Some L.A. Latino leaders back McCourt
LOS ANGELES – A few blocks east of downtown, in a first-floor office where baseboards are marked with working men’s boot scuffs, Antonio Gonzalez defends Frank McCourt’s stewardship of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“Bud Selig,” he demands, “get your foot off Frank McCourt’s throat.”
Gonzalez is president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, political advocate for a Latino population that makes up nearly half the city. Gonzalez has been serving his people – he was born in Boyle Heights, raised in Norwalk and lives in East L.A. – for going on three decades.
He calls his work “a fight for the soul of America,” but for the moment he’s concentrating on the heartbeat of Frank, which seemingly grows fainter by the week. McCourt, he says, forged a relationship with the Hispanic community, partly by refurbishing 13 mostly inner-city sandlot fields while also supporting programs run by his and other agencies. The Dodgers, he says, understand his neighborhood for the first time in generations.
“They’ve been good to us,” Gonzalez says. “Better than Fox was. And way better than the O’Malleys, who couldn’t identify a Mexican if they stepped on him.”
Walter O’Malley and his son, Peter, were considered pioneers in the globalization – and colorization – of the game, but Gonzalez continued: “We don’t like the commissioner, who doesn’t have a good track record with Latinos, butting in.”
In the midst of unsightly malfunctions of franchise and marriage, leading to Selig’s seizure of the Dodgers’ financial operations almost two months ago, McCourt has engendered the public sympathy of some principals in the African-American and Hispanic communities. Twenty ministers, many African-American, sent a letter recently to the commissioner’s office in support of McCourt. Gonzalez and a handful of Latino leaders have done the same.
“And I’m just getting started,” Gonzalez says. “It’s not right.”
As Gonzalez fights for McCourt, Jorge Stopani and his brother, David, sit six rows from the top of a half-empty Dodger Stadium. Below them, the Dodgers are losing again. Jorge, 25, manned third base on that field once in a Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities tournament. He grew up in East L.A., attended Boyle Heights’ Roosevelt High School and played his youth league baseball at Evergreen Rec Center before McCourt’s Dream Foundation fixed up the place.
Like Antonio Gonzalez, the Stopani brothers share a passion for the Dodgers, one groomed by the neighborhood, the summer lights up on the hill and Vin Scully’s tenor carrying over the front porches and onto the sidewalks.
Gonzalez does not speak for them, however.
“I was like, ‘What are you thinking?’ ” Jorge said. “I want an owner who’s willing to spend on the team and cut the prices for parking and everything. McCourt, nobody in my neighborhood likes him.
“We’re a big town. We’re supposed to be up there with the Yankees and Phillies. We act like a small-town team.”
Jorge, a medical biller, buys two season tickets to 30 games. Sometimes he brings his wife, or his nephew, or his brother. His father, who taught him what it was to be a Dodger fan in L.A., doesn’t come anymore.
“He says, ‘For what?’ ” Jorge says.
The commissioner’s office expects to conclude its investigation into McCourt’s finances within the week, at which point it could begin the process of finding a new owner. Frank, ex-wife Jamie and a roomful of lawyers are in settlement negotiations. On June 22, Judge Scott Gordon will hear Frank’s argument that Jamie should have no say in his deal with Fox, and Jamie’s argument that Frank be forced to sell the team.
L.A.’s reaction has been measured in the empty seats at Dodger Stadium, in the outrage on the airwaves and in the newspapers.
Steve Garvey, the former Dodger who draws a steady paycheck from McCourt in the club’s marketing and communications department, audaciously moonlights accumulating investors to buy out McCourt. Every two weeks come breathless reports McCourt has, indeed, located the cash to pay his players. And the Dodgers, by the grace of the San Diego Padres, stay out of last place in the NL West.
“We always support the team,” David Stopani says, “and they let us down.”
On the corner of East 2nd Street and Evergreen Avenue, two baseball diamonds overlap, butting center fields. One bears the Dodger signature, a sign on a chain-link backstop that – beneath the graffiti – identifies the tiny field as a gift to the community. The infield is artificial turf. The dugouts are simple, but offer safety and shade. There’s a scoreboard in right field, beyond which children play on a jungle gym and a dude in an oversized hoodie coughs up marijuana smoke. Five young men, one wearing a Dodgers sweatshirt, another strumming a guitar, lounge on aluminum bleachers. It was on this very field where Jamie McCourt once suggested the city might have to choose: Little League fields or big league power hitters.
This, and a dozen other green brushstrokes like it, are McCourt’s legacy here, if it is not to be the seven-plus years he owned the Dodgers.
“I live right over there,” one of the five in the bleachers says. “I didn’t know he put this here.”
Between them, they’d been to one Dodgers game in a season of excess tickets, just four miles from their neighborhood.
“They lost,” one says behind a laugh.
But he doesn’t blame McCourt, not for the Dodgers being so mediocre, not for them being such a spectacle, not for so few star players to root for.
“For what?” he asks. “The expensive players don’t do anything anyway. Look at Manny.”
A prominent member of the Latino community who asked not to be identified insisted his people had affection for McCourt. The owner had come down off the hill to mingle with them. He’d tried to make a difference. He’d given their children green fields and chalked baselines and true hops.
“They feel something that belongs to him is being taken away,” the man says. “And they always go for the underdog.”
The weeks before McCourt would maintain or lose ownership of the Dodgers – or reach a compromise, with baseball continuing to monitor the club – have become days. Hours, maybe.
He has, perhaps, lost the city. A protracted legal battle against baseball, like the protracted legal battle with his ex, would be viewed with little compassion. This was his doing, his and Jamie’s, and the backlash was coming before Selig stepped in, before the attack in his parking lot, before the news his bank account lacked a comma or two.
But, he has a friend out there – Gonzalez – who has met McCourt once, who insists he is not simply hoping to preserve a sugar daddy (“Believe me, Frank is not my top donor. He’s not in my top 100.”), and who believes the 40-some percent of Dodger fans who are Hispanic should have a say.
“Previously,” Gonzalez said, “the Dodgers were an enclave of yesterday’s Los Angeles.
“We’re invested in this town. This is an owner we feel loyalty to. MLB doesn’t trust Frank? Well, you know what? We do.”
So, where are the people? Why can’t Jorge Stopani convince his father to sit with him at a ballgame? Where is the outrage against baseball?
Gonzalez grins. The letter he sent to Selig carried the signatures of a former Congressman, the president of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities and the President of the Mexican American Political Association. The letter he got back was addressed, “To whom it may concern.”
A couple miles from that dusty field on a corner in Boyle Heights, a few more to that ballpark up on the hill, Gonzalez ends a meeting with a handshake and one more promise for Frank McCourt.
“He’s got more to do,” he says. “And he’s going to do better.”