As the lights of Los Angeles twinkled around Dodger Stadium, the air rang with the sound of the Dodgers' preseason exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians.
But all the talk wasn't about opening day — which is Monday — and whether the team will repeat its trip to the playoffs this year. Fans Jeff Hilgers and Andrew Nissen were just as concerned about what was happening off the field — namely the divorce between team owners Frank and Jamie McCourt.
The public dissolution of their 30-year marriage has become what ESPN sportswriter Gene Wojciechowski called Shrek-ugly. Each is claiming that the other is more extravagant, and nobody's spending money on much other than lawyers right now. As a result, Nissen says, money was tight in the offseason, and that handcuffed Dodgers manager Joe Torre and general manager Ned Colletti.
"Joe Torre was begging for a front-line starter and Ned couldn't go out and get it 'cause the McCourts said, 'No money,' " Nissen says with a sigh.
Hilgers says the recession gave the McCourts a convenient excuse not to sign new players. "I guess they blame that on the economy and not the divorce, but they do owe it to the fans to keep a good product out on the field and not let the product suffer because of their problems."
'It's Going Downhill'
By the seventh-inning stretch at Thursday's exhibition game, the Dodgers were still ahead. (They'd go on to lose, 6-3.) But in the upper deck, lifelong Dodgers fan Max Ruiz was disgusted. Ruiz said Jamie McCourt's request for $1 million a month in spousal support is endangering the team's future.
"It's going downhill. They don't wanna buy no players, they don't wanna spend the money 'cause she wants too much money!" Ruiz said.
And there's a lot of cash at stake, says Kurt Badenhausen, a sports analyst and senior editor for Forbes.com. Every year, he writes a financial assessment of major league teams.
"The Dodgers are certainly one of the crown jewels of Major League Baseball," he says. "We valued the team last year at $722 million — fourth-highest in Major League Baseball."
Badenhausen says the team has turned a very decent profit for the past several years, and this year could be the most profitable yet — if the divorce doesn't get in the way.
"We saw them cut back dramatically for 2010," he says. "We've seen in some of the court documents that have come out during divorce proceedings that the McCourts have been taking a lot of money out of this franchise."
Given their luxe lifestyle, they probably needed to. Seven houses, private jets, personal stylists and deluxe vacations — all that costs money. Jaime McCourt needs more than a half million dollars a month just for mortgage payments. The couple also reportedly borrowed against their Dodgers holdings to make hefty payments to themselves and their children. That raised eyebrows and has not endeared the McCourts to Dodgers fans.
Josh Fisher writes DodgerDivorce.com, a blog that updates distressed Dodgers fans on the ins and outs of the McCourt battle and how that might affect the team.
"Here in L.A., there's always been a lot of latent distrust of the McCourts," Fisher says. For one thing, they're out-of-towners who snapped up a precious local asset. For another, "it was pretty widely known that they tried to buy the Red Sox first and couldn't, so the Dodgers were Plan B," Fisher says.
Nobody wants to be Plan B — certainly not Petros Papadakis, an Angeleno and Dodgers fan who is also an analyst for Fox Sports. He says the Dodgers are a brand for Los Angeles, just like the Chrysler Building and the Yankees are for New York. He's horrified that the public acrimony has publicized the brand — and not in a good way. "The actual brand of the Dodgers has been bastardized" Papadakis says.
He's hoping that after all the McCourts' property gets divided up, they'll have to sell the club. And he predicts there will be no tears from the other owners.
"Baseball in general is going to be very relieved if they do end up having to sell the team," Papadakis says."This is a giant embarrassment to Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, who is absolutely silent on this issue."
But the money will be talking loud and clear, and if the McCourts' fight over the money is Shrek-ugly at this point, what happens between now and August, when they return to court to hear how their assets have been divided up, will make Shrek look like Cary Grant.