LON ROSEN RECALLS the first half of the Los Angeles Dodgers' season not for Clayton Kershaw's four-hit, complete game shutout and exclamation-point home run against the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants on Opening Day, or for the dreadful 60 games that followed and had manager Don Mattingly wondering if he would be wearing a Dodgers uniform at the All-Star break. Instead, Rosen pointed to a series of seemingly mundane planning meetings with a cross-section of Dodgers advertising and marketing officials on how to approach the season opener at Dodger Stadium.
Think, people. Think. Rosen, the Dodgers' chief marketing officer, implored the staffers in the months before the season began to respect the game's traditions but not to limit their thinking to traditional Opening Day celebrations of bunting and speeches. He wanted his people to think bigger, broader, and grander, to consider this day on par with Super Bowl halftime shows and the opening and closing ceremonies at the Olympics and the World Cup. For more assistance and creative energy, the Dodgers worked with Dick Clark Productions, which had produced the Golden Globes, the American Music Awards, and the Miss Universe pageant. After all, this was Los Angeles. The city that invented the entertainment industry, Rosen reasoned, should be able to pull off an afternoon worth remembering.
On a perfect, sun-splashed day, the Dodgers ran a video replica of the torch run that precedes the Olympic opening ceremony. Approximately 56,000 fans were glued to the new multi-million dollar high-definition video boards watching the city's high-wattage superstars flip a baseball from one celebrity to the next until the ball wound up at Dodger Stadium. On screen were Snoop Dogg and Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Rob Reiner, Britney Spears and Kobe Bryant, Wayne Gretzky, Jessica Alba, Samuel L. Jackson, among others, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar making the final toss -- a sky hook, naturally, to part-owner Magic Johnson, who thanked Kareem on the video board and then, after shaking hands with the players, stepped out of the home team dugout, introduced by the legendary Vin Scully.
After showcasing the glamour of LA, there was a nod to history. Nearly fifty years had passed since the 1963 Dodgers swept the Yankees to win the World Series. Maury Wills and Tommy Davis represented on the first base line. Next to them stood Orel Hershiser and Tommy Lasorda, honoring the 25th anniversary of the Dodgers' last championship, the 1988 club that stunned Oakland.
Johnson greeted Lasorda and walked to the pitcher's mound. Hershiser, who was to receive the first pitch, crouched behind home plate. As Johnson limbered up to deliver the first pitch, with the San Gabriel Mountains resting famously in the background, Mattingly walked gravely to the mound, as if it were late in the game and the bases were loaded. He said a few words to Johnson, took the ball, and then raised his left arm and pointed to the bullpen, where 77-year old Sandy Koufax, the greatest pitcher in Dodgers history, emerged. The place went wild. Koufax took the ball and threw out the first pitch. The star power was overwhelming. The pride of the franchise flared.
"I didn't want the same old stuff. I told them if anybody came up with birds flying into the sky to forget it," Rosen said. "I wanted them to give me something. I don't think anyone had ever been removed before throwing out the first pitch. I didn't tell anyone that Sandy was going to do it. We had an entire chest of tools to play with. Create something special. Give me something that announced us."
To Dodgers president Stan Kasten, the pregame show defined the organization as much as the highlights of a restorative summer: Kershaw heading toward a potential second Cy Young Award, the sudden star of Cuban showstopper Yasiel Puig, and the 42-8 midsummer streak that pushed the Dodgers into first place and the National League Division Series that begins Thursday against Atlanta.
The reason was clear: Regardless of what occurs in October, the Dodgers may have already won. A management team has been put in place with huge resources, a massive television package, staggering geographical resources similar to the New York Yankees and one of the most powerful brand names in sports.
"I always tell people we're not the Dodgers -- we're the DODGERS, all caps," Kasten said. "This is an iconic franchise. I'm sorry, but this isn't just another sports team. It's the Dodgers. I never tell people we're coming back. We're already back."
AS UBIQUITOUS AS the Dodger name has been since the 1880s, it would seem odd that the franchise would need to announce itself so grandly. But for the past two years, the Dodgers have been an organization of bruised pride and rapidly fading respectability. They have resembled an aging, stalled Mercedes on the shoulder of the 405 freeway, still a considerable presence but shorn of much of its dignity.
