Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Christmas Shopping With Frank McCourt (aka What I Did Over My Holiday Vacation)

Closing up the SoSG office prior to the vacation break is a lonely, sad task, so you can probably imagine my lack of enthusiasm when I heard the phone ring on the afternoon of December 23. I figured it was a solicitor, or SoSG Pedro Guerrero asking for his logon password again, so imagine my surprise when I picked up the phone and Frank McCourt's melodic voice was on the other end of the line.

“SoSG Steve Sax, is that you?” he asked. “I’m so glad I reached you. It’s the holidays, and I’m in that Christmas spirit, so I’d like to invite you to go shopping with me.”

“Wow, Frank, that’s awful kind of you,” I replied. “But I’m kind of busy between now and Christmas Day, you know how it is. I mean, I don’t expect the malls to be all that busy or anything given this economy, but I still have to shop for...”

“No, you idiot. I’m Frank McCourt. I may drop $46M worth of coin on a new Malibu house, but I don’t go Christmas shopping until after the 25th! Are you nuts? Even with this year’s markdown sales, you’d be crazy to even pay those retail prices! Let’s make a date for the 26th. I’ll see you then.” And he hung up.

With my pre-holiday shopping rush plans intact, it was relatively easy for me to pencil Frank in on my post-Christmas calendar. After all, I for one wasn't planning a lot of posts over the break (as eagle-eye SoSG readers can plainly attest), so I’d be relatively free. All I had to do was make sure I didn’t have too much of a hangover on the 26th from mom’s eggnog.

Strangely, the first place that Frank wanted to go to shop was the local Ralphs grocery store. At first I thought it was because of the double coupons. But as soon as Jamie dropped us off in the parking lot, and Frank and I entered the front door of the supermarket, I realized that Frank McCourt shops differently from the rest of us.

When most people go into a grocery store, they head down the main aisles. You know, produce, meat, milk, beer, chips, etc. Not Frank. He hustled us down the beer aisle rather quickly (probably fearing that I’d notice that MGD goes for about $0.50 a can, not $12 a cup). Instead, I had to hurry to follow McCourt all the way to the back of the store, over by the service door, where there was a small makeshift shelf with a bunch of random items.

Half-stale bread that had gotten crusty and hard around the edges. Boxes of cereal with crushed cardboard packaging, making it look unappealing to the casual shopper. Produce that was well past its normal shelf-life, showing minor signs of spoiling. Even a Pillsbury Poppin’ Fresh Dough package that had already popped open at the center and was busting out of its cylindrical package.

And that’s when it hit me: This isn’t just how Frank McCourt shops for food items. It’s how he shops for Dodger players, as well.

Look at the reclamation projects that McCourt, and his henchmen Paul DePodesta and Ned Colletti, have chased in the last five years. Nomar Garciaparra, coming off an injury-riddled season in Chicago, ended up his Dodger career with some great highlight moments but played fewer than 300 games over three years. The Dodgers ignored widely-known data showing Jason Schmidt’s velocity had fallen off a cliff in San Francisco, and now find themselves in a position to extract a grand total of one measly win out of an entire $45M three-year contract. Andruw Jones reported to work in 2008 literally bursting at the seams; one has to think that while the Braves saw the drop in his power numbers and batting average and concluded he was a danger, McCourt and crew swooped right in and offered the Michelin Man the largest annual salary in the history of the franchise. On the other end of the weight spectrum, powerless Juan Pierre wasn’t just stale; he was toast to begin with.

And with the exception of Manny Ramirez, whose two-month 2008 rental last year was mostly subsidized by the Boston Red Sox, I couldn’t think of a legitimate star that McCourt and his henchmen have bagged in their five years of ownership. Each year, a bevy of big names hits the free agent market, tantalizing a subset of teams lucky enough to have the financial flexibility to step up to the plate. The Dodgers, with a loyal fan base and the second-largest metropolitan market in the country, have the ability to pay for and play with these types of high-impact, marquee players. But the organization has chosen instead to pick its roster from more risky, less financially onerous options. If we're lucky, we've heard some of these lesser-known names, and not just from trolling the disabled lists of other teams. But more often than not, they are players who have an outside shot at playing above-average--if they can over-perform.

It reminded me of something I read in Sports Illustrated by Dan Patrick during the vacation break:

THIS WEEK I interviewed a baseball GM who said the following:

• DESPITE his team's need for pitching, he didn't even bother drawing up a contract offer for CC Sabathia once he heard how many years he wanted.

