Feb 04

Throwback throwdown

The Dodgers will wear throwback uniforms at six 12:10 p.m., half-price-on-food-and-drink weekday games this season. You can vote on your pick at the Dodgers’ website.

The choices:

The first of the three uniform options was worn by the Dodgers exactly 100 years ago. The 1911 road uniform features fine narrow pinstripes and the BROOKLYN name displayed vertically in small capital letters down the button panel. Known as the “Superbas,” the Brooklyn team wearing this uniform played its second-to-last season in 1911 at Washington Park.

The second option is the 1931 road uniform, which was the only variety of the 1930s uniform designs to sport a block capital “B” on the front of the jersey.

The third option is the 1940s “Satin” road uniform, which is blue and features the trim and DODGERS script in white. With the advent of night baseball at Ebbets Field in the 1940s, the original uniform used a highly reflective satin fabric to be more visible under the lights.

Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness has a photo of the satin uniform.

Which do you like?

Jan 31

Best of luck, Rob Neyer

The big news for us writers and fans of baseball writing is that Rob Neyer’s leaving ESPN.com after 15 years, destination to be announced. Tributes have come across the Internet fast and heartfelt, because Neyer was a pioneer in online baseball writing, open-minded, intelligent and fun, and always welcoming to new points of view (including mine in the earliest days of Dodger Thoughts). All my best to him for the future.

It’s funny — coincidentally, my first anniversary with ESPNLosAngeles.com is Tuesday, and I really wanted to thank Eric Neel, Becky Hudson and the whole crew for how well they’ve treated me.  Hopefully, it’s a relationship that will continue for a long time.

Elsewhere …

  • This year’s Dodgertown Classic at Dodger Stadium will take place on March 13 and feature USC and UCLA at 2:30 p.m., preceded by Georgia-St. Mary’s at 10 a.m. Tickets are $7 in advance, $12 on game day, with half-price concessions and free parking. Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com notes something different about this year’s event.

    … Last year’s Classic was staged for the benefit of the Dodgers Dream Foundation. While this year’s Classic will instead be a revenue-producing event for the Dodgers, a club spokesman said that change has nothing to do with the fact the Dodgers Dream Foundation, the team’s official, non-profit charitable organization, is presently under investigation by the California attorney general’s office.

    That investigation centers on questions surrounding compensation to the foundation’s former chief executive, Howard Sunkin, who now is employed by the club in a different role heading up the community-relations department, according to multiple reports.

    “It essentially came down to complying with NCAA requirements that an event of this nature had to have a title sponsor attached to it,” said Josh Rawitch, the Dodgers’ vice president for communications. “We were fortunate enough to bring in the Automobile Club of Southern California in place of the Dodgers Dream Foundation.”

    The participating schools — USC, UCLA, the University of Georgia and St. Mary’s College from the Bay Area — won’t receive any of the revenue for the event, also in compliance with NCAA rules. The games will count on the schools’ regular-season records, but the USC-UCLA game won’t count in the Pacific-10 conference standings. …

    UCLA is ranked No. 1 in the USA Today/ESPN.com preseason college baseball poll.

  • David Young of True Blue L.A. offers this gem: the Los Angeles Dodgers All-Spelling-Bee Team.
  • If Jonah Keri and Dave Cameron of Fangraphs were in charge of drafting players for a major-league All-Star game, Clayton Kershaw and Hong-Chih Kuo would be the two Dodgers chosen.
  • Fun story by Evan Bladh, Sr. at Opinion of Kingman’s Performance about his unexpected connections with Roberto Baly of Vin Scully Is My Homeboy.
Jan 21

More Dodger prospect ponderings

I’m growing increasingly numb to the various lists ranking Dodger prospects. My interest in the prospects themselves hasn’t waned, but more and more, the ordering of them seems to have been generated like letter-number combinations from a Bingo tumbler.

Here are two more lists, from Baseball America and from Fangraphs. As if to thumb their nose at my state of mind, both rank Dee Gordon and Zach Lee first and second, but for example, BA has Trayvon Robinson 10th, while Fangraphs has him third.

I think I just enjoy getting information about the players rather than worrying about what order they should be in. In that spirit, here’s one excerpt: BA’s Best Tools in the Dodger farm system. You can see why BA likes Gordon – errors aside, they rank him as the team’s best defensive infielder.

Best Hitter for Average: Dee Gordon
Best Power Hitter: Jerry Sands
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Justin Sellers
Fastest Baserunner: Dee Gordon
Best Athlete: Dee Gordon
Best Fastball: Kenley Jansen
Best Curveball: Chris Withrow
Best Slider: Scott Elbert
Best Changeup: Allen Webster
Best Control: Zach Lee
Best Defensive Catcher: Gorman Erickson
Best Defensive Infielder: Dee Gordon
Best Infield Arm: Pedro Baez
Best Defensive Outfielder: James Baldwin
Best Outfield Arm: Blake Smith

* * *

I’m finding the transformation of Dodger Stadium into a supercross arena fascinating, if not a little frightening. I really would be curious to see it for myself. In any case, Tom Hoffarth of the Daily News gives us a look and talks to Dodger Stadium head groundskeeper Eric Hansen about his fears.

