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Dodgers are breaking even on the field, doing better off it

Dodgers are only 83-83 since Guggenheim Baseball bought them, but with resolution of a key TV-contract issue apparently at hand, their long-range plan looks good.

May 04, 2013|By Bill Shaikin
  • The Dodgers are 83-83 In the year since Magic Johnson, pictured, and the Guggenheim Baseball Management purchased the team.
The Dodgers are 83-83 In the year since Magic Johnson, pictured, and the… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

On the day Frank McCourt surrendered the keys to Dodger Stadium and cashed out, the Dodgers had the best record in the National League.

In the year since Mark Walter flashed his cash and Magic Johnson flashed his smile — from May 1 of last year through May 1 of this year — the Dodgers were 83-83.

Money can't buy you love, at least in the standings. The Dodgers might be looking up at three teams in the National League West, but "looking up" just might be the best way to describe the state of the franchise.

The Dodgers and the commissioner's office appear poised to reach a peace treaty on the last major issue left from the bankruptcy battle launched by McCourt.

The issue — how much the Dodgers would have to share from their massive new television contract — had sparked concern among baseball insiders that Walter and his partners at Guggenheim Baseball Management might consider flipping the team for a huge profit rather than settle for less from the TV deal.

Commissioner Bud Selig has trumpeted Guggenheim's $2.15-billion purchase price as evidence of the rising value of baseball teams. But McCourt separated the parking lots from the team, and Guggenheim established a separate entity to control the television rights.

The upshot: a buyer would get the Dodgers but would have to rent the parking lots, with a television deal worth $3.5 billion rather than $8 billion over 25 years, and guarantees of more than $600 million on player contracts through 2019.

Under those conditions, what would the team sell for? "Maybe a billion," said a sports investment banker who advised with one of the many bidders for the Dodgers last year.

Selig can't risk that. Neither can the large-market owners interested in using the Guggenheim purchase price to value their own teams, or the small-market owners ready to gobble up the greatest possible share of the Dodgers' television riches.

Neither Selig nor Walter would want to risk what might happen if the bankruptcy court were to determine how to split the television money. Out of that $8-billion contract, there is an undisputed $1.2 billion earmarked for revenue sharing and about another $1.5 billion to which Guggenheim and Major League Baseball each lay claim, leaving plenty of dollars with which to reach a compromise.

Rob Manfred, the MLB executive vice president handling the Dodgers issue, declined to comment. Walter said any consideration of selling the team was "so far off the radar screen" and said he was confident the issue would be resolved in negotiations.

"We're not trying to get anything special out of baseball," said Walter, the Dodgers' chairman and controlling owner. "I don't believe there is going to be an issue with baseball."

From his perspective as the Dodgers' first fan, Walter sounded amazed at a wave of injuries that has forced the team to use the disabled list 11 times during the first five weeks of the season.

"Are you kidding me?" he said. "We started with eight starting pitchers, and that was too many. Now we're calling people up to pitch."

Walter did not include a .500 team in the business plan, but he understands.

"There are going to be losses," he said. "There are going to be injuries. There are going to be disappointments.

"It's all about the big picture."

Walter and his partners could have asked for patience, for three to five years to dig out from the damage McCourt did to the Dodgers' scouting and player development system, and to study whether to renovate Dodger Stadium or build a new ballpark.

To the credit of the new owners, they did not wait. Dodgers President Stan Kasten oversaw $100 million worth of a first wave of stadium renovations, including functional restrooms, modern scoreboards and whimsical touches, even as the owners deferred the question of a long-term home.

"I think Stan and his team did an incredible job getting anything significant done with the stadium," Walter said. "We're not done with it, but I thought we did a great job of fixing it up."

We shudder to think of where the Dodgers would be without Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, the two most consistent hitters this season, obtained in a trade last season in which the team took on $260 million in contracts.

This season's payroll — the highest in major league history, according to MLB figures — obscures a rebuilt infrastructure in player development, including the hiring of prominent scouts and a return to Latin America.

"I can't get anyone to write it, but the real story is the long-term build," Kasten said. "Everyone is focused on this year's payroll. This year's payroll is an interim component of the long-term build."

The new owners hired Janet Marie Smith, the nation's foremost stadium architect. They welcomed Sandy Koufax and Rachel Robinson back to the Dodgers family. They brought back the beloved Cool-A-Coo ice cream sandwiches.

The Dodgers sold a franchise-record 31,000 season tickets this season. They lead the major leagues in attendance.

For all the damage McCourt did, he did not even come close to destroying the Dodgers brand.

"Dodger fans have embraced the Dodgers," Walter said.

The new owners have more to do, including a solution to the seemingly intractable problem of long lines at concession stands.

They have yet to decide whether General Manager Ned Colletti and Manager Don Mattingly should remain in those positions for the long term.

In one year of ownership, just about everything but the won-lost record looks pretty good. Yet that is far from the only area in which Walter pledges to improve the Dodgers.

"I don't want to give the impression we have done anything yet," Walter said. "We're just getting started."

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