Dodgers begin new era with owners Magic, Kasten
LOS ANGELES—Although the Southern California sun stayed behind the clouds, everything else about the Los Angeles Dodgers' introductory news conference for their new ownership group Wednesday signaled the dawn of a bright new era for a beloved franchise.
Magic Johnson, Mark Walter and Stan Kasten stood on a stage in center field at Dodger Stadium on what venerable broadcaster Vin Scully called "a soft day," pulling on white jerseys and blue Dodgers caps for the club's third ownership change since 1998.
The new owners vowed to restore the Dodgers' dignity after Frank McCourt's often-stormy and sometimes sleazy tenure. While outlining a long-term vision, they also offered an immediate carrot for their long-suffering fans: a $5 reduction in the $15 parking charges at the stadium.
"What we want to do is bring the pride back to this city and this organization," said Johnson, his voice echoing off thousands of empty seats in the iconic stadium. "It's going to take some time to get this franchise back to where Mr. O'Malley had it, but we're going to work, and we're going to do it. We're committed for the long haul. We're going to be owners for a long time."
The new owners are aware their franchise's prestige and fan support declined under McCourt, who sold the Dodgers for $2 billion to the group fronted by Johnson, headed by Walter and run by Kasten. Although they made the playoffs four times in McCourt's eight years, the Dodgers haven't won the World Series since 1988, before the O'Malley family's sale of the club sent it into an increasingly unsettling series of ownership changes.
Johnson, the former Lakers star, announced the parking changes along with extra access to batting practice and other future incentives for fans. The group is investigation a renovation to the notoriously cramped clubhouses, and Kasten plans to investigate Dodger Stadium's infamously epic lines for beer and refreshments.
Johnson and Walter also answered numerous questions about the peripheral involvement of McCourt, who is widely reviled by Dodgers fans for his seemingly profligate lifestyle at the club's expense before putting the club into bankruptcy last June.
Walter confirmed McCourt still has an interest in potential future profits from development of the 300 acres in Chavez Ravine. But Walter claimed all revenues from the parking lots surrounding Dodger Stadium go to the team, and all decisions on future development will be made by the current ownership group, which also includes movie mogul and Golden State Warriors part-owner Peter Guber.
"Frank McCourt is not involved in any shape and fashion," Johnson said. "Frank is not here. He's not a part of the Dodgers any more. We should be clapping just for that."
Walter also didn't flinch when asked about the enormous price his group paid for the Dodgers, the highest ever paid for a pro sports franchise and $500 million higher than the next bid. Walter acknowledges he has been asked by friends and partners why he paid so much.
"I always say, why did the price get so high? It's the Dodgers," said Walter, who acknowledged being nervous during a brief speech off cue cards on the stage. "I viewed it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own one of the most successful franchises in sports. I believe if we build the franchise from the long point of view, the value of the investment will be apparent. This is a generational investment."
The Dodgers themselves have already done much to restore the pride cited by their new owners, getting off to a first-place start in the NL West with a strong opening month while the ownership deal was finalized.
The Dodgers are an exceptionally attractive property to Walter and Kasten for several reasons: Along with a brand recognized worldwide and a well-preserved stadium in the hills between downtown and Hollywood, the Dodgers also have NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and slugger Matt Kemp.
Kasten, the former president of the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals, gave a strong vote of confidence to general manager Ned Colletti's work so far, with Kasten saying he expects the Dodgers' payroll "moving forward will be north of where it is now."
"You can expect us to be aggressive," said Kasten, wearing his Braves 1995 World Series championship ring. "We're going to be in on everything, but it has to fit for us. I certainly want to help Ned build on that. We're going to take advantage of any opportunity. We're not going to wait. If we can win now, today, that's our preference."
Kasten and Johnson vowed to be near-daily presences at Dodger Stadium. Johnson doesn't plan to weigh in on personnel moves, but his business acumen, charisma and enormous popularity in Los Angeles will be assets.
"I wrote a big check, so I'm going to be involved on a daily basis," Johnson said. "I'm a big control freak. ... We're going to outwork everybody. I can't wait until my office is done. I'm going to check in on Monday."
Kasten promised to be visible and available to fans on the concourses in the same way he ran the Braves, Hawks and Thrashers in his previous multi-tiered job in Atlanta.
"I'm just coming off a six-month gag order, so I've got a lot to say," Kasten said.
Walter is the Dodgers' new chairman and the biggest money man in the deal. The son of a concrete-block factory worker from outside Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Walter runs the financial services firm Guggenheim Partners, which made another fortune buying distressed assets in the recent economic downturn, from his home in Chicago.
But Walter will be getting comfortable in Los Angeles: He already spends one week a month in the area, where his wife graduated from high school, and he plans to buy a residence in the area soon.
"This is not really about us," Walter said. "This is about the Dodgers, one of the most honored and storied franchises in history. We're passionate about making this organization the best it can be in every respect."
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was the first speaker. Dodgers greats Don Newcombe, Tommy Davis, Maury Wills, Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Steve Garvey and Tommy Lasorda gathered for the announcement, most gamely donning Dodgers jerseys for photographs with the new owners -- including the 6-foot-9 Magic in his size 56 jersey.
The 84-year-old Scully closed the celebration in his own inimitable style by remembering back to the first time the Dodgers changed leadership during his tenure with the club, when Walter O'Malley took a controlling stake from Branch Rickey in Brooklyn in 1950, right after Scully went to work for the club. Scully then cited multiple changes since, including all four changes or minority sales in the past 14 years.
"I'm fed up," Scully said. "This is the last new ownership press conference I will ever attend."