Dec 16

Farewell, Bob Feller

APBob Feller

There’s so much good material online on the life of Bob Feller, I’ll just start you off by linking to Joe Posnanski’s remembrance. Then there’s David Wade at the Hardball Times, Tim Kurkjian at ESPN.com, mulitple pieces by Rob Neyer at ESPN.com and Keith Thursby at the Times.  Don’t skimp on your reading …

* * *

  • Further to Wednesday’s points about the dangers of offering relievers multiyear contracts comes this piece from Dave Cameron at Fangraphs.
  • Daniel Burke, co-owner of the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate in Chattanooga, is ailing — an emotional situation for the family, and tangentially, one that could affect the Dodgers’ future with the team. David Paschall of the Chattanooga Times Free Press has the story (brought to my attention by a Dodger Thoughts commenter).
  • Sons of Steve Garvey points us to this New York Times article about gadgets and such that might be coming to baseball, including this little slice of heaven:

    At one booth, Brian Traudt explained his company’s innovation, which could improve the fan experience at stadiums, unless some people actually enjoy waiting in line for three innings for a cheeseburger. The product, Bypass Lane, is a kind of E-ZPass for concession stands that is administered through an application on a smartphone.

    The user enters the stadium and confirms its location via GPS. Once the section, row and seat number are included, the application identifies all the concession stands and provides menus. The fan orders — and pays — from the phone. When the order is ready, the fan receives a text message to pick it up at a lane dedicated to Bypass Lane orders. The fan can skip the longer lines — though perhaps not the jealous glances of other fans.

  • I hope you caught Wednesday’s MLB Network rebroadcast of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series.  I was able to see the final six innings, and that was just a heap of fun.
Oct 18

Yankee fans surrender


Mark Humphrey/APAlone in a crowd

I don’t ever want to hear a Yankee fan again criticize Dodger Stadium fans about leaving early. There were already empty seats in a quiet ballpark when the ninth inning of Game 3 of the American League Championship Series began, more empty seats even when the game was still in doubt, and now Yankee fans are fleeing the ballpark tonight like they found out the world is ending.

This isn’t news, by the way – it’s long been true that fans leave early throughout the country. Nor am I criticizing people for leaving early on a school/work night when it’s past your bedtime. But it just needs to be said again. People like to believe Dodger fans are the only ones who leave early, and it’s never been close to being true. Tonight is but another exhibit.

Oct 13

Time to end Dodger Stadium’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’

No, this is not a call to give up on the future of the Dodgers. But it is an emphatic statement that it’s time for Dodger Stadium to bid farewell to its two-season-old tradition of playing “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the middle of the eighth inning.

Putting aside my own subjective feelings about the Journey song, it has always been a mixed blessing at best, given the fact that singer Steve Perry is an avowed Giants fan. San Francisco began using the song itself as its own anthem, and now that the Giants are in the National League Championship Series, it’s going to get even more exposure as a San Francisco treat.

It’s true that “Don’t Stop Believin’” has energized the crowd at Dodger Stadium — not to mention the life of Jameson Moss — but are really to believe that it’s the only song that can do the job? There’s no reason for this song to have dueling citizenship.

Moss and David Hasselhoff did a memorable air duet of “Don’t Stop Believin’” at the Dodgers’ season finale Oct. 3.  We should let the song go on a high note.  Let San Francisco have it. We can do better.

Jul 13

Dodgers to sell some Field Level seats at $5 for kids

The Dodgers announced today that for remaining home games this season, fans can buy Loge and Field Level seats for kids 14-and-under for $5 with each adult ticket purchase. (The fine print is this: Availability begins two hours prior to game time, maximum of two $5 tickets per customer.)

So, if you time it right, you can pay $130 for your Field Level MVP seat or $35 for your garden-variety Loge seat and then $5 for your kid’s seat. More details here.

Apr 09

April 9 game chat + Superhuman pretzel update

With the Dodgers’ home opener only a few days away, here’s a link to the latest Dodger Stadium food news. Apparently USC and UCLA fans both like pastrami. Also …

  • Victory Knot: A new item is the Victory Knot, an extreme take on the traditional soft pretzel. Enough to feed about four hungry fans, this giant pretzel is made with two pounds of dough, topped with sea salt and served with three dipping sauces – chipotle honey mustard, sweet cinnamon crème and beer cheese – in a full-size pizza box. The Victory Knot is available at California Pizza Kitchen stands
  • Fan Favorites – Back by Popular Demand: Due to overwhelming fan demand, including a Facebook group dedicated to the subject, the spicy Picante Dog will be reintroduced to the menu throughout Dodger Stadium. California Pizza Kitchen has also returned as the pizza sponsor and Dippin’ Dots will be available at portable carts on the Field and Reserve levels. The fish tacos at the Camacho’s stands, made with beer-battered cod served with shredded cabbage, chili lime crema, pico de gallo and a fresh lime wedge, were first introduced last season and will also return in 2010
  • Kaiser Permanente Healthy Plate Carts: Levy Restaurants continues to offer lighter, nutritious options for fans at the three Kaiser Permanente Healthy Plate Carts. The menus are expanding this year to include new items like the Curried Chicken Lettuce Wraps served with radish, cucumber, cottage cheese and cherry tomatoes; Spicy Shrimp Cocktail, a refreshing gazpacho-like dish; Fresh Fruit Salad using only fruits that are in season; Greek Salad made with basil, feta cheese, tomatoes and red onions with low-fat balsamic vinaigrette; assorted sushi including California rolls, spicy tuna rolls and cucumber rolls; and a turkey sandwich served on whole wheat with avocado. Gluten-free beer and snacks will also be available at the Kaiser Permanente Healthy Plate Carts
Mar 12

Dodger Stadium-Union Station shuttle service returns

Former Griddle blogger Bob Timmermann passes along the news that bus service between Union Station and Dodger Stadium has been restored, according to Zach Behrens of  LAist, thanks to a $300,000 grant from the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Timmermann, who just completed work on his presidential biography blog One Through Forty-Two or Forty-Three, gets a fine introduction for his new post as a contributor to L.A. Observed from the site’s main man, Kevin Roderick.

