LOS ANGELES – Mark Walter is just some guy who walked in.
Nice job. Nice suit. Nice family. Nice smile.
It's Wednesday at Dodger Stadium. He's introduced as the new owner.
A television guy, right in the middle of an interview, brushed a stray bug out of Walter's hair. Just reached out and touched the man, like they'd been pals forever, and Walter didn't recoil or alert security or, for that matter, summon his on-call hairdresser.
He just kept talking, presumably thankful there was no longer a bug in his hair.
An hour earlier, during the formal presentation of the new owner and his partners, the contentious subject of former owner Frank McCourt and his vague affiliation with the current administration arose. After Magic Johnson addressed the topic, and Stan Kasten addressed it, and Magic addressed it again, the questions kept coming. Magic then ordered Walter to the big microphone at the front of the stage.
"Be direct with these people, please," Magic told him.
And Walter sprung from his chair to go be direct with these people.
He got close to a full explanation, but not close enough for Magic, who concluded, "Frank's not here. He's not a part of the Dodgers anymore. We should be clapping just for that."
From his seat beside Magic, Walter nodded.
Look, there's no way of knowing what kind of franchise owner Mark Walter will be. That he's not Frank McCourt will mollify most people for long enough. That he discounted the cost of a parking spot at Dodger Stadium – from $15 to $10 – will placate plenty. That his team is in first place, something he inherited from the guy whose absence we were supposed to applaud, will buy some time, too.
That's all fine.
But when it comes to its baseball owner, Los Angeles has had it with nice suits. The place has been lousy with empty ones for too long.
L.A. wants someone it can trust. After Fox, after McCourt, L.A. wants some dignity. Someone it can talk to. A man it can relate to. Someone whose true bottom line might be found in a box score.
Dodgers fans can love Magic Johnson all they want, but it's the guy next to him, the other guy in the suit, who really matters.
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Mark Walter grew up outside Cedar Rapids, Iowa, playing catch in the front yard with his dad, Ed, a laborer for the town's concrete block manufacturer. Not having a big-league team nearby to call his own, Walter was dragged along in fandom by whoever was on the radio. Some nights that was the Minnesota Twins, others the Chicago Cubs, maybe the St. Louis Cardinals. The Baltimore Orioles were good, so he pulled for Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Paul Blair and all the pitching Earl Weaver had. He settled finally on the Cubs when he was working for a law firm in Chicago, and routinely takes his only child – a daughter – to Wrigley Field.
That's all quite romantic. Still doesn't make Walter, now chief executive of investment firm Guggenheim Partners, a good owner. L.A. has had enough of the stories, enough of the promises.
On a riser in center field, under a gray sky, Johnson spoke with great fervor and smiled humbly. His laughter carried to the canyons. He choked with emotion when reminded he was following Jackie Robinson into the organization. He lauded Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp, and shouted, "Let's give it up for that!"
At the same podium, Walter spoke softly. He thanked his mother and father, his wife and daughter. He mentioned his roots. "Not far from the Field of Dreams," he said.
His voice trembled in spots.
"I was nervous," he admitted.
He said he hadn't done many interviews with the press, ever.
"This is the second," he said.
He wore his new Dodger cap pushed back on his head. It was a little crooked. (The cap, not the head.) He held his hands behind his back when he spoke, unclasping them to turn the page on his notes, then re-clasping them.
"This is really not about us," he said. "This is about the Dodgers."
And that's a start.
They threw more than $2 billion at this thing, at a roster and a stadium and some land, at a brand and the people who love it. Now I can't go anywhere without someone telling me the Guggenheim gang overpaid, and won't have anything left for operating capital, these being the same someones who gladly go to the ballpark and overpay for parking, hot dogs and Coors Lights.
All they have left to trust is Magic's promises, and Kasten's baseball background, and this stranger named Mark Walter who says he has plenty of money. Pardon Dodgers fans for feeling a bit squishy about things. The last guy made a lot of promises, too.
"There's part of him that's a mystery," said Peter Guber, chairman of Mandalay Entertainment, a partner of Guggenheim Baseball Management and an investor in the team, "because he does things with elegance. He uses the least amount of force to get the maximum result.
"He's tough, but he's not mean. He's generous, empathetic and very genial. If you're going to be killed by him, you'd drop dead three weeks later from unknown causes."
Good to know. And what does Mark Walter hate?
"People that are disingenuous," Guber said. "He doesn't like people who are inauthentic. He looks at their feet, their heart, their head and their wallet and sees if they're all going in the same direction. That's why I like him. More, why I trust him."
[Big League Stew: Watch Dodgers get victimized by one of worst umpire calls ever]
After Magic met once or twice with Walter, he knew Walter reminded him of someone, but couldn't place the name or face. There was a way about him, an avoidance of attention, a gentleness that hid ferocity, and a brilliance in business matters that ran common sense with fresh ideas.
The name and face came to him weeks later.
"I'd met a guy just like Jerry Buss," Magic said. "He is so into his family. He didn't want to be out front. He has a great passion for winning. He doesn't care if people know who he is. This is Dr. Buss all over again."
The Dodgers, of course, haven't won a championship in a generation. So that's what they'll all go to work on come Monday. Walter had a flight to catch Wednesday afternoon, and he'll be in Chicago this weekend when the Dodgers play what formerly was his favorite team. Then he'll return to L.A., where he's often spent a week of every month on Guggenheim business.
Soon, Walter said, he'd buy a home in L.A., so he can be nearer the Dodgers.
"There's only three of us," he said, counting his wife, daughter and himself. "We just need one."
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