Just when you thought the soap opera that is the Los Angeles Dodgers couldn't get more ridiculous, reports came Thursday that embattled owner Frank McCourt had received a $1.2-billion offer for the club from L.A. businessman Bill Burke, with some unspecified share of that $1.2 billion to come from "certain state-owned investment institutions of the People's Republic of China," according to the letter from Burke's group to McCourt.
The purported parties to the deal aren't talking about it. But if such a deal were to go through — and it would first have to pass muster with Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig as well the bankruptcy court — the Dodgers would become the very symbol of the decline of American capitalism. Consider, if you can bear it, the downward progression of owners that the club has gone through since World War II.
Branch Rickey, who owned a share of the team in the 1940s and who, to his everlasting glory, integrated the game by bringing Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn, sold his share to Walter O'Malley, a super-smart businessman who could bend elected officials around his pinkie. O'Malley brought the club — including, to his everlasting glory, Sandy Koufax and Vin Scully — to Los Angeles, picked up Chavez Ravine for a song, built a beautiful stadium (even though he razed a neighborhood to do it) and ran the best club in the business for the next couple of decades. In time, the club passed to his son, Peter, who elected to unload the team, for a nice bundle of cash, to Rupert Murdoch's Fox Sports enterprises, which was really after the exclusive cable broadcast rights.
For some of us, Murdoch was problem enough. It was tough shelling out for tickets, parking and beer when we knew the money was going to the guy whose self-appointed mission was to reduce American journalism to the level of right-wing rants.
Then, just as Dodger fans were resigning themselves to Murdoch, he managed to come upon Frank and Jamie McCourt — while sloshing through who knows what sewer — and sold them the team. Any real due diligence would have made clear there was nothing in the McCourts' business history to suggest they could run an honest Hula Hoop contest, much less a major league franchise, but the deal was likely to cement Fox's broadcast rights, which was all Murdoch's people cared about.
There's no need to rehash the McCourts' destruction of one of American sports' most fabled and successful franchises. At this point, anyone who takes the team off their hands would be a better owner, right? Could there really be a more problematic proprietor?
And then, along comes China. And not just some private Chinese investor, mind you, but a state-owned bank. The Chinese government.
In their defense, the Chinese certainly have plenty of money to put into the team if they see fit. But if it was harder to root for the Dodgers under Murdoch than under the O'Malleys, and harder still under McCourt than under Murdoch, imagine rooting for a team owned by an authoritarian government that jails its citizens for organizing unions or worshiping the wrong gods, and depresses its currency to decimate what remains of American manufacturing.
Over the last 30 years, the financial whizzes who dominate this country have sold off our industry to China in return for some quick and huge returns, never mind that they were wiping out the American middle class in the process.
It's too late to stop the sale of our industrial might, but the proposed sale of a team in which millions of fans have invested their dreams for decades may be the moment when Americans say they've had enough — that the claims of the many, which matter so little in the normal conduct of American big business, should at least this time outweigh the interests of the few (particularly when that "few" is really just Frank and Jamie).
For better and worse, the Dodgers are looking more and more like an encapsulation of everything big that's happened to America in the last 70 years. The move from the snow belt to the sun belt, the rise of racial equality (and think not just Jackie Robinson but also Fernando Valenzuela and Hideo Nomo), and the decline of our version of capitalism — all of these American stories are Dodger stories too.
Let's hope that our purchase by China isn't how either of these stories end.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post.