* * *

UCLA baseball is off to a 10-0 start, and Mark Saxon of ESPNLosAngeles.com looks at the two pitchers who have played a big role:  Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer. To attend UCLA, Cole turned down the Yankees after being drafted in the 2008 first round out of Orange Lutheran High School.

* * *

Here’s Ramona Shelburne’s postgame report from Taiwan for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Feb 23

Potential postponement of McCourt trial further clouds 2010

When you get right down to it, I just want baseball to be about baseball.

And so the news today from Bill Shaikin of the Times that the McCourt divorce trial will quite possibly be delayed past its scheduled May 24 start, that it won’t necessarily be resolved before season’s end, is depressing.

My inclination would be just to shut it out — wake me up when the trial ends — but doing what I do, I can’t shut it out. The stature of the story is so large that it just takes over. Matt Kemp could hit three home runs in a game this summer, but if there’s another divorce court revelation, that becomes the news, because it affects The Fate of the Franchise.

Last year, we were blindsided by Manny Ramirez’s suspension. Thank goodness we didn’t know it was coming, because we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the team’s hot start otherwise. But no matter how well things go this year for the Dodgers, we know that dreary news about the ownership is lurking. And if things go poorly for the Dodgers, forget about it. It’s going to be a very grumpy year. Cloudy with a chance of screwballs.

Dodger fans are an impatient lot in general these days, waiting for another World Series title like prisoners in an LAX flight delay. The McCourt saga takes those fans and sticks a smelly seatmate next to them who won’t stop talking. Everything that’s bad will be made worse; everything that’s good will be temporary.

I can picture the thrilling moments; I can picture myself enjoying them. But then, around the corner, I see the latest McCourt news, and people getting twisted in knots over it.

All I can say is, don’t go looking for reasons to be cynical or bitter about the Dodgers. They’ll find you. No matter how low the McCourts go, try to let yourself enjoy the games. Whoever owns the Dodgers, don’t let them own you. It’s baseball.

* * *

Ken Gurnick’s preseason feature for MLB.com on Clayton Kershaw is a good one. There are the requisite Spring Training bromides from Kershaw — in addition to an announcement of his engagement to Texas A&M senior Ellen Melson — but also some nuts-and-bolts talk from the young lefty as well as pitching coach Rick Honeycutt.

… For his part, Kershaw knows that he’s fully responsible for his high pitch counts.

“What I want to do is learn how to minimize my pitches. The way to do that is by fastball command, that’s huge for me,” he said. “I worked on that a lot this offseason by making my bullpen [sessions] as game-like as possible. Last year my bullpens were just practice, to make sure my arm felt right.

“This year the focus is on game situations so my fastball command is something I can always rely on when my other pitches aren’t going great. I need to throw breaking pitches over for strikes. Even though I’m not a master of the changeup by any means, that pitch can really get you out of there with as few pitches as possible. If I minimize my pitches, there won’t be a focus on how many pitches I’ve thrown.” …

The article indicates that some of the pitch count restriction on Kershaw will be loosened this year. That’s fine to an extent, but the thing to keep in mind is that despite an additional year under his belt, he’s still only going to be 22 in the 2010 season. His arm is still too young to leave completely unprotected.

“That came up in the staff meeting,” pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. “I’m not saying we’ll take the gloves off, but at the same time, we feel much better about how he bounced back and stayed strong and consistent through last season. We’re in a situation where we feel we can loosen the reins a little bit and slowly increase him.”

A year ago, by the way, Kershaw hosted a baseball camp that helped raise funds for a trip by his fiancee and her family to help Zambian orphans.

* * *

  • Every member of the Dodgers’ 40-man roster has reported early except for the three Rs: Ronald Belisario, Rafael Furcal and Ronnie Belliard, according to Gurnick.
  • The Dodgers will play three March exhibition games in Taiwan instead of two, Gurnick confirmed.
  • Congrats to Jeff Weaver, who will miss some training camp for new dad duty (and dooty). Dylan Hernandez of the Times adds that Weaver said he will opt out of his contract with the Dodgers rather than accept a minor-league assignment.
  • Some fun promotions are on tap for the coming season, including a Vin Scully poster. The younger generation of Dodgers is also featured prominently in several giveaways.
  • I’ve been meaning to talk about the ticket sales news from Monday, but in case I don’t get to it, here’s a link to the official release.
  • From 50 years ago today, here’s a snapshot of pitchers including Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax kicking off Spring Training, offered by Keith Thursby of the Daily Mirror.
  • A slideshow of the key players in the McCourt divorce drama was provided by Lawrence Delevingne of Business Insider Law Review (link via Rob McMillin’s 6-4-2).
  • Finally, I just wanted to pass along this Variety blog post of no significance: “Series I dream about: George Costanza on ‘Big Love.’”
Feb 19

Jamie McCourt court filing shines spotlight on Dodgers’ three-ring circus

First, the links:

“Jamie McCourt doubles request for monthly support,” by Bill Shaikin of the Times.

