Dodgers are shells of their former selves

LOS ANGELES – Beneath the bluest skies, set amid towering palm trees, in a place where the game once grew with or without tending, baseball is ill.

It has become a charming old-timer who bounces the ceremonial first pitch and is cheered anyway, because he is more than the hollow cheeks and arthritic knees.

He is the way the game used to be, seen through a child's eyes, strong and broad and invulnerable. And sad.

In that way, the Los Angeles Dodgers stand before the people of L.A. They wear familiar colors, those of courage and composure. They force a smile and wave, reassuring the people, kidding themselves. They limp and cough in private and save their bottles for nickels.

The Dodgers' near-broke owner, Frank McCourt, insists that Major League Baseball is responsible for the team's financial woes.

In the ballpark, two-thirds empty on a Wednesday afternoon, the people crowd into slivers of shade. They search for reasons to believe, finding little in the rows of empty seats or a single empty lineup.

The Dodgers would score a run and lose by four. The closer who'd lost his fastball was wedged in an MRI tube. The right fielder who'd hit in 29 consecutive games was on the bench, his elbow achy. The third baseman's infected arm was wrapped and braced, his replacement hit by a pitch and on the bench. The remaining offense – Matt Kemp(notes) – was 0-for-4.

The franchise, its owner and its league are approaching zero hour. The $30 million Frank McCourt borrowed from Fox might not last the month, meaning the other 29 owners might soon be subsidizing McCourt's roster. McCourt is pressing the commissioner to approve his 17-year Fox deal, this time, according to Bloomberg News, with a letter from his lawyers.

Bud Selig insists his investigation into McCourt's finances come before he considers the television rights package, and by then it is as likely as not McCourt will be broke. More broke. McCourt, conversely, insists it is Selig who has pushed the Dodgers into poverty by delaying his decision, a disagreement that by all appearances will be decided before a judge.

So, as the Dodgers lost for the fourth time in five games, and drew fewer than 30,000 fans for the second time in 2 ½ weeks, the real fight was somewhere out there. In Milwaukee, where Selig gathered his lieutenants – trustee Tom Schieffer and executive vice president Rob Manfred among them – for two days of meetings about the declining Dodger situation. In Los Angeles, where McCourt continued his public relations assault on Selig and the league. In New York, where the fight is refereed and the rounds counted. In the yellow and blue seats of Dodger Stadium, where they drag sentimental applause from wary hearts, wondering how it all got so dreary and hopeless.

By Wednesday afternoon, long after the Dodger clubhouse emptied, Manfred had countered McCourt's claims that Major League Baseball had placed the Dodgers in financial peril.

"Any financial problems faced by the Los Angeles Dodgers are the result of decisions made by Mr. McCourt and his management team over a period of years," Manfred said in a statement. "The pace of the Commissioner's investigation has been adversely impacted by the Dodgers' failure to produce documents in a timely manner and by the complexity of the financial structures surrounding the club. The Commissioner intends to complete the investigation promptly but will not accept less than a thorough investigation."

Translated, Selig is unmoved by a lawyer's letter demanding action on behalf of McCourt, and therefore unmoved by the threat such a letter implies. Probably, he believes a team should not – cannot – run aground in May, a time when franchises ordinarily are flush with cash. Probably, he believes a team that is unable to pay its players with still 2 ½ years remaining on its current television deal has profound and fundamental problems. He knows baseball is not the first to deny McCourt money, based on his past.

The Dodgers, an hour later, responded.

In a statement, they maintained McCourt has complied with the commissioner's request for documents, saying "almost all" of the information had been deposited into a "virtual data room" accessible to Major League Baseball.

In addition, it read, the team provided to Schieffer "a complete report regarding the current financial condition of the Dodgers and the Dodgers' operations."

On Tuesday, Jonathan Broxton(notes) was removed from a game. By Wednesday, he was scheduled for an MRI on his elbow.

Regardless, the Dodgers are failing. Of all franchises, the Dodgers. Either McCourt makes his payments or baseball will do it for him, the latter scenario bringing the club under MLB rule. At that point, there will be no debate as to whether Schieffer is "monitor" or "receiver." He – or someone like him – will be running the team, and at Selig's direction.

Payroll checks go out on the first and 15th. Baseball officials believe McCourt has enough left of the $30 million loan to meet payroll in 11 days. June 1, then, is in jeopardy. The right fielder shrugged.

"One of 'em's going to take care of it, either way," said Andre Ethier(notes), whose hitting streak is paused due to the sore elbow. "I don't think it's anything we have to be concerned with. Meet payroll or not meet payroll, everything's taken care of on the players' side."

And the fans' side? The city's? How long must they watch the Dodgers suffer? How long must they pretend the old gray man in front of them is the man they once knew, or ever will be again?