"When I got off the boat in L.A. [in 1979], the Dodgers were on the first page of the sports section," said Earvin "Magic" Johnson. "I checked the Lakers on the third page. That's how far down we were. I said, 'Wow, this was a Dodger town.' Three things: Dodgers, No. 1. USC football, No. 2, and UCLA basketball. The Lakers were way down. If you were part of those three things, you were a part of the 'in' crowd in LA, and I felt that."
The Dodgers were always known for their stability; from 1944 to 1997, they were family owned and for 40 years were managed by just two men, Walter Alston and Tommy Lasorda. Yet the loud, public divorce of owners Frank and Jamie McCourt sank the franchise to its reputational nadir. Their bitter circus so engulfed the Dodgers, one of the mightiest and richest teams in all of professional sports, that they were bankrupt and overtaken by Major League Baseball, no different than, say, the Montreal Expos. The murmurs around baseball grew. Even Bud Selig, who used his commissioner's power to steer the team toward the McCourts acquiring it in 2004, turned on them, in the words of some former Dodger staffers, "completely and mercilessly." A signature team was being forced by its former allies in the commissioner's office into receivership.
Now, the McCourt years have been replaced by a dynamic and muscular ownership group led by Mark Walter of the global finance giant Guggenheim Partners; Todd Boehly of Guggenheim; Texas oil magnate Bobby Patton; Hollywood producer and co-owner of the Golden State Warriors Peter Guber; Kasten, the well-connected longtime sports executive; and the city's most famous champion, the incomparable Magic Johnson, who put up $50 million of his own money.
The consortium, Guggenheim Baseball Management, bought the team in mid-2012 for a record $2.15 billion, a sales price many consider reckless since sources said McCourt purchased the team seven years earlier for $271 million instead of the announced price of $425 million. As a follow-up, the Dodgers entered the 2013 season with the highest single-season payroll in the history of the sport, at $224 million.
"Everyone is talking about the Dodgers. ... We want this to be the happening place again. We want people to come out. Well, you can't do that unless you win, and now everyone's coming." Magic Johnson
Ownership spent big to repair the team's collective ego and to prove it was not a replica of McCourt, who was loudly criticized for being under-capitalized.
"Now we're here. And now, everyone is wearing caps again," Johnson said. "The jackets. The T-shirts are out. I work out at Gold's [Gym]. I'm there at 5 or 6 in the morning, and everyone is talking about the Dodgers. … We want this to be the happening place again. We want people to come out. Well, you can't do that unless you win, and now everyone's coming."
FOR MORE THAN A CENTURY, the New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox and the Dodgers have represented the four legs to the table of baseball. With their history and championships, the Yankees are the game's signature franchise in the world's signature media market. The Cardinals represent the soul of the American Midwest. The Red Sox are the literary team, full of success, comedy, tragedy and melodrama, but also wield enormous economic power and inside influence.
Whether it was integration or assimilation, or westward or international expansion, the Dodgers have always been the promise. The dream of the Dodgers was very American, to build something new and to become rich doing it. The Dodgers are the richest team in baseball behind the Yankees. According to sources familiar with the sale of the team to Guggenheim, Major League Baseball valuated the Yankees at roughly $3.35 billion, with the Dodgers second at $2.45 billion. The lucrative rights to live television made sports franchises ever more valuable, and the component of being the owners following McCourt bought immediate credibility.
"Our mission was very simple: Restore the Dodgers. Easy to articulate, complicated and hard to achieve. We didn't invent the Dodgers. We didn't invent the Dodger way of doing things. We had to try to get it back." Stan Kasten
Combining its resources with the Dodger name, Guggenheim Baseball saw a rusted gold mine. The allure was to be the ownership group that finally found the formula to polish the diamond. Since the Dodgers' last World Series appearance in 1988, every other NL West team has appeared in the World Series, with the Giants winning two titles and the Diamondbacks one. Over the first 31 years in Los Angeles, the Dodgers appeared in nine World Series, winning five. In the 24 years following, the Dodgers have won exactly two playoff series.
"Our mission was very simple: Restore the Dodgers," the 61-year old Kasten said. "Easy to articulate; complicated and hard to achieve. We didn't invent the Dodgers. We didn't invent the Dodger way of doing things. We had to try to get it back. It seems to have gotten lost in recent years for whatever reasons.
"Here's what we were buying -- we were buying a global iconic franchise that had been down on its luck in recent years, and for a guy who likes to build franchises that was a really tempting, thrilling challenge, in the second-largest city in America in the media and entertainment capital of the world."