“In Divorce Suit, Wife Disputes Dodgers’ Owner’s Wealth,” by John R. Emshwiller of the Wall Street Journal.

“Filings Running Wild,” by Joshua Fisher of Dodger Divorce.

* * *

Jamie McCourt’s various requests for monthly support from Frank McCourt are, in many ways, a sideshow in contrast to the springtime courtroom event that will determine whether one owns the Dodgers or both do. So I’ll just point to the most interesting tent attractions: Continue reading

Feb 09

In search of truth about Frank McCourt and the Dodgers


Frank McCourt has a lot on his mind.

Dodger fans might not believe. But Frank McCourt believes.

It’s not an act.  He’s not just saying the right thing to say the right thing.  Every so often, in fact, he says the wrong thing – something that raises more questions about him than answers – because his belief in his good intentions is so strong that he doesn’t always seem to realize when his words leave him open to second-guessing.

He wants the support of Dodger fans, in part because the support obviously will do him good, but also in part because he believes he’s earned it. He understands that fan dissatisfaction is part of the game any time you’re not celebrating a World Series title. He understands that he’s a target, though he doesn’t seem to accept all the reasons the red dot on his back has grown into the size of the flag of Japan. He even understands, though he’s not one to talk much about them, that he makes mistakes. But he believes he will be vindicated in the end, and he is not planning for that end to be this year, courtroom or not.

That’s my verdict after six years of observing McCourt since he (and, for most of those years, his wife Jamie) took over the Dodgers and, more to the point, after more than 60 minutes of a one-on-one interview with him Jan. 29, coincidentally the sixth anniversary of his news conference to discuss his purchase of the team.

Of course, what McCourt believes about himself ultimately isn’t relevant. What’s relevant is whether the Dodgers organization will thrive going forward. And I’m going to go this far: This team will live or die on its judgment – on the judgment of McCourt and the people he employs – rather than on McCourt’s finances. His bank account, despite what most people have concluded this offseason, is not destroying the team.

If the Dodgers falter, it will be because of insufficient intellect (or insufficient luck), not insufficient dollars.

The anti-arbitration defense
The pivotal moment of the 2009-10 Dodgers offseason was when the team didn’t offer salary arbitration to free agents Randy Wolf and Orlando Hudson. The twin decisions surrendered not only two players who made key contributions to the Dodgers’ 2009 playoff run – the team’s fourth in six years, McCourt would hasten to remind you – but also the potential for top draft picks that would come as compensation if the players signed elsewhere. The moves lit the flame of fan concern, whether you were more concerned with the short-term or long-term future. It seemed an unmistakable retreat.

Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire
The Dodgers are betting that letting Randy Wolf go won’t come back to haunt them.

Wolf is probably headed for a decline after having an unexpected career-best year at age 33, but it’s still hard to say that he wouldn’t have helped the 2010 Dodgers in some way – or that the draft picks that would have come in place of him wouldn’t have helped down the road. So why not offer him arbitration, unless you couldn’t afford to?

“I think that the downside wouldn’t have been horrible,” McCourt said, “because he’s a very good pitcher, and he pitched very well for us and he was a model citizen. From the area, really classy young man and so forth. But the judgment was made, and again, judgments are judgments. They’re not perfect. No one has a crystal ball.

“I, by the way, can see both sides of this debate, very, very clearly. To me this is one really good baseball debate, in terms of ‘Do you or don’t you.’ I think, like I was saying before, what would have happened (if we had offered arbitration), maybe Randy Wolf knows, but I don’t. And I don’t think the downside would have been bad for the organization, because he’s a good pitcher and a good guy, but I think that the judgment was made that we (could) do even better for the club.”

That decision will certainly be tested, as will the one with Hudson. The second baseman’s signing last week of a one-year, $5 million contract with Minnesota might have vindicated the Dodgers’ decision on him, since Hudson could potentially have earned twice that amount in salary arbitration, based on the typical raise awarded to an arbitration-eligible player who earned $8 million the year before.

The roughly $5 million the Dodgers saved can help make up for the lost draft picks had Hudson refused arbitration – after all, the chances of a low first-round pick earning back the team’s investment in him, plus $5 million, aren’t all that high – while the combination of Blake DeWitt, Jamey Carroll and Ronnie Belliard could come close to approximating Hudson’s 2010 value, while saving another $2.5 million or so.

But speaking before Hudson had inked the deal, McCourt argued that too much about the Dodgers’ commitment to their future, whether the 2010 team or the 2013 team, was being inferred from the Hudson decision, no matter what kind of contract he was going to sign.

“I think anybody can pick one or two examples and jump to a conclusion,” McCourt said. “Their opinion is valid – I respect their opinion – but it doesn’t mean that their conclusion is right. There are 101 decisions that get made and judgments that get made every day.”

McCourt would argue that the Dodgers weren’t afraid to offer Hudson arbitration because they didn’t have the money, and it wasn’t that they didn’t care about the draft picks.

“I think it’s really important that the club invest in the long term,” McCourt said. “There’s no question about that.”

But do the actions of the McCourt Dodgers back up his words?

