Like it or not, MLB is stuck with the McCourts

LOS ANGELES – Frank and Jamie McCourt return to the marble corridors and stony glares of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse on Monday, resuming the ground war in the bitter divorce that threatens the viability of the Dodgers and has summoned in commissioner Bud Selig and former team owner Peter O’Malley to express grave concerns for the future of the once and still occasionally formidable franchise.

Selig’s private apprehensions and O’Malley’s public flogging of McCourt have, like the boos and empty seats at Dodger Stadium, served as a backdrop for a trial that stirred the baseball consciousness even during a two-week recess. Yet, in spite of their standing in the game and their righteous intentions, neither has the authority to derail Frank McCourt’s desire to own the club into the next generation of McCourts. Only the court – and Jamie, it seems – may hold that power.

Jamie McCourt, who is on the witness stand Monday, asked the judge to bar MLB officials from testifying.
(Getty Images)

One person with intimate knowledge of Major League Baseball’s potential legal recourses said, “It is very tough for [MLB] to force a sale.”

So, like Dodger fans, like the club’s baseball operations staff, like anyone with a rooting interest in the Dodgers who prays for an end to the daily gloom and posturing, so too can Selig and O’Malley only stand and watch.

In the latest, Jamie McCourt has filed motions to exclude the testimony of five people involved with Frank’s purchase of the Dodgers in 2004, including MLB general counsel Tom Ostertag, consultant Corey Busch and broker Randy Vataha. Jamie’s lawyers believe their testimony is “irrelevant to the issues before the judge,” according to a source.

Frank’s lawyers have challenged the motions. Ostertag, for one, would testify that Jamie never applied to own the Dodgers, was never approved as an owner, and was not recognized as an owner by MLB.

In their opposition to the motion, according to a filing with the court, Frank’s lawyers asked that Jamie’s counsel agree to several points in lieu of Ostertag’s live testimony. Among them: That a co-owner of the Dodgers would have to sign an indemnification agreement, submit to a background check, and amend her estate planning documents.

Judge Scott Gordon could rule as early as Monday.

During the extended break in Jamie McCourt’s testimony – she’ll retake the witness stand Monday for direct, and Frank’s lawyers should at least begin cross examination before the end of the day – the Dodgers fell hopelessly behind in the National League West and manager Joe Torre retired. Don Mattingly, Torre’s coach and apprentice, was chosen as successor, bringing further consternation to a city that was only just getting accustomed to the Dodgers as winners again.

That’s changed, of course, both in the owner’s box and on the field. The past six months exposed a team short on talent and leadership. Then, it lacked the resources to save itself. Worse, court documents and testimony revealed the McCourts were heavily in debt before their divorce, before they took up lawyers in an undignified marital property grab whose greatest treasure was the Dodgers. Now, against the assurances of Frank McCourt – ”I’m going to own this team for a long, long time,” he said – come suspicions just as assured that soon there will be no money left at all.

O’Malley’s pronouncement – He told the Los Angeles Times, ”In my judgment it would be best for the franchise and the city if there was new ownership.” – was a massive public relations hit for the McCourts and a surprising breach of etiquette by O’Malley. But, ultimately, one the McCourts can survive. It wasn’t long ago, after all, when wounded Dodger fans wondered how the saintly O’Malleys could have saddled them with the corporate indifference of Fox ownership. Indeed, near the end of the Dodgers’ O’Malley era, prevailing opinion had the O’Malleys in over their heads in baseball’s new age of upwardly spiraling payrolls, revenue sharing and corporate bankrolls.

Meantime, MLB’s unease with McCourt today stands in contrast to its position only six years ago, when it moved swiftly to appease Fox by lining up the developer from Boston to take the Dodgers off the media company’s books. Fox had proven itself inept in the business of baseball, was in no mood to educate itself on it and wanted out. Fanned by Selig, McCourt stepped up with his valuable pieces of South Boston pavement. The game’s 29 other owners first vetted and then welcomed McCourt into their fraternity of riches.

Major League Baseball can hardly judge McCourt and his ability to float the club now, when it was so recently complicit in getting him here.

Yes, he is in too deep today, which is just where he was the day Selig offered the Dodgers to him, and the day his financing of the Dodgers was cleared, and the day the owners approved the purchase.

As McCourt recently said under oath, ”I was really risking it all on the transaction and betting I could turn it around.”

He took a franchise mired in debt (Fox lost close to $180 million over four seasons), self-importance and dusty old memories and brought it to the brink of the World Series. Twice.

He moved money around and was fortunate enough not to have to pay – or delay paying – taxes, loopholes the existence of which, I’m sure, would hardly be a shock to the other 29 owners.

He ran perilously close to baseball’s debt-service rules, which isn’t unique.

And, of course, he’s embarrassed baseball. But more than Jeffrey Loria? More than Bob Nutting? More than Marge Schott? More than Tom Hicks?

The day baseball starts pulling franchises from inept owners, McCourt wouldn’t even be first in line.

Now, it would seem, Selig and The Other 29 are going to have to live with this one. An owner hasn’t been forced to sell for more than a century, and Frank McCourt would fight for the Dodgers to his last dime, assuming that’s not already gone.

So, until something better comes along – or even something different – Los Angeles, the Dodgers, the McCourts and Major League Baseball will share the same address. In Malibu. With a pool. Of course.

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 Sunday, Sep 19, 2010