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The War of the McCourts
Posted on Sep 27, 2010
By Mark Heisler
Even if they had to run the Dodgers—who once shattered racial barriers and blazed trails—like a middle-market team, this wasn’t the AL East with the Yankee payroll at $200 million and the Red Sox at $150 million.
The NL West had mom-and-pop stories all in a row, even in boom times like 1993-2002 when the expansion Rockies averaged 3.6 million, or 2000-2003 when the Giants averaged 3.3 million in Pac Bell Stadium.
Scaling payroll back from $105 million to $95 million in the McCourts’ 2004 debut to $83 million by 2005, they remained 1-2 in the NL West, where no rival would venture past the $90 million mark until the 2010 Giants.
So Frank and Jamie didn’t need Branch Rickey to rise from his grave to win the NL West their first season and four of their six together.
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Wrote USA Today’s Jill Lieber in a feature on Jamie in their second season:
If Frank and Jamie were also cutting-edge New Age thinkers, they wisely kept it to themselves, as when they hired their spiritualist to send positive energy.
That was 71-year-old Vladimir Shpunt, an émigré Russian physicist who helped Jamie get over an eye infection and went on the payroll.
Shpunt didn’t claim to know anything about baseball and didn’t attend games, sending the Dodgers energy while watching them on TV from Boston.
Few team officials or players are thought to have known about Shpunt. The Los Angeles Times’ Bill Shaikin broke the story before the trial, which was confirmed by another Jamie biggie, entertainment lawyer Bert Fields (Beatles, Michael Jackson).
Not that it was an issue between the McCourts. The Times quoted Frank after clinching the NL West in 2008, e-mailing Shpunt’s agent:
“Congratulations and thanks to you and vlad. Also, pls pass along a special ‘thank you’ to vlad for all of his hard work.”
Energy wasn’t everything. The Phillies then dispatched the Dodgers, 4-1.
This was also their house-acquisition phase ... a $20 million mansion and a $6.5 million cottage next door for a guesthouse in Holmby Hills across from the Playboy Mansion ... adjacent homes on the beach at Malibu at $19 million and $17 million ... a $4.6 million lot in Cabo San Lucas ... to go with those in Brookline, Vail and the $20 million one on 100 acres in Cape Cod.
Their debt level was staggering but times were booming and they owned the Hope diamond of properties, which they had picked up in a garage sale.
Buying the Dodgers had helped Murdoch pre-empt a Disney challenge to his regional sports networks, but became a PR debacle and, he claimed, a financial one.
Since Murdoch was effectively taking money from the Dodgers and giving it to Fox, no one could tell how much—or if—he was losing.
Murdoch himself couldn’t have cared less but he did let his lieutenants atop his media empire take a crack at running the team. Six weeks into the season, they traded catcher Mike Piazza—who wanted a new $100 million deal after averaging .334, 33 home runs and 105 RBIs in his first five seasons—to Miami after calling the Marlins to discuss a TV matter.
After six years of screwing the pooch, Murdoch secured the TV rights for 10 more years in a sweetheart deal—with himself—and went looking for a buyer, even one he had to loan half the $421 million purchase price, it turned out.
What cash the McCourts needed came in loans on their 24-acre parking lot in Boston. Essentially they traded it for the Dodgers, with a promise to pay off the difference.
What could go wrong now?
Selig, partial to leveraged owners who wouldn’t run up $200 million payrolls, embraced the McCourts, vetting their complex transaction and showing no interest in L.A. white knight Eli Broad’s late overture.
Sure enough, raising revenue was a snap for Frank and Jamie, who wrung every last dollar out of every square inch, whether it was real or an accounting device.
Parking was hiked from $10 to $15, infuriating fans who lived miles away, had to drive and had two choices: fork up or stay home.
They could charge their own team $14 million to play in its own stadium, spun off to a McCourt-owned entity called Blue Land.
Like so many other scoops, the rental was revealed before the trial with David Boies, Jamie’s lead lawyer, telling Shaikin, “It’s a way of taking money out of the Dodgers and putting it into a place they can access it.”
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