Developments in development
McCourt feels his regime isn’t given enough credit for its investment on the player development front, whether for scouting or for Camelback Ranch, the team’s year-old spring training facility in Arizona. In addition to being a boon for those fans who couldn’t make the journey to venerable Vero Beach (albeit a disappointment to those who could), Camelback has boosted the organization’s development efforts.

Morry Gash/AP
Opening Day at Camelback Ranch, March 1, 2009

“That went from vision to reality in like 15 months,” McCourt said, “literally from a napkin to the reality. It was tumbleweeds, flatland and nothing, and now it’s considered the single-finest spring training facility in all of baseball. We broke the Cactus League record for attendance in our first year. We’re gonna kill it this year because a lot of people didn’t even realize it was there … and we have what is the state-of-the-art development operation there for this organization. So it’s really as much [about] our farm system as it is about spring training.

“So that is an example I think of two things. One is execution on vision and finding a way to do that, but two, it’s also a way of being resourceful – taking a little bit of heat by the way, [because] there’s a lot of people who said ‘Don’t move from Vero,’ and I respected their viewpoint, but it turned out to be the right decision, and the organization is much better off in terms of our development, our ability to meet our goal to have the finest development system in the game by having Camelback Ranch. To me that’s much more tangible evidence of our commitment to [development] than not offering Randy Wolf arbitration.”

It’s too difficult to say whether McCourt is right about this, because it’s too difficult to measure the importance of what he’s extolling. Will Camelback Ranch turn borderline major-leaguers into legitimate ones? If it’s true, then the McCourt Dodgers have hit a home run in development, no matter how many Dodgers fans realize it.

But how would anyone know? After all, this is a team that already has a 17th-round draft pick from hockey country, Russell Martin, and a sixth-round pick who specialized in basketball, Matt Kemp, who have each won a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove in the same year. Both were drafted before the McCourts bought the team and developed long before Camelback was even imagined. Cinderella stories are part of the game. Teams have always depended on those.

So even if the Dodgers have made a step forward in development, the pressure remains to have the best possible draft scenario and to retain the right prospects to sustain the team over the long haul.

McCourt certainly claims to believe in this.

“Just thinking back over the last six years,” he said, “I think that the pressure on the organization has probably been greatest in terms of moving young talent for the quick short-term fix, and I think for the most part we’ve resisted doing that, and it’s paid off in a huge way. The consistency, the success we have on the field is I think directly related to committing to finding and cultivating that young talent, and being patient with that.”

Santana Mas
If there was a moment that really seemed to call into question the Dodgers’ ability to commit to prospects, it was when the team traded Carlos Santana and Jonathan Meloan in mid-2008 for a three-month test run of Casey Blake. (Blake re-signed with the Dodgers as a free agent after the 2008 season.) It was widely reported, to the point that almost no doubt remained, that the Dodgers included Santana, a catcher who was having an explosive year in A ball, so that they wouldn’t have to pay approximately $2 million in Blake’s remaining ’08 salary.

McCourt said in the interview that he had “no idea” about that aspect of the trade, that this was general manager Ned Colletti’s territory. This is an example of the plausible deniability McCourt periodically exercises that seems not quite so plausible, given the level of detail with which he’ll talk about other aspects of the Dodgers. Subsequent to the interview, neither Colletti nor anyone else with the Dodgers would comment about this on the record.

However, a source within the Dodgers organization insisted that the following was true: The Indians were not going to trade Blake to the Dodgers unless they got Santana in the deal. His inclusion had nothing to do with money.

If you know my policy on anonymous sources, you know that I always say you should take them with a grain of salt. So please do. But also realize that the original report was never confirmed on the record, either.

In any case, there’s still a baseball debate to be had on the trade, even if Santana was the centerpiece for the Indians rather than a money-saving throw-in. Was Blake worth the price of a red-hot catching prospect? Blake had immediate value but was aging. Santana had all the promise in the world, though he was a 22-year-old in A ball who might end up moving out from behind the plate defensively.

Even if the original reports about the trade were true and the Dodgers did it to save $2 million, it’s not like they haven’t spent that $2 million and more elsewhere since then, and rather recklessly at times to boot (Guillermo Mota fits this bill rather perfectly).  On the other hand, if my source is correct and the Dodgers simply believed Santana and Meloan for Blake was a smart move, was the team right to do it?  It was debatable then, is debatable now even after Blake’s presence on two division-winning Dodger teams, and will continue to be debatable for some time to come.

Focusing on the $2 million distracts from the real issue, which is how well the Dodgers evaluate players and needs, whether it’s Santana for Blake, Andy LaRoche for Manny Ramirez, Tony Abreu for Jon Garland, and so on.

“The Santana trade is an example of … the pressure to trade players in course of season,” McCourt said. “You give up real value for that. Sometimes you’re able to — sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes what you give up is less than what you thought it was, sometimes it’s more than what you thought it was. There’s always pulls and tugs on this.”

That war-o’-tug also applies to what the Dodgers are willing to pay players, whether they’re drafted as amateurs or signed as free agents.

Playing the slots
Just six months ago, at a time when we now know the McCourts’ marital strife was putting them and the organization on a path toward its current courtroom turmoil, the Dodgers did something very unusual for them. They exceeded major-league baseball’s guidelines on what they should offer second-round draft choice Garrett Gould, giving him more than $300,000 more than someone in his draft slot was supposed to get.

