Monday, September 10, 2012

The Magic of Money by Johnny Tsaur

We can talk about PR nightmares, and we can talk about the Los Angeles Dodgers. You can be certain things are bad when a vicious mugging is only the second worst news of the year for your club.

Major League Baseball seized control of the Dodgers from Frank McCourt on April 20, 2011. At the time, one of the few legacy franchises in the MLB had become a chip on the poker table of the divorce proceedings of the McCourts. Worse than the courtroom spectacle was the team’s play, as they were sneaking out a win a day after a 10-1 drumming from an unimpressive Atlanta Braves team. The Dodgers were 9-10 on the season, and continued to struggle to an 82-79 record, placing third in the NL West and a firm 11 ½ games out of the playoffs.

While this may all seem like a reasonable end for a mediocre team, a question had to be raised about the fact that the roster was anything but mediocre. Clayton Kershaw won the Cy Young award. Matt Kemp led the league in home runs and RBI, was second place in NL MVP voting, and capped off the season with a Golden Glove and a Silver Slugger award. Not to mention Andre Either, who won a Gold Glove in his own right and was a reserve on the All-Star team.

So how does a team with essentially three of the best players in baseball miss the postseason entirely? The answer: no support. No support from ownership, no support from the fans, and simply put, the players and management were on their own. For the first time since 1997, the Dodgers failed to achieve their annual attendance of three million fans entering the park for the duration of the season. After fifteen consecutive years of loyal fan support, the support was gone.

The ownership debacle was worse to the fans than the mugging of the Giants fan in the parking lot. It was a message to the fans that there was no hope. Even with a talented roster, there would be no activity on the trade front. Even with obvious holes in the lineup, management was forced to sit on their hands in regards to adding salary leading to no realistic chance for a post-season appearance. With the season ending, there were still plenty of questions headed into the off-season about the ownership.

The rumors about who would step up to buy the storied franchise were plenty. It felt like the Los Angeles Times had a new name tied to the position every week, from Orel Hershiser and Peter O’Malley, Larry King to Mark Cuban, but in the end there was only one realistic choice. There was only one person who could lead the team out of the darkness of being abandoned to die for a year, to get people to come back again.

A local hero in every sense of the word: Magic Johnson.

While the actual ownership group, named the Guggenheim Partners and Stan Kasten remained faceless, there was one man involved that every soul in Los Angeles knew. Magic Johnson had been a figure in Los Angeles sports for decades since his “Showtime” days with the Lakers, and thus began the cleanup of one of the greatest disasters in sports history. What Johnson offered was something that no other owner could boast: he had a name with so much good will attached, it could actually turn things around after all the bad press.

Growing up I had watched Magic Johnson play and now looking back, I realize that he was everything a star player should be. An entertainer on and off the court, with his charismatic interviews and the aggressive “Showtime” style of the Lakers play, he was also fiercely loyal to the team that made him an icon. Drafted first overall in 1979, he played only for the Lakers through the duration of his career and after his retirement, his career cut short due to HIV, he opened a chain of theaters in the Los Angeles area and maintained a public presence in the city. When the time came for Staples Center to immortalize a player with a statue, Magic was the obvious choice.

The new ownership group proved to the players that they were not just looking for a cash grab, to capitalize on a wounded legend for profit. This proof came from the sum of money they bought the team for, which was in an excess of two billion dollars. While this number may seem high, the fact of the matter was, Forbes’ only valued the franchise at the time at $1.4 billion, and the Guggenheim bid was over 30% higher than any other bid made for the team. They not only came to buy the Dodgers, they put in the money to prove that they respected the name, even though it had been dragged through the mud, they were going to put the work in to clean it up.

With the Dodgers name tarnished, the ownership worked with what they had, and that was to shift the focus to the Los Angeles portion over the Dodgers name. Cross promotion with AEG, the parent company of the other Los Angeles teams was in heavy swing. The alliance between the Lakers, Clippers, Dodgers, Kings and Galaxy was apparent in the media to rebuild the Dodger brand as part of an integrated effort in Los Angeles sports, to move away from the incidents involving ownership and the parking lot brawl to focus on the championship run for the Kings and the playoffs runs for the Lakers and Clippers. It was obvious early on that Magic had a major part in convincing his former employers, AEG, to invest in the rebuild in Los Angeles’ sporting scene. As a fan, I felt the team was safe in the hands of Magic Johnson. His appearances and constant PR work in the Los Angeles media showed how seriously he took the takeover of the Dodgers brand.

A season later and the culture of the team, not so much the parts that made the team, has completely changed. With their familiar core of Kemp, Ethier and Kershaw, as well as some impressive pitching from Chris Capuano, the team is in the thick of the playoff hunt.  Support is now here, as made obvious in the acquisition of Shane Victorino, immediately followed by the addition of 250 million dollars worth of veteran leadership from the Boston Red Sox. Confidence has begun with the management and trickled down to the players. As Don Mattingly put it in his first interview after adding Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett—“It’s clear we’re here to win.”

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