Hit The Road, Frank
Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt provided a public glimpse into the hypocrisy of recession-era America.
To hear Stefan Fatsis, Josh Levin, and Mike Pesca discuss Frank McCourt and the Dodgers on Slate's sports podcast, "Hang Up and Listen," click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 21:30 mark:
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Long before the revelations about how Frank and Jamie McCourt had hoisted the Los Angeles Dodgers with the petard of their divorce-bound nouveau-riche arrogance—the side-by-side houses in Malibu, the use of the team to finance personal vacations, the "charity" that spent a quarter of its budget on executive compensation—we Dodger fans, like homeowners who can smell the black mold before chipping away at the bathroom plaster, sensed the rot at the organization's core.
Up in the Dodger Stadium infield reserve seats, even as we rooted for Manny Ramirez to hit another one of his juice-burger homers, we knew. Lines at the concession stands had gotten longer and the workers—never efficient to begin with—more incompetent, even as the prices rose and the meat grew more mysterious. The bathrooms hadn't been cleaned since Tommy Lasorda could last see his toes. After the games, "I Love L.A."played on the P.A. as we were disgorged onto vast plains of unlit pavement, hoping to survive the walk back to our cars. The team may originally have been named after its fan base of Brooklyn trolley dodgers, but now we were dodging Bud Light cans tossed out of muscle-truck beds.
Grit has its place in sports fandom. I preferred the disgusting old Comiskey Park to the piece of plastic Chicago put up in its place, and the old Forum was a lot more fun than the Staples Center. But it's one thing for a facility to feel working-man outdated; it's another to fear for your life at the ballpark while the Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos of baseball are spending your dollars to pay a "Russian healer" to send the Dodgers positive vibes during the playoffs.
Frank McCourt bought the Dodgers, a team he couldn't afford, using money he didn't have. In a deal that only could've happened in the 2000s, McCourt got a $145 million loan from Fox—the Dodgers' previous owner—to purchase the team, using his parking lots in Boston as collateral. (McCourt defaulted on the loan, and Fox sold the lots.) The team, meanwhile, accrued more than $400 million in debt from 2004 to 2009. In perhaps the most egregious example of McCourt-style accounting, the owner charged his team rent to play in its own stadium, with the proceeds being used to pay the family's personal bills.
In other words, Frank McCourt was just like every other rich jerk in recession-era America, not to mention the owners of the Mets and the Rangers. The Dodgers fiasco has allowed me to see the greed that caused the financial crisis up close. I don't have massive investments, and I sold my house before the market crashed. Luckily, I didn't have a ton to lose in this recession. Instead, I watched someone gamble hundreds of millions that weren't his, on a baseball team I love, and come up snake eyes.
Thanks to my friends Alix and David, I occasionally had an almost-front-row seat for the McCourt catastrophe. Their family has held Dodgers season tickets since the day the stadium opened, and they occupy prime real estate that used to be right on top of the Dodger dugout, until McCourt installed a special section in front with access to waiters and a private restaurant. Still, these were padded seats a few feet away from the infield grass. In addition to offering, much to my wife's joy, unobstructed views of Andre Ethier's butt, they were also directly behind the owner's box. I was treated to a full-on view of McCourt's glad-handing ways, his ever-rotating crew of whispering PR guys, and the sad parade of washed-out celebrities who came by to pay him obeisance. On one very special night, I got to observe the ludicrous spectacle of McCourt currying favor with Tiger Woods, as financial and sexual hypocrisy merged in a ludicrous carnival of late-Bush-era faux-alpha-male arrogance.
Life was good in the elite rows of the field level. McCourt redid the bathrooms, making them almost pleasant, and installed a Canter's Delicatessen outlet, meaning a pastrami-induced heart attack was never more than a half-inning away. The concourses felt bright, open, and welcoming, a different country, almost, than the LAX-sub-basement-like causeways that McCourt forced the outfield and upper Deck hoi polloi to use. McCourt promised to renovate the rest of the park, but somehow never got around to the task. In classic recession-era 21st-century executive style, the rich lived richer and told the middle class to stop complaining and eat their gummy, overpriced malt cups. If, at the ballpark, some families were more comfortable and better cared for than others, well, that was American, too.
Even though we rightly sensed that the owner was a creep, fans let it slide because, honestly, the team did pretty well on the field. Only in the second half of last season, as the McCourts' heated divorce proceedings started to drain the accounts and a marginally competent general manager made an epically bad series of "go for it" trades, did the fans find the courage to stay away in numbers big enough to matter. After Opening Day this year, when a group of all-too-typical Dodgers fans beat a Giants fan into a coma and McCourt replied stupidly and defensively, refusing to take real responsibility for the incident that we'd all seen coming, attendance finally dropped to levels not seen in decades. The fans had had enough.
I'd like to think that the $30 million personal loan that McCourt got recently in order to make payroll was at least partially due to our stand against his pandering arrogance, moronic sloganeering, and ludicrous parking fees. Unlike, say, the executives at Bank of America or AIG, this was one corporate jerk who we might have the power to stop. We could actually control, or feel like we were controlling, a small corner of the recession.
The day Bud Selig seized control of the Dodgers last week, saying he had "deep concerns" regarding their "finances and operations," my friends called, saying they had four front-row seats for that night's game. We were out of town and couldn't make it, but what a joy it would have been. McCourt is already whining to the press and making noise about a potential lawsuit. But he's going to lose and Bud is going to make him sell.
The bills have come due for McCourt, and there's no personal bailout forthcoming. As one of baseball's storied franchises, the Dodgers may be too big to fail, but McCourt is not. I've heard reports that he's still showing up at games and still signing baseballs. Oh, how I want to see his smug, broke face up close. How badly I want to say to him, Party's over, Frank. Tough shit. You don't own us anymore.