It was ammunition for both sides of the McCourt debate – for those who point out that he’ll sign the check when necessary, as well as those who wonder why such a gesture is so rare for the Dodgers. For his part, McCourt says he doesn’t plan to make a habit of going over slot.

“My personal opinion is that in the amateur draft, we do extremely well at living within the system that’s in place,” McCourt said. “We’re one of 30 teams. And even though we’re a big-market team, and we could step out and go on our own way and blow through the sort of recommended slotting for each of these, and just go ahead and turn our back on the other 29 clubs and go ahead and pay anything for anybody, I think it’s the wrong thing to do philosophically. We’re one of 30 clubs. We should play by an overall understanding that the draft is designed for a reason. It was designed to give teams that didn’t do as well the opportunity to sign the best players, if they were smart enough to identify those players, for a certain amount of money.

“You talk to baseball, they think the Dodgers are fantastic. We sign our players, and we generally sign our players within the recommended amount. Now nobody can make us not pay more, but I do believe in the fact that we’re part of a league, that the league designed the draft to achieve a certain objective, and I don’t believe the Dodgers should be the team that turns that whole system upside down.”

The Dodgers do sign most of their most coveted draft picks; they got their top 10 in 2009 and their top nine in 2008. But in each of the four years prior to that, the Dodgers drafted but failed to sign a pitcher who was coveted at the time: David Price (4.17 ERA/108 ERA+ through age 24 with Tampa Bay), Luke Hochevar (5.88 ERA/75ERA+ through age 26 with Kansas City), Alex White (first-round pick by Cleveland in 2009 after passing up the Dodgers and going to North Carolina, 21 years old) and Kyle Blair (now entering his junior year at the University of San Diego, after posting a 3.13 ERA in an injury-shortened sophomore season).

At least one is likely to make the Dodgers feel regret (though Price publicly emphasized that he wanted to go to Vanderbilt), while another is more like a bullet dodged (the failure to sign the disappointing Hochevar created a domino effect that enabled the Dodgers to draft — and sign — Clayton Kershaw). There are times the Dodgers should go over slot, and there are times they shouldn’t. If you grant that the Gould example shows the Dodgers are capable of doing so under McCourt, it’s again easier to believe that their success in finding and developing amateur talent will be driven by their baseball acumen, not their bank account – not completely, anyway.

And even McCourt admits that there has been places of weakness in amateur signings under the current ownership.

“We have to do better in the international arena,” he said. “That’s to me as much of a function of our ability to actually identify the talent that we want to sign.  I think we need to spend more money singing international players and young talent from around the world that we can bring here. Find me the talent, and we’ll sign it. But you’ve got to find the talent. We need to do a better job, and Ned is doing that now. He is now focused on expanding our scouting and the quality of our scouting and the quality of our identifying these types of players.”

Still, one might still wonder about McCourt’s altruistic posture regarding going over slot in the draft. For all that 30 Musketeers talk, baseball is a cutthroat sport – and certainly, no one’s laying their overcoat over a mud puddle in the major-league free agent market. So why hold back?

“Because we’re one of 30 teams,” McCourt reiterated, “and just like everything else in life, you can’t take the amateur draft and pull it out of the context of all the other discussions that you have with the other owners about what’s good for the game. The Dodgers can’t say, ‘Oh yeah, we want your support on this issue, whatever it is, to the other owners, that we think this would be good for the game if we could all agree on Issue X.’ And then on Issue Y, they say, ‘What we think would be good for the game would be for the big market teams to sort of live up to the spirit – and the letter, by the way – of what was agreed upon in terms of the draft and what the purpose of the draft is,’ and the Dodgers say, ‘On that, we don’t want to agree.’ You can’t just agree on what’s good for you and not agree on what’s not, if you expect any type of collaboration in the sport.

“We certainly have the flexibility of making exceptions, and I want to keep that flexibility, but I think as a rule, I want to be credible in the eyes of everybody. It’s obviously about winning and the fans – that’s Job No. 1 – but I also want to be credible overall, because there are things that the Dodgers need and want from time to time, that are good for the Dodgers and our competitive situation, that I want people’s support on. And you know how it works in life.  It’s hard to get support if you haven’t been supportive when it matters to other people.”

That last quote raises larger questions. What do the Dodgers want “support” on? In response to a follow-up, McCourt said he had nothing specific in mind, though one surmises it could mean things like the share of revenue a big-market team like the Dodgers gets from MLB.com, or what percentage the Dodgers give up in revenue sharing. (For an example of this kind of rationale from up north, consider San Jose Mercury News writer Andrew Baggarly’s recent blog post theorizing a connection between the Giants’ negotiations with Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum and the team’s effort to keep the Oakland A’s from encroaching on their territory in nearby San Jose.)

If the Dodgers were to preserve an extra 1% in revenue in some major area, that might have a lot more positive impact on the franchise’s long-term health than David Price could. I can’t tell you how real this is, but I will say it’s something I hadn’t considered.

Budget barriers
Of course, some fans reading the articles over the past six months about the McCourts’ personal spending would just say that the extra 1% would just be going to fund someone’s first-class vacation. The issue of whether the Dodgers are spending enough of their revenue on the current major-league payroll is a thorny one.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
The McCourt ownership committed major millions to Manny Ramirez less than one year ago.