• NEGOTIATIONS are basically at a stalemate with a popular star player who turned around his team's season: "We're not going to bid against ourselves."

• WHEN the subject of the Yankees' spending came up, he said, "They're living in a different world."

THE AMAZING THING: This was not the GM of Kansas City or Pittsburgh. This was the Dodgers' Ned Colletti. (The star in question was Manny Ramirez [Editor's note: no shit. As if it was Gary Bennett.].) Forget about competitive balance, at least in the off-season. Compared with New York, just about every place else is small market.

Patrick makes a point, but for the Dodgers, the blame can’t be placed on the Yankees. The fact of the matter is that Frank McCourt runs the Dodgers like a small-market team; instead of going for the great players ("why bother?"), he picks up damaged goods and hopes, often in the face of data that would say otherwise, that these goods are poised for a breakout year and hungry to prove everyone wrong. And guess what? The data is often right, and the Dodgers are lucky to sneak into the playoffs amidst a weak NL West which thankfully doesn’t further illuminate the team’s roster weaknesses. We should be dominating our pathetic division each year, with competition like the woeful Padres and punchless Giants. But McCourt will only spend to fill a roster that's good enough. Barely.

So along we plod this offseason, collecting a set of players which, excluding Rafael Furcal, don't elicit any major levels of excitement from faithful Dodger fans. Casey Blake. Mark Loretta. Claudio Vargas. Shawn Estes. Yawn. And, now, we're shopping for we've re-signed former Dodger Guillermo Mota, who has a total of six saves and an ERA of 4+ since we traded him to the Marlins in 2004 (Mota sported a 1.97 to 3.07 ERA with LA). Wow, what a goldmine! Season ticket holders, how psyched are you to see Estes instead of Derek Lowe in 2009? And Mota in the late innings, rather than Takashi Saito?

Assistant GM Kim Ng is preaching with Dodger fans to be patient, but it's hard to deny the frustration when the names acquired are far less exciting--and likely, less impactful--than the names lost (Brad Penny, Greg Maddux, Lowe, and of course, Ramirez).

Meanwhile, we've watched a cornucopia of high-impact free agents rush by us as we sit on the sidelines like a spectator at a parade. CC Sabathia. AJ Burnett. Mark Teixeira (whom I'm glad we didn't sign, as I can never spell his name correctly). Jason Giambi. Trevor Hoffman. Francisco Rodriguez. Randy Mullet Johnson. None of these guys will play for the Dodgers in 2009 (though with our operating strategy, we'll likely be in the running for them in 2012).

Flip the argument on its head, and take the perspective of the free agent. With this off-season arsenal of signings, what big-name player would want to play here with the Dodgers in 2009? Do these front office moves instill confidence that the team wants to build upon all the positive momentum of the 2008 season, in which we vanquished the Chicago Cubs for our first playoff series victory in 20 years? Does the glamour of the Los Angeles lifestyle compensate for playing with, save a handful of overachieving youngsters and Furcal, an island of misfit toys?

I stood there behind McCourt, who was busily filling up his basket with these clearance items, until he had exhausted his perusal of every shelf. He looked at me, and said, “Ready to go? Jamie is probably waiting outside.” We set off back toward the cash registers at the front.

And as we turned the corner of the aisle, we suddenly saw something amazing. There, right in front of us, was a wonderful display of the finest cut filet mignon that you could ever imagine. Succulent, rich, and hearty, it promised to nourish well beyond any of the random goods that Frank had hastily picked off the bargain shelf. Sure, it was pricey. But it was the kind of signature dish that would make everything else in the meal taste better, too. As McCourt looked the filet mignon over, I could tell that even his mouth was watering. I, of course, couldn’t wait to throw this item in our basket, even if it would displace some of the items already in there.

“Well, Frank? Don’t just stand there,” I yelled, trying to drown out the impatient bleats of a car horn sounded by Jamie McCourt outside. “You going to finally step up and fork over some cash for a real player, for a change?”


QuadSevens said...

Well said! And now I want some steak.

Alex Cora said...

Nice post. Even if we do get the nice piece of steak, if the side dishes suck, it wont taste the same.

Orel said...

Pillsbury Poppin' Fresh Dough. Andruw Jones bursting at the seams. Vivid, vivid imagery, Sax.