It is time for Frank McCourt to relinquish control of the Los Angeles Dodgers. McCourt (the man pictured above in the suit and no socks) should sell the team to someone who understands the LA market, and doesn't need to finance the purchase almost entirely off loans. Hopefully a group led by Eli Broad, and my son Peter will surface.
I am convinced of this in the wake of McCourt's sudden firing of Paul DePodesta. Since McCourt has taken over the team, he has fired 11 top-ranking executives, and proved that he has absolutely no idea how to run a baseball team. He clearly did not lay out a proper blueprint for the franchise, and has spent his entire 21-month tenure fixing self-inflicted mistakes.
Most of McCourt's blunders have been in public relations. In fact, he's on his fourth PR executive since he started, hiring a Gore campaign hack in Camille Johnston. For some reason, McCourt didn't think people would be skeptical of a person buying the Dodgers almost entirely off loans, and basing the whole sale on collateral from one Boston parking lot. This led the press to believe that McCourt wouldn't spend enough to make the team competitive, and that he really wanted to turn Chavez Ravine into condos.
Well, he actually has basically spent enough to be competitive (don't listen to idiot talk radio hosts, who will tell you otherwise), and he has shown a commitment to keeping Dodger Stadium alive and well, but he's created more problems in doing so. In order to pay off his loans, he reduced the foul ground of Dodger Stadium to build more premium seats. I built Dodger Stadium as a pitcher's park, and reducing the foul ground was insulting and stupid. I believe it hurt out pitching this year. He also raised ticket prices, parking prices, concession prices, and all other prices at a time when the team in Orange County was lowering all of them. Clearly he doesn't get competition. When I owned the Dodgers, I kept prices low, and in-stadium advertising to minimum, because I wanted to create a fan-friendly atmosphere where people were focused on the game, not distracted by hair loss ads. I understand the realities of today's marketplace have changed, but you don't compromise the stadium experience, or the park's dimensions because you owe Bank of America $125 million.
One of McCourt's first acts was to fire an excellent GM in Dan Evans. People forget that Dan Evans never lost a trade. He led drafts that were consistently ranked among the best in baseball. He may not have signed too many free agents, but he took over a team with a bloated $110 million payroll, and was ordered not to raise it. McCourt never gave Evans a chance, humiliating him into interviewing for his own job, before unceremoniously dumping him and hiring Paul DePodesta four days before spring training in 2004.
I was actually thrilled with the DePodesta hire. To me, DePodesta symbolizes much of the Dodger way. He's willing to take risks, to apply new tools, and implement new ideas to the game of baseball. But DePodesta knew that his methods would take time to show results, so he required a five-year contract.
McCourt would go on to make idiotic personnel moves. He fired Derrick Hall, because he wanted his own guy, without realizing how valuable Hall had proven in pacifying and shutting up Bill Plaschke. He hired Lon Rosen, who made about 600 marketing mistakes, the worst of which was firing Ross Porter for no reason. Porter had loyally served the Dodger organization for 28 years, and was always a pleasure to listen to. He then fired half of the front office, including Rosen, and made his 23-year old son the interim marketing director, a title he still holds. He also made his wife the team president. And his stadium renovations turned out to be a disaster, because the premium seats had no rise, so he fired the person who oversaw the renovations.
On the baseball side, Paul DePodesta made numerous radical moves that Bill Plaschke and other fans didn't understand. They helped the team win the division in 2004. And DePodesta might have been vindicated in 2005, but a ridiculous barrage of injuries set the team back. Additionally, manager Jim Tracy defied DePodesta, and didn't play all of his acquisitions.
If McCourt really wanted to fire DePodesta, he should have done so after the season. Instead, he signed off on DePodesta's firing of Tracy. Now the team is without a manager, after the old GM had conducted a thorough managerial search for the past month. They're without a GM, as the free agent signing period beginning very soon. And they're stuck paying DePodesta for three more years.
In truth, DePodesta did make some mistakes, which made his biggest supporters cringe a little. The Dodgers this year lacked basic fundamentals, which hurt them throughout 2005. He should have known that Antonio Perez could not play out of position. He should have known that the defense outside of Cesar Izturis was suspect. He should have found a better defensive metric. There seemed to be a lack of completeness to the Dodgers players this year. But that aside, DePodesta did not understand the PR duties of being a GM. He was introverted, and did not seek out advice from enough of his staff. He failed to delegate, and kept many of his theories to himself. He was a lousy communicator. While DePodesta is brilliant, perhaps he was too young at 31 to be a real staff leader.