We know that spending the most doesn’t guarantee a World Series championship – even the Yankees just went nine years between World Series titles, and just look at the Mets and Cubs. But assuming you’re not just throwing money away, spending can increase your odds for a title. And so it’s legitimate to wonder whether the Dodgers are doing all they can.

“Generally speaking, we do spend at that level just below the Yankees and the Red Sox,” McCourt said. “I think our focus has to be on generating additional revenues so that we can spend and compete regularly. I’m not saying we’re going to get to the Yankees’ level, but I’d certainly like to close the gap.”

Contrary to popular perception, the Dodger payroll is not really down compared to a year ago, though it has been higher in the past. The Dodgers’ 2010 major-league payroll appears to rest just below $100 million at this moment, a figure not only far below the Yankees but also one that would barely have placed the team in the top 10 in baseball in 2009 (source: Cot’s Baseball Contracts). It’s almost exactly where it was at the start of the 2009 season. The big drop is in comparison to 2008, when it was approximately $118 million, but it is already about $15 million higher than it was in 2005. So there has been some reduction from the peak, but it hasn’t bottomed out. And the Dodgers’ payroll will increase later this year, if not from a midseason acquisition, then at least from paying out incentives they have already offered some current players (though the same could be said of many franchises).

Nevertheless, for some fans, the calculation is simple: A team in the No. 2 U.S. market that leads the National League in attendance should lead the NL in money spent. McCourt believes, not incorrectly, that this is an oversimplification, because revenue depends on many factors: not just attendance but ticket price, plus such other elements as the size of your local TV revenue (an area that the Dodgers, under their current contract, lag teams like the Mets).

“The Dodgers have had and continue to have very modest ticket prices,” McCourt said, “and if you look at where we stand in our ticket prices vs. where we stand in terms of our payroll, you’ll see there’s a pretty good symmetry there.”

With a typical Dodgers bleacher seat costing more today than a box seat in the O’Malley era, one could be excused for taking exception to the idea that Dodgers ticket prices today remain “modest.” Inflation is natural, and the cost of the cheapest Dodgers tickets can still be lower than the cost of a movie, but that doesn’t mean the Dodgers aren’t raking in some big bucks from admissions, and certainly parking and concession rates are anything but affable. While the Dodgers’ average ticket price (not including premium seats) was lower than that of the Cubs, Mets, Phillies and even Nationals in 2009, according to Team Marketing Report (pointed out to me by Maury Brown of The Biz of Baseball), the capacity of Dodger Stadium was more than 10,000 seats higher than any of their ballparks.

But it’s true that the Dodgers probably aren’t leading the league in ticket revenue, that other major-market teams also charge through the roof for food and souvenirs (TMR had the Dodgers’ sixth in their overall Fan Cost Index, with a dollar value unchanged from the year before), and that the Dodgers definitely aren’t tops in TV income. And so one might be able to prove that the Dodgers should be spending more for what they’re bringing in, but not necessarily very much more – especially if one factors in the amount of money deferred to future years to help pay for the team’s commitments to its 2010 roster. (Basically, payroll is higher than appears in your rear-view mirror.)

McCourt acknowledged even if his claims are correct, he can’t win a debate with the fans about whether the Dodgers are spending enough, and so his focus remains on further increasing the team’s revenue.

“It’s just what it is,” he said. “We have do to a better job of creating those connections (between revenue and spending) for our fans, so that they understand that investment in the team and where the money goes, or if there’s resistance there, do a better job of finding other streams of revenue to be able to supplement that.

“We’re very committed to Dodger Stadium. We’re committed to actually doing more at Dodger Stadium, (but) there’s no help out here whatsoever in terms of investment in a stadium. It’s all done by the owner’s checkbook. And it’s not like getting the city of New York or the state of New York to build a new stadium, or one of these other cities or whatever. So it all factors in and it’s just what it is. These are just facts. It’s not like we can’t figure out ways to be resourceful and be very successful with the facts as they are. And I think we have been. And that’s why I think we’ve laid the foundation to achieve the goals I set out when I came here, the first of which is sustainable excellence — a team worthy of the fans’ support that can compete in October on an annual basis – and that’s our goal, to be able to play every October. And then once we do that, we’ll be able to start winning in October our fair share of the time, or maybe more than our fair share.

“We can generate the revenue to be able to compete on an annual basis, and to do it without having a dysfunctional business. We’re not really doing it to make money. You don’t do it for that reason. If you do that, you’d be in a different business.”

On the precipice
In seemingly every interview he gives, McCourt points out the Dodgers’ triumphs since his name was put on the team: the four playoff appearances in six years, plus the first two NLCS appearances for the Dodgers in two decades. McCourt hasn’t reconciled himself to the fact that those accomplishments mean little to fans who believe a turning point in the franchise’s future came when divorce papers were filed. The past is not enough for everyone to keep the faith.

As I’ve pointed out before, there’s a very good chance that he’ll be a victim of his own success (however much of that success is his). Though McCourt would be the first to say that the Dodgers still need to achieve the ultimate goal of a World Series title, the reality is that they’ve much more room to descend than ascend, and that particularly this year, he’ll be a lightning rod for any downturn.

However much one buys what McCourt is selling, the Dodgers haven’t faced any real adversity in 2010 – yet.  What will he do if things go wrong? Will the Dodgers be toast? Would he sacrifice a year of contention to rebuild the team, or would he spend to get the team back on the beam?