In turn, the Dodgers are a financial powerhouse just now flexing its muscle. In 2012, the Dodgers' season-ticket total was 17,000. Today, it is 32,500. The Dodgers led the major leagues in both home and road attendance this season. The team sold 3.72 million tickets. Their television ratings this season were the highest in years, and next season the team is moving toward its own lucrative network, not unlike the Yankees' YES Network or the Red Sox's NESN. The team's television rights deal is estimated at nearly $7 billion for the next 20 years.
Like the Yankees, Guggenheim appears intent on maximizing the Dodgers' staggering resources -- and becoming the geographical envy of the league both in terms of real estate and attractiveness to players -- in a sport that threatens but does not constrain spending through a hard salary cap. According to a source familiar with the sale, McCourt informed prospective buyers that -- based on a ratio of 40 percent to total revenue -- the Dodgers' payroll would increase from $94.2 million in 2012 to $111.6 in 2013, $138.8 in 2014, $144.8 in 2015 to $151.2 in 2016.
In its first full year, Guggenheim doubled McCourt's 2013 payroll projection.
"A strong, competitive franchise in Los Angeles is crucial to the success of Major League Baseball," said Rob Manfred, MLB's chief operating officer. "Mark Walter and Guggenheim have already restored the luster to the franchise."
The Guggenheim Dodgers have spent lavishly, on players, on development, on stadium renovations, and upgrades for the players in the form of new batting cages, a hydrotherapy rehabilitation room that includes hot tubs, lap tubs, a hyperbaric chamber and a cryo-pod – more than $110 million in the 26 weeks between the end of the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
In addition to the money, one final touch is the star power. One time before the players arrived in the clubhouse, in each locker were three Los Angeles Lakers jerseys, the first personalized to the player from Johnson, the remaining two autographed by Johnson for souvenirs or gifts. The players loved it.
"For a kid growing up here a crazy Lakers fan, it was unbelievable," said Michael Young, a late-season acquisition from Philadelphia who grew up in nearby Covina. "This organization does everything in a first-class way."
THE EASY PLAY, the convenient one, is to zero in on the 617 area code -- to blame Frank McCourt, the Boston guy, the out-of-towner, the tarnished guy famous for the thousand-dollar haircuts and the messy divorce and the messier accusations from MLB that he was embezzling money from the Dodgers to pay for his excesses. He is the best, most recent target explaining the Dodgers' fall.
"If your name isn't McCourt, you're automatically in the driver's seat," said a source familiar with the Selig-McCourt relationship. "Look, Frank's no angel, but the convenient storyline there was, 'F--k Frank.' "
McCourt's Dodgers, in the eyes of one of baseball executive, descended "from major league to the low minors." In 2011, the vaunted Dodgers dropped below 3 million in attendance for the first time in an uninterrupted season since 1992. The final fall was precipitous, but for the first six years of his ownership, Selig and MLB considered McCourt to be the antidote to what ailed the Dodgers.
According to a source familiar with the sale, the Dodgers lost $55 million in 2003 under News Corporation, which sold the team to McCourt in 2004. In the four years before the sale to McCourt, the Dodgers lost between $29 million and $56 million each year after revenue sharing. In each of the first seven years of McCourt's ownership, the Dodgers made after revenue-sharing profits between $6.6 million and $32.2 million. The Dodgers were growing revenue at roughly eight percent a year.
In addition, the Dodgers hadn't won a playoff game (0-6) since winning the 1988 World Series, when Kirk Gibson pumped his fist around the bases in Game 1. During the McCourt ownership tenure, the Dodgers won 90 games three times and went to consecutive National League Championship Series, a feat no Dodgers team had accomplished since losing the World Series to the Yankees in 1977 and 1978, when Walter O'Malley still owned the team. The Dodgers set attendance records six of the eight years McCourt owned the team. Seven of the top 23 all-time National League attendance marks occurred with McCourt owning the team.
Yet MLB believed he was taking money from the Dodgers to solve his personal problems. The league was also convinced McCourt would use the lucrative television contract he had secured from Fox to pay for his divorce, and it wanted him out. The war between Selig and McCourt was deep and bloody.
