SAN DIEGO – In a heart-soldering display of unity in transition, outgoing Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and incoming savior Magic Johnson sat shoulder to shoulder Thursday beside the third-base dugout at Petco Park.
There they shared the experience of opening day, a full ballpark, a few stray chants of "Beat L.A.," and maybe, a box of popcorn with butter flavoring. Magic, presumably, bought.
The Dodgers beat the San Diego Padres, too, by a 5-3 score, and as the game slid into the late innings and cool early evening, Magic did not budge from his seat, unlike many around him.
"It was very exciting for me," Magic texted from the passenger seat of his black SUV on the way home.
McCourt had arrived early in the final days of his mercurial and ultimately doomed ownership and the last of his nine opening days in charge. He stood in the clubhouse a few hours before game time and shook hands with many of his soon-to-be former employees, smiling and wishing them luck. Dutifully, the players waited their turns, smiled their smiles, and accepted the gesture.
Or, perhaps, they wondered why Magic was running late.
A couple hours later, having navigated the southbound Golden State Freeway at midday, Magic stood in the dugout and greeted a few of his soon-to-be employees. He wore a gray cardigan over a white T-shirt, still on the good side of cool at 52.
If the McCourt years generally weren't much to look at, it seems the turnover at the top – from L.A. pariah to L.A. icon – will go better.
McCourt walks with $2.15 billion, something close to half of that in straight profit, along with the lovely brunette he showed up with at Petco. And Magic gets one of the signature brands in sports, largely on someone else's dime, along with a fawning fan base. He thus begins a second life as a heroic figure in town, you know, assuming Mark Walter and Guggenheim Partners intend to live up to their billions.
So, everybody wins. Right?
Well, while all this chumminess was going on, and as the Dodgers ran up a 5-1 lead because of Matt Kemp's two-run home run and in spite of Clayton Kershaw's start-shortening stomach flu, one couldn't help but think about the third owner in the ballpark, that being John Moores, and the fourth owner, Jeff Moorad, who, we're guessing, watched on TV.
Moores has been trying to dump the Padres' franchise for three years. Moorad has been in limbo for that long.
What Moores got instead was a buyer with a layaway plan, a guy who couldn't summon the tacit trust or official approval of the other 29 owners, and now – it seems – a complete do-over. Maybe, given what the exorbitant Dodgers sale could do for franchise values and what media rights deals are suddenly worth, that works out well for Moores. In the meantime, Padres fans are left with a team last in payroll and due perhaps for another 91-loss season.
Moorad, who had lined up the money to complete the $500 million purchase, withdrew his confirmation bid in early March and a short time later stepped down as CEO of the Padres. If he was in the ballpark Thursday, he went unnoticed. He did not answer a text message.
Moores, too, largely kept out of sight, meaning the two most conspicuous team officials in the ballpark weren't even Padres. They were Dodgers. The hated Dodgers.
None of this seems entirely fair, does it?
The small-market Padres – cornered by international border, boundless ocean and Marine base – endured a divorce at the top, kept it dignified, and were wracked by the community property laws.
The large-market Dodgers endured a divorce at the top, spilled blood on the streets of L.A., and were undone by community property laws.
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Yet McCourt sat a few feet from third base alongside one of the sports legends of our time, a matter of weeks from filling his pockets with hundreds of millions of dollars.
And Moores sat in the shadows, his former owner-in-waiting and CEO apparently not even in the ballpark.
A major-league source said it appeared Moores was now hoping for a fast-track sale of the club, that it wouldn't be to Moorad, and that it could happen shortly after negotiating the new television deal. Given the recent sales of the Dodgers, Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals and Texas Rangers, it would seem the league office has a deep list of qualified buyers. And the Padres, this time, could go for more than the $500 million they did three years ago. This sale could be cleaner than the last, if nothing else, and that would be oh-so welcome in San Diego. Maybe the next group puts Dave Winfield out in front, like the Guggenheim group put Magic out in front. The organization could use a friendly and familiar face again.
Winfield smiled and declined comment.
Just more than a week ago, the Dodgers came out from under the McCourt era and into the Magic open floor. Their manager, Don Mattingly, commented that, in hindsight, it had seemed for a couple years like Dodgers baseball rated behind McCourt survival.
The Padres manager, Bud Black, was asked if the same might be said for San Diego and its ballclub.
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"I think they're completely different," Black insisted. "I'm not totally informed on all the stuff. But, I do know that through all this that John has been our owner. That's always been the story. Don looked at it over the course of a year. We've looked at it over the course of, what, 10 days?"
On the day of a season-opening win, already there was evidence those priorities had reversed for the Dodgers. A two-out hit was applauded. A well-placed curveball earned a grin. And, in the case of a two-run home run, the new owner leaned into the dugout and shouted encouragement.
"Nice job, kid," Magic shouted to Kemp.
Perhaps unaccustomed to fraternizing with the folks in the grandstands between at-bats, Kemp took a moment before it registered.
He waved to the large gentleman at the far end of the dugout and, as he related later, thought, "Hey, that's Magic Johnson right there. That's kinda cool."
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