Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Relax! Kemp's MVP Loss Is Not a Robbery


      By Ross Newhan

      Yes, Matt Kemp came within one home run of becoming only the fifth major league player to hit 40 and steal 40 bases in the same season--a remarkable accomplishment when viewed in that historical prism.

      His overal statistics in a true breakthrough summer earned him the Hank Aaron Award as the National League's top hitter, and had I been a member of the Baseball Writers Assn. committee selecting the National League's Most Valuable Player, the Dodger center fielder would have received my first place vote--and not on a partisan basis, or so I would like to think.

    Yet, those same overall statistics, when measured against those of Milwaukee Brewers' left fielder Ryan Bruan, were not so different or overwhelming as to disparage the committee's selection of Braun for the MVP. Braun received 20 or 32 first place votes, basically because his Brewers won the NL's Central Division title while the Dodgers finished a distant third in the West. Based on their team's performance, you would have to say they each received the right award--Kemp the Hank Aaron and Braun the MVP.

     Consider: Kemp led the league in homers and RBI (126) while batting .324 to Braun's .332, 111 RBI, 33 homers, 33 steals and league leading .994 combination of on-base and slugging percentage.

     As it is, Kemp has already had an impressive off-season with the Aaron Award, $160 million contract and knowledge that a new owner should eventually lift the Dodgers into the same post-season environment that Braun has enjoyed the last two years.

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    Given the number of lockouts and strikes that I covered in close to 40 years on the baseball beat it is difficult to believe that the five year bargaining agreement announced Tuesday will stretch the industry's current baseball peace to 21 years, a measure of how well owners and players are doing financially and how willing they are too compromise on complicated issues, a message that should be heard by Congress.

   The new agreement is particularly newsworthy what with the pioneering adoption on a limited basis of  HGH testing, confirmation that the post-season will now include two wild card teams in each league and a one game play-in between them with the winner advancing in each league, a new and complicated system that owners hope will reduce payouts in the amateur draft (and to foreign players), a new and complicated system governing contracts to free agents, increased use of replays and, amid even more, a change in the arbitration process involving two year players, increasing the percentage of eligible players from 17 to 22, a goal the union has been seeking for several years.

   Commissioner Bud Selig absorbs much abuse at times, but baseball is now at the forefront of drug testing among professional sports, and its labor relations is far ahead of any other sport.

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   More than 20 individuals and/or groups have notified Blackstone Advisory Partners, the firm handling the sale of trhe Dodgers, that they are interested in purchasing the club according to multiple sources who can't be identified because they are not authorized to speak on the record.     

        By Ross Newhan


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Owners Confirm Realignment/Post-Season Blog

     By Ross Newhan

     The decision by major league owners Thursday to tentatively approve 2013 realignment, which will move Houston to the American League West, and the expansion of the post-season (possibly 2012) to include a second wild card team in each league (with the two wild card teams in each league meeting in a one-gane play-in), was reported by this blog on Oct. 30. The Angels have some legitimate objections to the addition of a second Central Time Zone team moving into the West, but barring total realignment of the 30 teams, moving the Astros from the six team National League Central to the four team AL West was the simplest step. Also, the current down cycle of the Astros can easily become an up cycle in a few years, so the Angels should be welcoming the Astros to a division in which the Texas Rangers, for the time being, are still their only real title rival. In addition, the more interesting and challenging aspect of having 15 teams in each league will be the nightly (daily) need for an interleague game and having that play out fairly for each team over the schedule of 162 games.

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     So, the Dodgers get some positive news as the ownership tenure of Frank McCourt creeps toward resolution. Commissioner Bud Selig allows the Dodgers to sign Matt Kemp to an eight year, $160 million contract (the bulk of which will become the responsibility of the new owner), the NL Cy Young Award deservedly goes to Clayton Kershaw, and Kemp should receive the NL's Most Valuable Player Award
next week. However, buried by these bigger stories is the fact that General Manager Ned Colletti is still being forced to fill holes with second tier type players. Free agent Matt Treanor will join A.J. Ellis as an underwhelming duo behind the plate, and a fading Mark Ellis takes over at second base, surprisingly getting a two year contract at almost $9 million. If this is the way the Dodgers are going to fill rotation, bullpen and third base needs (they had also signed second tier Juan Rivera to play left field for $4.5 million), it isn't going to be any easier for Don Mattingly in his second year as manager, presuming a new owner won't be in place until the current player market has been depleted. 



