LOS ANGELES, CA: General view of Dodger Stadium as Dodger players warm up in left field and the grounds crew prepares the infield dirt and home plate area before the game between the Colorado Rockies and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. (Photo by Jeff Golden/Getty Images)
The Dodgers are finally getting out from under the ruinous thumb of Frank McCourt, but is it too late for them to make a big free-agent splash with their new owner?
There are a lot of people in the greater Los Angeles area. More than Philadelphia and St. Louis combined. More than Minneapolis, even. It's a big place.
And even though every single person in that area is sitting in a car right now, they eventually do get out of the car. They watch baseball games on TV. They watch baseball games in person -- for all of the doom-and-gloom pieces about the Dodgers' magic disappearing attendance, they drew 2.9 million fans this year.
The Dodgers are something of a gold mine for an owner who knows what he or she is doing, who understands that fans notice when an organization spends money to make the team better. After a year of Dodger fans hearing how their owner was broke because he was taking their money and shoveling it to crystal gropers, they still came out for the games. At a lower rate than before, but they still ranked 11th in overall attendance.
That's with a team that was a) below .500 for most of the season, and b) standing in front of the main concourse and using a fire hose to spray negative publicity at approaching fans. Imagine what will happen when a owner invests money in the team, says all the right things, and builds a winner*.
So it's big news that Frank McCourt is agreeing to sell the Dodgers. Mark Cuban has expressed interest, and for all the baggage he brings along with him, think of him like a Peter Angelos who knows how to listen to the smart people he's hired. A meddler with common sense to go along with the bank account. That's just one interested buyer, but everyone who has a spare billion and a taste for tubes of boiled harbor-seal meat in a bun will be interested in the Dodgers. As Bill Plaschke puts it:
Remember, nobody had ever even heard of Arte Moreno until seemingly hours before he bought the Angels, and the same thing could happen here.
Moreno took over a team that had just won the World Series, and he took them from an organization that was consistently in the middle of the payroll rankings to an organization that was regularly in the top five -- a true large-market team. Then he built wings out of Vernon Wells and flew too close to the sun, but that's not the point. He created something in Orange County that didn't look possible just 15 years ago. He did it without a taxpayer-funded stadium. The Angels are a bit of a financial juggernaut in the baseball world, and despite the name change, they aren't even the team from Los Angeles.
The new owner of the Dodgers would do well to follow the Moreno model of spending money to make more. But there's a bit of a ticking clock:
Premium Free Agents after the 2011 season
Premium Free Agents after the 2012 season
Picture a new owner coming in and saying, "Fear not, denizens of Los Angeles. I am here to invest in your team. As a public relations move, I present to you … the same players you're already used to!" Kemp and Ethier are re-introduced at a press conference, signed to new contracts. That would build some goodwill.
But it's expected. Dodgers fans aren't just expecting a new owner to keep the stars they have, they're expecting a new owner to get them back to the days where every premium free agent was tied to the Dodgers. They're looking forward to contracts like the Kevin Brown deal, which gave the starting pitcher private-jet rides and bowls of M&Ms with all the brown ones picked out. And, say, is that a Loney-sized hole at first base? And, hello, are the two best players on the free-agent market first basemen?
The offseason has already started, though. The teams that are planning to pursue Fielder and Pujols -- and, really, it might only be Fielder who legitimately tests the market -- are already plotting their pursuit. It might be too late for the Dodgers to make a big splash this offseason, and there isn't much of a chance for them to do so next offseason. The new owners might just have to come in and not be Frank McCourt.
That's probably an even bigger publicity boon than a premium free agent, actually. But while any time was a good time for the Dodgers to announce that they were for sale, you can forgive Dodgers fans for wishing it were an announcement that came just a little bit earlier.
* I would actually prefer not to imagine that, and I'm sort of hoping the Federal government buys them