"There was no massive campaign to get rid of Frank McCourt. There was a massive campaign to address the serious problems facing the LA Dodgers at that time." Rob Manfred, MLB's chief operating officer
"There's no question things got personal," a source who worked under McCourt said. "Frank isn't wrong when he says they came after him with both barrels, because they did."
Angry at McCourt, MLB went after his ownership even at the expense of the Dodgers' future financial health. Even as McCourt's reputation sank, it defies logic that a truly incompetent businessman could take a $270 million investment and sell it for more than $2 billion. At one point, sources said Selig not only wanted the Dodgers to set its sale price at $847 million, just above the $846 million Tom Ricketts paid for the Cubs (one part to rid baseball of McCourt quickly, another to prove McCourt's personal life had significantly depressed the market value of the franchise), but also that MLB had favored a successor -- hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen, whose fund, SAC Capital, was indicted in July, prosecutors said, for being "a breeding ground for insider trading." It is an assertion Manfred categorically denied.
"It is absolutely untrue," Manfred said. "We never told [the Dodgers] what they could sell the team at. We were not part of that process."
McCourt is on record that he never wanted to sell, and several sources, both formerly and currently working for the Dodgers, saw MLB as squeezing McCourt out of the game. Guggenheim Baseball was then the beneficiary of Selig's zeal to take down McCourt.
"Our approach with the Dodgers was that they had problems and we were going to work with them to solve those problems, but once things reached a critical mass, it is true our approach shifted," Manfred said. "Decisions were being made that would affect the franchise for a long, long, time.
"There was no massive campaign to get rid of Frank McCourt. There was a massive campaign to address the serious problems facing the L.A. Dodgers at that time. Initially, we worked in tandem with them. At one point we realized that wasn't possible. The biggest beneficiary was Frank McCourt and the money he got paid for that franchise."
The immense pressure from MLB to sell combined with the sordid, embarrassing details of McCourt's divorce dropped tickets sold 17.6 percent, concessions 26.9 percent and merchandising 74.7 percent.
"The attitude," said one source, "was even the people who came to the ballpark were not going to buy a beer if their money was going to pay for his divorce."
WHAT GUGGENHEIM INHERITED was the byproduct of a harder narrative, one that implicates not only McCourt but the News Corporation, and Peter O'Malley, dating all the way back to old man Walter, who bought a 25 percent stake in the Dodgers in 1944. Walter O'Malley consolidated his power through steadily buying out his partners, brought the team west from Brooklyn after the 1957 season, held it until his death in 1979 before Peter took over for nearly 20 more years. The Dodgers organization for decades had squandered virtually every historical, organizational and geographical advantage that had made the franchise famous.
The examples were micro, anecdotal and demonstrative, but each was defining. Dodger Stadium was once the first jewel of the West Coast baseball expansion, famous for the gorgeous sightlines and family-affordable tickets that made it the best place to watch a baseball game in America. But when Walter and Kasten took a walk around a historically rich but dilapidated Dodger Stadium in the early days of the purchase, one of the team's first projects was to renovate the bathrooms along the right- and left-field pavilions, where many lower-income fans had filled the moderately priced seats for years.
Although sources familiar with the sale say the McCourt ownership spent $152 million between 2004 and 2009 on improvements into Dodger Stadium, construction crews found that the bathrooms contained original plumbing from when the stadium was first built in 1960.
Kasten also envisioned a state-of-the-art Wi-Fi network that would allow fans to be connected to their smartphones and tablets during the game. They would also sustain a high-tech command center for the players to study video, and for coaches and executives to mine data. Initially, he was met by workmen with laughter.
"The electricians came in, took a look, and told me that an overwhelming amount of the wiring for the facility was original and dated back to 1960," Kasten said. "I told them what I wanted to do, and they told me if we literally tried to plug another toaster into this place, the entire stadium would go dark."
Guggenheim was told during its diligence period that many of the neglected nooks of the ballpark were meeting grounds for gangs and other roughneck elements. It was an ominous piece of information for a new ownership group as the memory of Bryan Stow, a Giants' fan and father of two who was beaten nearly to death on the grounds two years earlier and was released from the hospital only earlier this year, remained fresh in the public's mind.
The stadium infrastructure and atmosphere served as a something of a metaphor for the entire franchise, a team in a state of decay both internally and externally.
MCCOURT'S OWNERSHIP was no doubt complicated, and a decline in the Dodgers' first-class standards seem to be the greatest charge against him. Internally, staffers were wondering what had happened to the Dodger Way. The team that invented international scouting under O'Malley was seriously considering pulling out of the Dominican Republic, one of the richest talent sources for baseball players in the world.
