Duel for control of the Dodgers heats up

LOS ANGELES – A friend of Frank McCourt’s called and said, “He’s a street fighter,” simple as that.

If Major League Baseball is going to take his property, take what’s left of his life savings and sell it off to Dennis Gilbert or Ron Burkle or whomever, McCourt won’t go without scraped knuckles and a missing tooth or two.

Right or wrong, you have to admire the tinder in a man willing to take on the world, one jamoke at a time, if only for the sake of the fight.

Frank McCourt lashed out at baseball for seizing control of the Dodgers.
(Associated Press)

In as dramatic an afternoon as there’s been in baseball for at least a decade, a smudge in the sand became a distinct line, each on each other’s turf, McCourt in New York, MLB in L.A. (The commissioner himself was safely ensconced in Milwaukee.)

McCourt, flanked by his son Drew and newly minted vice chairman Steve Soboroff, railed on Madison Avenue. Tom Schieffer, accompanied by Joe Torre, politicked on Century Boulevard.

McCourt reddened, called Bud Selig’s encroachment “un-American,” and steamed, “I reject anybody coming in to seize my business.”

Schieffer smiled, called Selig’s encroachment “in the best interests of baseball” and, when asked who was in charge of the Dodgers as of this minute, said, “The commissioner of baseball.”

This is going to be a lot less interesting when the lawyers are lawyering.

If Selig persists, almost certainly a lawsuit will follow, though McCourt said he’d not yet ignited his attorneys.

And if McCourt resists, he could draw consideration for suspension, leaving baseball to run his franchise without commotion.

It’s about as bloody as it gets out there, in a place where the suits generally march in single file, answer to nobody and turn 80 percent profit on a cup of beer.

That’s why they despise McCourt, of course, because of the unseemliness of his divorce, the smoke-and-mirrors accounting, and the sheer desperation of it all. Not to mention he appears to be a little light on cash. Maybe they’re right – and it’s likely they are – and maybe they don’t wish to be reminded they’re a misstep or two from the same ending. That’s when a distinguished gentleman that reporters were referring to Wednesday as “Mr. Ambassador” steps in and commandeers a cubicle and a sharp pencil.

In essence, McCourt is faced with the prospect of his second divorce in 18 months. And the guy who fought his way in will fight more ferociously on his way out, you can be sure of that. It’s him against Selig, who goes in with 29 others in tow, and who rarely in his tenure has taken so bold an action that was so roundly endorsed.

McCourt counters with defiance. He counters with remorse. He stands between his son and his vice chairman and pokes a finger into Selig’s chest, like a man with nothing to lose but his money and his reputation, and, well, there’s so little left of either.

Two weeks ago he lacked the resources to compensate his own players, yet on Wednesday afternoon he believed he’d been wronged, seethed at the injustices of a system that had turned against him, and waved in the first of the MLB pugilists.

There’s some onions, right there.

For a week I’ve asked anybody with any knowledge of the process if they could foresee a scenario in which McCourt walks away the owner of the Dodgers. What followed was a lot like this:

“I think we’re all open-minded,” Schieffer said. “I think you have to look at the situation. One of the advantages I think I have coming in from the outside, I don’t know all the rumors, I don’t know all the stories. The facts will speak for themselves. I’m going to get the facts and we’ll look at it and see where it takes us.”

And MLB executive vice president John McHale Jr. said, “I can’t prejudge the outcome of this. It’s way beyond what I can see.”

There was a lot more like it.

“It is my personal opinion there’s been a predetermined end result here,” McCourt said, and he’s probably right.

Selig can’t start this without knowing he can end it. He can’t re-introduce Frank McCourt as the new, improved and rehabilitated owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, not when he’s so delighted the people of Los Angeles. So the Fox contract that is McCourt’s Holy Grail sits idle. And Selig’s office begins an investigation into McCourt’s finances that will be complex, and then likely would have to stand up to a legal challenge. And his man Schieffer expects to arrive Thursday at Dodger Stadium, gather the employees, address their concerns and then start running the place.

Meantime, McCourt says he will abide by a monitor, but not a receiver. Schieffer most definitely looks like the receiver type. McCourt says he will not let his franchise be seized. The Dodgers have been taken over, though a lively debate over the definition of “seizure” carried part of the day. And McCourt swears he is a changed man. Changed by divorce. Changed by humiliation. Changed by the looks in his children’s eyes over the past year and a half. The commissioner ain’t buyin’ it.

Selig can send his men. And McCourt can send his. Generally speaking, you never fight a man who doesn’t care what he looks like when it’s over.

Guess who that is.

“I was disappointed the commissioner was not there,” McCourt said in his press conference.

Later, he added, “I suspect that Commissioner Selig calls the other 29 owners back when they call, for starters.”

Selig has argued from the business side, and rightfully so. The game is first a business, and last a business. Somewhere in between they play ball. The business part always wins, and that is why McCourt was in New York while his business was being invaded, and why he’ll probably lose in the long run.

And now it’s personal.

“It’s not right,” he said.

Whether it is or not hardly even matters anymore. The fight is coming.

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Apr 27, 2011