Thursday, November 3, 2011

O'Malley's Decision to Bid for the Dodgers a Welcome Step


     By Ross Newhan

     Ever since he and his sister, Terry Seidler, sold the Dodgers in 1998, Peter O'Malley has insisted he did not wish to return to baseball in an ownership role.

     However, watching the family jewel decay, first under Rupert Murdoch's ownership, and than at an accelerated pace under Frank and Jamie McCourt, O'Malley has changed his mind, as he revealed in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday.

    On the phone to this writer Thursday morning, O'Malley confirmed that he will put an investment group together and believes no one is better equipped to restore the stability of the franchise and the trust of the community.

     "I will nitpick with what was written only to the extent of clarifying that I will be responsible for the success or failure of the team. I will not be an advisor, I will be the chief executive."

    Asked about the estimated auction cost of $1 billion, which is more than three times what he and Seidler recieved when they sold the Dodgers, O'Malley said in our phone conversation,"no one knows what the cost will be but the numbers have to work. No one should overpay and be forced into another distress sale in five or six years."

    It can be said with a degree of certainty that one of his investment partners will be the renowed Eli Broad, who helps provide instant financial and community credibility.

   On Wednesday I had written in this blog space that the ownership search, with Commissioner Bud Selig providing final approval, should start and finish with Dennis Gilbert, who satisfies all the criteria.

   It was written with the knowledge that the search will not start and stop with one man or group. It was written only to say that Gilbert should be a partner or an officer in the club no matter how the search plays out. There are dozens of worthy names that will emerge during this process, and dozens more emerging from under their hedge funds that are not so worthy.

  It is conceivable that to meet the price, or get close to it, Selig will put together two groups or even chose selected names from several groups, as he did with the Boston Red Sox, melding John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner. Interestingly, Frank McCourt was a bidder in that auction and finished far behind. Not long later, however, Selig approved his highly leveraged puchase of the Dodgers. The commissioner's determination now to force McCourt out of baseball merely confirms his understanding that he had made a mistake when approving McCourt.

  Thus, given Selig's authority and his willingness to move the chess pieces, O'Malley and Gilbert could end up on the same team, or two or three other names could end up on the winning team having started from a different place. Certainly, O'Malley and Gilbert have the respect of the community, and Selig knows better than to select another owner from outside the Los Angeles community.

  The commissioner and O'Malley had differences during the period that Selig was Acting Commissioner and O'Malley still owned the team. There was an absence of mutuel respect that can be documented by stories I wrote for the L.A. Times and are now found in the newspaper's archives. On Thursday, however, O'Malley said emphatically, "We had professional differences but absolutely mended those fences long ago. I talked to Bud yesterday and have talked to him today. We are fine."  

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   Throughout my career in journalism I have always believed in giving credit where credit is due, and in the complex coverage of the McCourt beat no one deserves more credit than Bill Shaikin, my former colleague at the L.A. Times.

   He has obviously opened avenues to lawyers on all sides, stayed on top of the myriad court documents and innovatively created news stories from bits of information, advancing the sordid saga another notch. A few months ago I told Mike James, the sports editor of The Times, that I considered Shaikin's work worthy of Pulitzer Prize nomination. I hope James and the editors take that step.           


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dodger Ownership Search Should Start and Stop with Dennis Gilbert

     By Ross Newhan

     Now that Frank McCourt has at least one of his Bruno Magli's out the door (yes, O.J. wore them as well), Commissioner Bud Selig has the responsibility not to make the same mistake he did when he bowed to Fox's accelerated demands to sell the Dodgers and approved the under financed McCourts.

     No out of city, out of state, out of country owner this time.

    A respected Los Angeles figure has to emerge as the owner or the principal partner.

   At this point we don't really know about the financing of the Steve Garvey/Orel Hershiser partnership, although both have been insisting that they have the funds. Whether that means a billion or more isn't clear. The suspicion is that the final accounting will be a bit lower.

    At this point, as well, we don't know if Lew Wolff would finally give up his frustrating battle to secure a new ballpark for his Oakland A's and return to his hometown of Los Angeles or if Mark Attanasio would trade his division champion Milwaukee Brewers and the uncertain quest to re-sign Prince Fielder in a semi- exchange for his hometown Dodgers or if Tom Werner would yield his part ownership of the Boston Red Sox to return to Los Angeles and his movie-TV roots.

