success," McCourt said. "These are things that provide success for the organization.

"What I say is one thing. What I do is far more important. Results speak for themselves. At the end of the day, what the fans want is a competitive team.

"I'm very, very excited about this team. This is a team that almost got to the World Series last year and is basically coming back intact."

Manny Ramirez, who had no other offers last winter and served a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's drug policy last season, exercised his contractual option to return. The Dodgers also avoided arbitration hearings with nine players, reaching agreement with Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Jonathan Broxton on two-year contracts and reaching agreement on one-year contracts with the other six.

The Dodgers did not offer a one-year contract to Randy Wolf, their most reliable starting pitcher last season. Wolf signed a three-year contract with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Wolf originally came to the Dodgers at an affordable price last season because they waited out the market, and they took the same approach this winter for a spot behind Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda in the starting rotation.

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