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Selig jumps into the fray

Feel free to shout for joy as baseball regains a lost treasure

April 21, 2011|BILL PLASCHKE

For seven years, Frank McCourt has slowly, painfully and unethically pulled the Dodgers away from Los Angeles.

On a wonderful spring afternoon, Major League Baseball finally grabbed them back.

Since buying the team in 2004 with more smug than money, Frank McCourt kept his hands in his pockets while the stadium became a dump, the fan base become dangerously belligerent, and the team became the Pittsburgh Pirates.

On a day that felt like a Gibby fist pump, Major League Baseball reached into those pockets and grabbed the keys.

Bud Selig got us into this mess and, bless his rumpled soul, he's going to get us out of it, the baseball commissioner taking over the Dodgers on Wednesday like an angry and exhausted landlord sweeping out a destructive tenant.

You've trashed this place long enough. You're done. Get out. Sue me if you want, but just get out.

McCourt is gone, baseball is in charge until a new owner can be found, and if you want to shout for joy, go ahead, you won't be alone, the city's reaction best summed up in the subject header of a email sent to me by Carol King of Riverside.

"Hallelujah," she wrote.

It was a move that was as stunning as it was necessary, a franchise that was once baseball's model of ownership stability being stripped of its ownership because baseball no longer trusts the guy.

"I have taken this action because of my deep concerns regarding the finances and operations of the Dodgers,'' Selig said in a statement, and think about those words for a second.

Deep concerns? Dodgers operations? A team that was once run by Branch Rickey, once owned by Peter O'Malley, and once beloved by a city that cared for it like family?

"Given the history of the Dodger organization, this is absolutely shocking,'' former general manager Fred Claire said.

Before Wednesday's game against the Atlanta Braves, the great Don Newcombe stood behind the batting cage shaking his head in uncertainty and the great Davey Lopes walked through the dugout with a wince.

"Not here,'' he said. "You would never think that something like this would happen here.''

The problem is, since McCourt bought the team after being hastily approved by Selig as a favor to Fox, here has never been here.

A club that once used profits to purchase ice cream for employees after victories was being run by an owner who used that money on everything from lavish mansions to fancy haircuts. A club that once employed nine Hall of Famers was being run by an owner whose payroll included his children and a Russian physicist hired to channel positive energy.

The more the McCourts took care of themselves, the more they ignored the fans, allowing the stadium to decay to the point where there is graffiti in bathrooms and endless lines at concession stands. In an attempt to attract younger fans, their loudspeakers played music that celebrated violence, their video board featured rules explanations from Snoop Dogg, and when I asked Jamie McCourt about the appropriateness of it all, she just shrugged and giggled.

The world took notice of the problems this spring when a San Francisco Giants fan was badly beaten in the parking lot after the opening-day game. Baseball officials added that incident to their long list of grievances against McCourt, which became complete when he recently needed to borrow $30 million from Fox to meet payroll.

That money went directly into McCourt's personal account instead of the Dodgers account, meaning it was not subject to Selig's approval, at which point the commissioner finally threw up his hands and told McCourt to start packing.

"McCourt tried to go around the commissioner's back, and now it's on," said an individual familiar with the workings of the commissioner's office.

McCourt's out, and it's on, and it might be awhile before it's over. But hang in there, it can only get better.

In the next couple of days, a trusted baseball old-timer -- why not O'Malley? -- will walk through the Dodger Stadium doors, find an empty office and summon General Manager Ned Colletti and begin the next chapter.

In talking to a general manager who was involved in a similar situation with the Washington Nationals several years ago, it appears the chapter might not be that great, but it won't be that awful, either.

"They probably won't be able to spend a lot of money on a big-name player until they know about the new owner, but they won't have a fire sale, either," said Jim Bowden, former Nationals boss when the team was run by Major League Baseball. "It will be business as usual within the budget they currently have."

So the team might not get much better, but it won't get any worse. And in the meantime, a new owner can be found. This time, I'm guessing, Selig will be wise enough to anoint somebody with money, local ties and a conscience.

The disgraced owner wasn't sitting in his box Wednesday, but his legacy was there, the smattering of fans in the stands easily able to hear the angry lyrics from a trademark McCourt pregame song.

"Kick some ass," screamed the loudspeakers.

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