   All would fit, as would Magic Johnson, Casey Wasserman, Alan Crasden, Alec Gores, Peter Gruber and the omipresent Eli Broad from a list of a dozen or more Los Angeles based movie/business/technology possibilities, but there is one person who HAS to be involved as either owner, principal partner or president/chief executive, and that is Dennis Gilbert.

   Gilbert played high school ball in the Los Angeles area, was a renowned player agent based in the city and now is a partner in one of the West side's largest insurance/estate planning companies (Gilbert-Krupin).

   In addition, he played the game professionally, is an executive with the Chicago White Sox and thus a close friend of owner Jerry Reinsdorf, headed a group that was runnerup in bidding for the Texas Rangers, used his own money to build an inner city baseball diamond in the hope of reinvigorating the sport in that one-time hot bed of talent and nine years ago initiated an annual Professional Baseball Scouts dinner and auction to benefit indigent and ill scouts and their families (this year's dinner is Jan. 14 at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel).

   Amid the mess that was the 2011 Dodger season Gilbert the fan still could be found in his season tickets directly behind home plate in the first row.

   From a baseball/business/philanthropy standpoint there may be no one in the city as well known or more prepared to operate a team, even as a general manager, although current general manager Ned Colletti and manager Don Mattingly deserve the opportunity to spend at least one more season amid a sustainable and well-funded ownership.

   Selig hopes to have that owner in place by opening day of next season. How that impacts the Dodgers during an offseason in which Colletti hopes to sign Matt Kemp to a multi-year contract and the club on the field needs significant help isn't clear.

   Frank and Jamie McCourt couldn't have created a bigger mess, and not even his desired sale price of $1 billion (or more) might cover Frank's tax, debts and divorce obligations.

   He owes Jamie $130 million in their divorce settlement, and his tax and legal bills may rival the highly leveraged $441 million that they paid for the franchise before "looting $189 million" from the team to support their lavish lifestyle, according to court documents filed by Major League Baseball.

  Shortly after Selig made the mistake of approving the McCourt's purchase, Frank invited this reporter to a private lunch at the Jonathan Club. He said that he wanted to pick my brain as to how Walter and Peter O'Malley had operated the team with the goal of regaining that stability and attaining that respect.

  For a time it looked like it might happen. Now we know how embarrasingly far the McCourts came from that aspiration and how far down the flagpole that they ran one of baseball's flagship franchises.

  Now, however, Selig gets another crack at making amends.

  Dennis Gilbert is the right place to start.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Thinking of LaRussa in the Mauch Mold

       By Ross Newhan

      Approaching Tony LaRussa and Gene Mauch in a major league clubhouse was always a tricky business.

      You couldn't always count on cordiality, but you certainly could count on an insightful reponse that was seldom a cliche.

     In that regard, the retiring LaRussa and the late Mauch were in a special category among the managers I have covered during 50 years of writing about baseball, and that is no knock on Bill Rigney, Sparky Anderson, Walt Alston, Tom Lasorda, John McNamara, Bobby Cox and Mike Scioscia, who I also put in a very special category.

    It's just that there was always an edge to LaRussa and Mauch, a degree of conceit, perhaps.

   If you walked away feeling they had provided an answer beyond the scope of most managers, you could be certain that was what they were thinking as well.

   Mauch didn't do the winning that LaRussa did, but he took undermanned teams in Philadelphia, Minnesota and Anaheim farther, perhaps, than they should have gone.

   If LaRussa is deservedly headed to the Hall of Fame, Mauch should already be there.

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   If Frank McCourt and Bud Selig are truly close to a settlement which will result in McCourt selling the Dodgers, the only word I can think of is one I have used before:

   --Shame on Frank and Jamie McCourt for turning the Dodgers into their personal ATM, losing the support of a city that had always bled Blue and leaving a flagship franchise with no other course except bankruptcy court.

  --Shame on Selig for bowing to the quick sale demands of Fox and approving the McCourts' highly leveraged purchase of the Dodgers despite repeated accounts in Boston and Los Angeles that the new owners really couldn't afford it and had a poor resume for following through on proposed projects, which is how we got to a place where now the commissioner has to find a billionaire speculator who doesn't live in Beijing.