Frank McCourt never on solid ground

It was early in his tenure as the new owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers that Frank McCourt invited me to lunch at the Jonathan Club in downtown Los Angeles.

I had recently retired as the national baseball columnist at the Los Angeles Times and was happy to have a meal tab picked up by anyone anywhere.

I was also a little surprised by the invitation.

Before Frank and his wife, Jamie, purchased the team in 2004, I had written critically and skeptically -- in concert with Jason Reid, who was then covering the Dodgers for the Times -- about the McCourts' personal finances, citing knowledgeable sources, and was more than surprised when commissioner Bud Selig permitted MLB owners to approve the purchase.

McCourt, however, had never expressed anger or bitterness toward me in regard to those columns, and we had a pleasant lunch during which he voiced his desire to pick my brain regarding the respect with which Peter O'Malley and his late father, Walter, were held in Los Angeles during their ownership of the team.

In other words, he was interested in my perception of the keys to that respect, and I gathered by his questioning that he hoped to emulate them.

Borrowing from my many conversations with Walter and Peter over the years, particularly after I had begun covering the Dodgers on a more consistent basis after moving from the Long Beach Press-Telegram to The Times in 1968, I told McCourt that the essence of that respect -- no matter how the team did on the field -- was continuity and stability.

That is not to say, as I told McCourt, that there were never changes in personnel.

For the most part, the front office and dugout leadership remained remarkably stable (Al Campanis' 1987 firing after controversial remarks about black people on "Nightline" was a notable exception). There were never embarrassing issues regarding finances, and Peter O'Malley, following in the footsteps of his father, was a working owner, in his office and on the job virtually every day.

I left that lunch flattered that McCourt would take the time to use me as something of a historical source.

But I was almost certain, given what I knew about their finances and the debt they absorbed in becoming Dodgers owners, and having seen a structural turnover already begin amid widespread whispers that Frank and Jamie were proving difficult to work with and for, that he and his wife could never attain the community stature of the O'Malleys.

Now, of course, we know that my doubts were more than indigestion.

Now, of course, we know that you would have needed a scorecard to keep up with the dugout and front office turnover during the last seven years, many executives departing only months after their hiring by the McCourts, suggesting questions of judgment.

Now, of course, we know that the stature and stability of this flagship franchise has become so damaged that Major League Baseball will take over its operation, with Selig soon appointing a trustee to oversee financial and day-to-day operations.

We know as well that the commissioner is not without a measure of blame for this embarrassing situation.

He supported Frank and Jamie McCourt's purchase of the team despite its highly leveraged structure.

Fox, which had purchased the team from Peter O'Malley in 1998, had a tumultuous ownership tenure that rivaled the one that followed it. Fox was so anxious to get out after establishing its regional networks that it virtually underwrote the deal, loaning the McCourts $145 million, with Frank McCourt putting up his Boston parking lots as collateral.

Now, too, we have learned through court documents filed in the divorce proceedings between Frank and Jamie -- one soap opera that hasn't been cancelled -- that he is more than $430 million in debt, with legal fees mounting daily.

We have learned of their extravagant lifestyle, at the expense of a deteriorating stadium and disappearing fan base, and supported by money taken directly out of the club, and that Frank has been rejected in loan overtures to several banks but did receive a $30 million loan from Fox last week to meet the club's payroll, his second in recent months.

We have learned, as well, that there have been embarrassing issues involving the club's charity foundation, and we know that security problems have turned Dodger Stadium, amid the falling attendance, into a near-police state.

Of his decision to appoint a trustee, Selig said, "I have taken this action because of my deep concerns regarding the finances and operations of the Dodgers and to protect the best interests of the club, its great fans and all of Major League Baseball."

The move, according to multiple sources who have not been authorized to speak on the record, would seem to precipitate a sale to new ownership, with Selig citing his authority to act in the "best interests of baseball," although both McCourts are likely to fight that as far as their depleted wallets will take them. In the meantime, the team on the field must operate under an equally uncertain future, knowing the acquisition of a midseason hitter in a division up for grabs will have to go through the trustee and not merely general manager Ned Colletti.

It is a sorry and sad situation that could have been avoided if Selig had merely told his constituents initially that the McCourts' personal finances were too tenuous to be approved, but then there was Fox reaching out and imploring the commissioner to support the purchase.

Stability and continuity, as I had recommended at the Jonathan Club?

Now there's a recommendation that can be ignored, and was.

Ross Newhan has covered baseball in Southern California for more than 50 years and was the national baseball columnist at the Los Angeles Times from 1986 through 2004. He has received numerous awards for his coverage, and in 2001 was voted by his peers to receive the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, which led to his inclusion in the writers' display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.