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BILL SHAIKIN / ON BASEBALL

Bud Selig stays quiet on the Dodgers

Commissioner is willing to help the Mets' owner with financial problems, but he doesn't approve of Frank McCourt's $200-million loan from Fox.

March 05, 2011|By Bill Shaikin
  • Commissioner Bud Selig didn't want to talk about the Dodgers or their owners. "Thank you for asking," he said.
Commissioner Bud Selig didn't want to talk about the Dodgers or their… (Mary Altaffer / Associated…)

Reporting from Mesa, Ariz. — This was an oasis of happiness Saturday, this rickety old ballpark that the Chicago Cubs call their spring home. There was sunshine on the faces, and in the voices.

The public address announcer gleefully declared the game-time temperatures: 73 here, 33 in Chicago.

The press box announcer sheepishly noted the Cubs had a new right fielder, or at least a newly noticed one: "Camp now in right field for the Cubs. He may have been in right field for the past few innings."

Bud Selig was all smiles as he walked into the press box, delighted to take a few questions from reporters. The smiles vanished as soon as the questions turned to the Dodgers, and to Frank and Jamie McCourt.

These are particularly difficult times for the commissioner, who has yet to make a substantive comment on the Dodgers' ownership situation in the 17 months since the McCourts filed for divorce.

The Bernie Madoff scandal has more recently imperiled Fred Wilpon, the principal owner of the New York Mets, and now Selig has two of his prime franchises in financial jeopardy.

Selig would like Wilpon to stay and the McCourts to go. He has not put it quite so bluntly, of course, but he said last week that he has "great affection and great respect" for Wilpon.

So we asked him whether he could say something similar about the Dodgers' ownership.

"I'm not going to discuss the L.A. situation," Selig said. "Thank you for asking."

His actions speak for him. Wilpon asked Selig to loan him $25 million from the commissioner's discretionary fund, and Selig said yes. Frank McCourt asked Selig to approve a loan of about $200 million from Fox — with not a penny from the commissioner's fund — and Selig said no.

Selig bristled when asked how he would justify approving a loan to one financially strapped owner but not to another.

"No. 1, I don't have to," he said. "Every situation is radically different from the other. To compare one situation and say, 'Well, you did this but you didn't do that,' if all the facts are similar, that's a different story. But they're not similar."

Why? He wouldn't say, but it is no secret in the baseball world that Selig believes Wilpon has been a good owner and McCourt has not.

To that, the fans of Los Angeles have a common rejoinder: Hey, Bud, why did you let this undercapitalized guy buy the Dodgers in the first place? After all, on opening day of the McCourt divorce trial, Frank's attorney said his client had put "not a penny of cash" into his purchase of the team.

Selig won't answer in public, but this is what he has told baseball officials: If the McCourts had not spent all that money on themselves, the Dodgers would have been just fine.

The conspiracy theory that Selig installed the McCourts at Dodger Stadium to help keep salaries down among major market teams assumes bidders were lining up to buy the Dodgers.

They weren't. Fox had the team on the market for years, but annual losses of about $50 million scared off most potential buyers. The McCourts presented Selig with a business plan to turn the franchise around, and they executed brilliantly, virtually doubling the Dodgers' revenues within five years and turning tens of millions in annual profits.

As court records revealed, the McCourts siphoned those profits for their lavish lifestyle, and for loan upon loan, with payment inevitably coming due. Baseball executives who have spoken with Selig say he is angered and embarrassed by the revelations from the divorce trial and unlikely to extend any financial hand to either of the McCourts.

Frank McCourt asks that fans judge him by the Dodgers' record, and by that standard he has been a better owner than Wilpon. In the seven years since McCourt bought the Dodgers, his team has had more winning seasons, more division championships and more appearances in the National League Championship Series.

In the 24 seasons that Wilpon has owned at least half of the Mets — with all the wealth of baseball's largest market — they have posted a winning record 13 times, a losing record 11 times.

He apparently has not embarrassed his fellow owners — or Selig, whose financial blessing he will need to keep control of the Mets. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Wilpon and his partners hope to sell a minority share of the Mets to cover club operations and debt payments, then try to find other ways to settle the liability associated with the Madoff scandal.

If Selig grants permission, that could put him on a precarious perch, teetering toward inconsistency. McCourt could present the commissioner with a new television contract that would finance club operations and debt payments but not go to pay off his ex-wife.

Would that be enough to save McCourt? Selig won't say, but he thanks you for asking.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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