The lifeblood of any organization lies in the unglamorous -- not the free agent deals, but scouting and development. Yet during the last year of the McCourt regime, general manager Ned Colletti was handcuffed. The Dodgers, who once stood at the gate of the game's diversity and history, spent $200,000 on the international operation, a paltry figure that included all international signings. By comparison, the major league minimum salary for one player alone is $400,000.
"It was bare-bones stuff," one member of the Dodgers international team. "At one point, previous ownership was thinking about getting out of the Dominican altogether. It got so bad that [former assistant GM] Kim Ng was writing letters to Frank telling him this was killing us. It was crazy."
According to sources, McCourt did consider pulling out of the Dominican, but instead of financial reasons, the source said McCourt was wary of a runaway performance-enhancing drug culture in Latin America that undermined the integrity of the Dodgers.
If Jackie Robinson was the seminal player of color in the 20th century and he was a Dodger, it should also be remembered that the greatest, most significant Latin American player in history, Roberto Clemente, was signed by the Dodgers and then later claimed by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Yet for the three seasons before the ownership change, Kasten said the Dodgers were last in MLB in international scouting. The team that once signed Clemente and Pedro Martinez and Hideo Nomo and Chan Ho Park and Fernando Valenzuela -- now a Dodgers' radio commentator and still cupid-faced and boyish at 52 -- was being outworked and outspent internationally by the Kansas City Royals.
Internationally, where the game was being transformed, the Dodgers weren't even in the game under McCourt. An excavation was required.
"Los Angeles has, I think, the greatest impact on popular culture and society at large [of] any franchise anywhere in the world, ever," Kasten said. "The Dodgers started with Jackie Robinson and his impact on society, continuing with Sandy Koufax who became an icon for a generation of eastern Europeans trying to assimilate to this country through Fernando, Hideo Nomo, Chan Ho Park. Yasiel Puig. It is part of our DNA."
WHILE THE DODGERS have long been synonymous with American integration, until outfielder Matt Kemp became a breakout star in 2009, the team of Jackie Robinson hadn't developed a home-grown, MVP-level, African-American player since Tommy Davis in the early 1960s, a span of nearly 50 years.
Coming off the team's first NLCS in 20 years, the Dodgers entered the 2008 winter meetings on a high, and it appeared events had aligned to bring CC Sabathia, the biggest free agent on the market, to Los Angeles. A California native, Sabathia wanted to come to Los Angeles and remain in the National League. The fit would have been perfect, and Sabathia would've been the franchise's best African-American pitcher since Don Newcombe pitched for Brooklyn.
"The problem with Frank [McCourt] is that he didn't know what he didn't know. So much of it was a mirage. The big names and the signings were there, but all the things you couldn't see, the stuff that was underground, was all the stuff they cut. There was no money to build anything." Dodgers broadcaster Charley Steiner
The Dodgers offered Sabathia roughly $100 million, but he came to believe the Dodgers lacked the resources to make a serious bid for him. Instead, Sabathia signed an eight-year, $160 million deal with the Yankees and won the World Series the following year. The murmurs continued. The Dodgers, with all that money in the LA market, couldn't step up and get their man?
In January 2012, the morning McCourt agreed to sell the Dodgers to Guggenheim, Colletti thought the Dodgers had a deal to sign free agent Prince Fielder. McCourt was unavailable, in the air traveling. When he landed, the news broke: Detroit swooped in and signed Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million deal.
"The problem with Frank [McCourt] is that he didn't know what he didn't know," said Charley Steiner, the Dodgers' radio announcer and former ESPN anchor and New York Yankees announcer. "So much of it was a mirage. The big names and the signings were there, but all the things you couldn't see, the stuff that was underground, was all the stuff they cut. There was no money to build anything.
"But it is also true that during the dark days of the McCourt divorce, people around here were clamoring for Peter O'Malley to come back, and Peter O'Malley left this franchise in shambles, too."
RESTORATION OF CONFIDENCE and infrastructure requires vision and energy, heart and stamina -- but it also requires cash, and lots of it. In the eyes of many staffers, the Dodgers were a humiliated organization, and Guggenheim Baseball responded with constant reminders that being a Dodger matters. If the franchise had lost its iconic self-confidence, reassurance in the form of plaques, photos, monuments of retired numbers serve as reminders throughout the stadium.