The problem with baseball is that is that it always resists change. I saw this first-hand when I dragged the owners kicking and screaming into radical ideas like expansion. DePodesta was part of a group of young and talented individuals who discovered that numerous old methods of talent evaluation and player development were embarrassingly inefficient. He discovered skills that were being dramatically undervalued in the marketplace, and other skills that were dramatically overvalued. He realized that certain myths which had perpetuated certain habits in the game, were total bunk.
But the old baseball establishment views these ideas in complete vitriol. Rather than embracing new tools to help their jobs, they view them as a threat. It's ironic that I can read a Sports Illustrated article about "Moneyball" so-to-speak becoming popular in the NBA, as teams like the Spurs are open and embracing new metrics to better analyze the game, while the old baseball guard openly shuns computers. It speaks volumes about our sport that the NBA is open to these new ideas, and doesn't freak out about them, but baseball winds up forcing two separate philosophical teams, when in reality the best philosophy is a combination of both scouting methods and innovative statistical analysis.
But the result of this, is that there are few experienced veteran baseball leaders available who will actually take into account this whole other school of thought. So the only open-minded baseball people are all under 35. Their names are Theo Epstein, Josh Byrnes, Jon Daniels, Mark Shapiro, and Paul DePodesta. Eventually that will change, as more of these open-minded guys grow up, but that's the reality of the business today. And while some of them are smart enough to run a team, not all of them are ready. Theo Epstein was ready. Paul DePodesta may or may not have been. We'll never know though, because McCourt went back on his five-year commitment after a mere two years.
Why on earth did McCourt fire DePodesta now of all times? I think it was PR-related. McCourt has hired his fourth PR executive since he took over the team. This Camille Johnston woman, taking over after McCourt's crisis managers (in all my years owning the Dodgers, I never once hired crisis managers), probably saw the vitriol Plaschke and the LA sports talk hosts had for DePodesta. Well they have it for the whole franchise, but McCourt wasn't going anywhere. You can always pacify them on the baseball side though, and after a manager search that lacked big names, DePodesta was a slightly larger target. In this round of Plaschke vs. McCourt, Plashke won.
In all of my years owning the Dodgers, I never made big decisions based on public relations. I always did what was best for the Dodgers, even if that meant moving them out of Brooklyn. Frank McCourt however is easily swayed, and he's going to pay Paul DePodesta $2.2 million for three years because of his fickleness. While there were compelling reasons to fire DePodesta, it was not justified.
Looking forward, the hot name now is Pat Gillick. I like Pat Gillick, but I don't think he's the right fit. Sure, he was great in Toronto, Baltimore, and Seattle. But, he's 68 years old. He's retired three times. He's obviously going to tire out again working 18-hour days. Gillick has a reputation as a shrewd talent evaluator, but he also is knocked for not being creative, and earned the nickname "Stand Pat" for not making moves at the trade deadline in Seattle. Supposedly, he will bring in Orel Hershiser as assistant GM and Gillick's apprentice. I like Orel, so I have no qualms bringing him on board. He's obviously not going to be the manager, after Tommy Lasorda told TJ Simers that Orel was unqualified to be manager. And while Lasorda's comments were uncalled for, he's right that Hershiser hasn't done enough in the coaching ranks to earn such a prestigious job. Rumor has it the Bobby Valentine will become the manager, which is a move I endorsed last week.
My personal recommendation right now is to promote Kim Ng the GM. Yes, the Dodgers should break new ground, and hire a female General Manager. Ng has worked in key positions for the White Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, and MLB office. She's extremely smart. She's worked in stat-heavy and scout-heavy front offices. She kicks everyone's ass in arbitration. I'm convinced that she would have been a GM 3 years ago if she were male. And I think that the press would be much softer on someone like Ng. Pat Gillick is a name hire. He's the type of person you bring in to satisfy the media in a big market, and sometimes worries more about PR than being a GM (ex. Steve Phillips). But Kim Ng is the kind of bold hire that can lead you to championships.
Another option would be to hire Plaschke himself as GM. I think the Dodgers could use a GM who fails to understand complexity, flip-flops every other week, and doesn't always have his facts straight.
In the meantime, Frank McCourt has proven that his plan to run the Dodgers was inept, and now it has officially failed. The people of Los Angeles and the Dodger organization deserves better. It's time for Frank McCourt to push the final panic button he'll ever push, and fire himself for incompetence and impatience. Sell, Frank. Sell. We know you need the money. You can't even afford socks.