The Guggenheim model was to think big and spend big -- not only on the glossy surface paint, like the $147 million for then-free agent Zack Greinke or last summer's blockbuster trade with the Red Sox for Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto that absorbed $264 million in existing contracts, but also on the bones of the organization, the lights, and yes, the bathrooms. As a first order of business, Colletti received a phone call from Kasten and told him his international budget was being increased from $200,000 to nearly $1.5 million. Colletti's staff increased from four worldwide scouts to 15.
How Guggenheim Baseball formed illustrates the intricate and exclusive web of highly connected players in the sports and financial world. Only a handful of people possess the personal interest and the financial resources to put together a billion-dollar deal, and the creation of Guggenheim tells a story of high-level networking.
Kasten has been an inside player since he was 27, fast-tracked by Ted Turner. Kasten had always been quick and diligent, a master communicator and facilitator, gifted to network. He once oversaw the Hawks, Braves and the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers simultaneously, and was the first general manager of the Washington Nationals after Montreal was relocated to Washington. A career of connections allows him to speak almost blithely about the important threads that began to weave together and connect key people.
"I had been keeping my ears open along the way, just meeting people," Kasten recalled. "Most importantly, Mark Walter and his colleagues at Guggenheim. We didn't know each other. We had just met while I was making these calls and taking trips, and I just meet good people because one call leads to another and leads to another and you get introduced. So I met Mark's colleagues at Guggenheim and I met Mark personally. ... We thought there were real opportunities in sports if you did it correctly. And at that time what was on the table was Houston, so Mark and I began examining.
"I was considering everything. There were football, and basketball teams that were ripe, but I was aiming toward baseball. Mark was fascinated by opportunities in sports but for his passion, baseball was clearly his sweet spot. ... I got wind through various people that something could be happening with the Dodgers. Mark said to me, 'If that's true, let's put everything else aside and go all in on that.' "
Kasten had built a life along the sports middle, turning middling names into winners, winning the World Series with the Braves in 1995. But the Dodgers, however, represented a masterwork, a top-shelf franchise in a cannot-miss market. It was an opportunity that needed to be pursued. Boehly worked directly under Walter at Guggenheim, and Patton had been a Guggenheim client. For years, Peter Guber's name had been floated around the periphery of baseball ownership, but the opportunities seemed not to materialize. In the late 1990s, he was routinely canvassing investment groups to buy the Oakland A's, one of which included Hall of Famer Joe Morgan. Like Walter, Guber was well-financed, having produced major Hollywood blockbuster hits such as "Rain Man," "The Color Purple," and "Batman." In 2012, Guber partnered with Joe Lacob and bought the NBA's Golden State Warriors.
The group had the look of a dream team. Walter and Boehly and Patton had the money. Guber had money and big Los Angeles connections. Kasten has the team-building expertise, but something was missing: the connection to immediate credibility not only with winning but with winning in Los Angeles.
KASTEN AND EARVIN JOHNSON had known each other for two-plus decades. When Johnson retired from the Lakers in 1991, the first time after announcing he was HIV-positive, Kasten had tried unsuccessfully to hire him as coach of the Atlanta Hawks. That meeting took place in Rosen's living room. Twenty years later, in the L.A. offices of Magic Johnson Enterprises, Kasten, Rosen and Johnson met again, this time with Walter and Boehly.
"Mark and Todd had it together," Johnson said. "They laid out what they wanted to do. Then I asked one question -- 'Do you want to win?' -- because I cannot have my brand tied to a Dodger brand and we make this a real estate play or some other play because the fans won't kill them. They're going to kill me. And I said, 'I can't do it unless we're about winning.' "
"I want to be part of the strategy. I want to be a part of everything. I've never not written a check. I want to be invested in the deal. I want everyone to look at me as a real owner and not just some guy who put his name on it." Magic Johnson
An hour after the meeting, Rosen called Kasten to tell him that Johnson was in, potentially closing an important circle in the history of baseball. For the team of Robinson, where Robinson grew up, Johnson would become the first African-American owner in the history of Major League Baseball, no small achievement considering the history of black ownership in American professional sports began with baseball in the Negro Leagues.
"My mother did one thing that just shocked me, really got to me. She was sitting in the owner's box, and around the fourth or fifth inning I see her crying," Johnson said. "And I say, 'Mama, what's wrong?' She says you're not going to understand this, but your grandfather, my father, was such a big Jackie Robinson fan on the radio.' And that moment just like, wow. It was a prideful moment."
For Johnson, being in the ownership circle is new in baseball, but not new personally. Johnson sold both his equity stakes in Starbucks Coffee and in the Lakers at least in part to finance joining Guggenheim's bid. Internally, Johnson did not want to be patronized, the athlete, especially the African-American athlete, who lends his name to a venture and then has little say in its operation. In one of his first meetings with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Johnson convinced the chain to remake its food menu at the Harlem restaurants because while the African-American clientele would purchase coffee like any other consumer, "Black people," Johnson told Schultz, "don't eat scones." It was a small but shrewd example of the different lens Johnson brought to the table.
"I want to show these athletes and entertainers that we can be owners," Johnson said. "Now, going in with Stan and Mark and Todd has been a great experience, but I want them to respect me, too. And the way you get that respect is to write a check. And not to say they wouldn't if I didn't, but the real respect comes from when you've got skin in the game. And that's what it's been for all my partnerships. Howard Schultz [said] if I didn't write the check, he wasn't going to do that deal with Starbucks. Go down the line. [Late Lakers owner] Dr. [Jerry] Buss told me, 'Hey, I love you like a son, but you have to write a check.'
"When you have to write a $50 million check, you have to say, 'OK, is the investment going to pay off? Is it the right move? Is it the right decision?' " Johnson said. "To me, your name is not enough. And I'll say it because first of all I think that fans react different. The players act different. The players when they're alone are saying, 'What? Magic wrote a check?' So they understand that, and it's also different for me because I want to make sure I make it right, make sure it goes the way of our strategy. I want to be part of the strategy. I want to be a part of everything. I've never not written a check. I want to be invested in the deal. I want everyone to look at me as a real owner and not just some guy who put his name on it."
Privately, Johnson was also motivated by creating a different orthodoxy for former players, to show them that actual ownership can be within their reach. But he's also aware of the fatal mistake; the one made so many times with tragicomic predictability is the expert in one field who believes he's an expert in all fields. For Johnson, it is a pothole he appears to have seen from a block away.
"My first real deal was with Sony, and Sony changed to Loews Theatres," he said. "We're about a week away from opening, and I ask the food buyer, 'How many hot dogs do you have for opening for Friday?' And he looked at me like I was just a basketball player and he said, 'You got the same amount as everybody else.' Thirty days, same supply. So we open up the theater on Friday and what usually would go for a month in a suburban theater we sold them all in one night. So what he didn't understand is that the black mindset is, 'We're not going to go to dinner and a movie. We're going to have our dinner at the movie.' And I called him the next day and I'm at the supermarket shopping for hot dogs and buns, and I said, 'This is the reason why I came to you.'
"So, there are things that I know about minorities that [the other owners] can't possibly know. Now, I'm not going to come in here and think I know baseball, because I don't. I'm a fan, but I don't know, so I'm learning from Stan, and I learn from Don and Ned. So I learn, but they also learn from me. So, it's a beautiful situation, and what we've decided here is just play our role: I'm not trying to get into trading players, Mark and the contracts with him and Stan. That's their thing, but when it comes to working the suites for all our corporate sponsors or the players, I go down there and I do that. And just to be around the guys, I don't go down there. This is their world. So they ask why I don't come down, and I say this is their thing. I had mine. I don't want the fans asking me for autographs when they should be asking Matt Kemp. So I stay away. This is their moment, their time to shine."
THE BLUEPRINT WAS TO GO ALL IN, not simply because owning a baseball team was a vanity purchase, but Kasten said because the institutional psyche of the organization was humiliated, bruised. After a summer of wonder and million-dollar renovations to the training facilities that make potential free agents salivate, the Dodgers approach October expecting to return to their place in the autumn as annual participants, their place in the order restored.
The Dodgers believe October will be electric, with Puig and Kershaw and Gonzalez and a motivated team on the national stage for the first time in four years, but it is their deeply financed ownership and rich soil of local advantages that set them up for future Octobers, placing the Mercedes back into the fast lane.
"So why did we pay $2.1 billion for the Dodgers?" Kasten said one morning in his office. "I like to echo what Mark says. We bought it for $2.1 billion because we thought it was worth more."