“First of all, I’m never going to be thrilled about overpaying for a free agent,” McCourt said. “I think it’s not a smart thing to do organizationally, and we haven’t made 100% great decisions on some of those signings. It wasn’t like we didn’t have good intentions, and it wasn’t like we didn’t think when we signed the player (that) they were going to help the team.

“Having said that, I’ve been as clear as I’m capable of being that … we’re the Los Angeles Dodgers; we don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘OK, we’re not going to win this year — we’re going to wait until next year.’ We’ve made a statement to our fans that our goal is to compete each and every year. So that means that there might be times, in order to fulfill that promise to the fans, that we step away from our philosophy and our core, and we do it not because we’re ignoring or turning our back on our core philosophy, but we’re fulfilling our promise to the fans and we’re improvising. And under that hypothetical, if you have to improvise to continue to win, you improvise.

“To me, what I wouldn’t do is do something that was rash and short-term and give up a bunch of young talent which would have impact for years to come, in order to do something in the short term. But the one thing about signing a free agent that is beneficial is, it’s just money. It’s just money. And if you’ve signed the right player, that can help you then and there, and you can keep your prospects intact, it can be a very, very smart thing to do.”

Perhaps the most fascinating thing to me about McCourt is his insistence that fans understand the big picture of what he’s trying to do, because wherever I go — inside the world of Dodger Thoughts or outside it – I see little else but concern over the impact that the divorce between McCourt and his wife, Jamie, will have on the team.

“People know we care about them,” McCourt said. “I agree, we have to do better, but where I would respectfully disagree is that on the whole, fans I think do see the trajectory, do see the direction.

“And I know during the last quarter of last year, maybe, people were filling in the blanks, because I purposely wasn’t talking. And I felt No. 1 … and I’m steadfast in all this, that it was inappropriate to talk about my personal situation. It was a private family matter, and I’m not going to talk about it.

“As far as the team however, which I started to talk about after the holidays, I just felt that a period of time had to go by. I needed it myself. I just felt it would have been very inappropriate to act like nothing had changed in my life – because something had fundamentally changed in my life. And I think I just needed to take a step back and reflect on that. I wanted to respect my kids; I wanted everyone to know that I’m not without feelings. It’s a very sad, difficult thing.

“And I tried to add the only issue that I feel is relevant, and that’s the issue of ownership and the fact that I have a binding agreement that is crystal clear on that point – unfortunately a matter of public record now, never intended to be — but anybody can go read it. And so it’s business as usual. We’re just going to go ahead and try to win a world championship. …

“We can disagree whether people are excited. … That’s fair game. And the good part is, we’re going to see how we do this year. We’re going to see how fans respond. But I think from my perspective, I need to be focused more on trajectory. I can’t be focused on the daily “What does this mean? What does this mean?” We have a longer-term plan and longer-term direction, and we’ve got to stay the course and be relentless in putting it into place.

“I personally think Ned’s just hitting  his stride. I think he’s got solid talent; I think he has a real sense of where we’re going and where we want to go. And we do have to be clear on the next five years, in terms how we’re going to close some of these gaps, how we’re going to grow.”

Maybe it will turn out that the money really is the issue for the McCourt ownership, whether it’s because Frank was dead wrong about what his resources are or dead wrong about the strength of his post-nuptial agreement with Jamie.

But the evidence is more compelling that the Dodgers largely spend when they want to, that their relatively quiet offseason mostly reflected a lack of exciting options in the free-agent market, that their bargain-hunting is a strategy to avoid wasting money rather than a recourse to avoid spending money they don’t have. That’s why the fate of the Dodgers isn’t tied up in the possibility of McCourt going broke, but rather in the management’s ability to make solid baseball decisions.

One hundred million dollars is enough to buy a World Series title, if you know what you’re doing. The question is the same as it ever was: Do the Dodgers know what they’re doing? Frank McCourt believes they do. We’ll see if he’s right.

Feb 06

Time to stop believin’ in ‘Don’t Stop Believin” at Dodger Stadium

The betting here is that the playing of “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the middle of the eighth inning at Dodger Stadium will disappear, now that former Dodger exec Dr. Charles Steinberg is no longer around to champion it. Maybe it would have disappeared even if Steinberg had stayed. It wasn’t getting any fresher over time. (Sorry, Eric.)

If the Dodgers decide to replace the Journey anthem with another song, what would you like it to be?

My default answer on questions like these is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to (Score a Game-Winning) Run” or Sam Cooke’s “Shake,” but I don’t think too hard about such things.  I’m really quite satisfied with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the seventh.  But I am interested in your ideas …

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Great find by the Sons of Steve Garvey: It’s their dad in the make-you-squirm early’-80s television series, Masquerade.

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James McDonald wants to be in the Dodger starting rotation – for real, writes Ken Gurnick at MLB.com.

“I want to be a starter,” McDonald said. “Last year, I didn’t even know. This year I’m coming in with a different mindset, and starting is all I’m thinking about.” …

McDonald said he grew up as a pitcher with a stint this winter in the Dominican Republic.

“It was a great learning process,” he said. “You’re facing a lot of older Latin guys down there and they know how to hit so you have to learn how to pitch. I came out of it a way better pitcher.” …

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Dan Evans gets due praise from at Dodgers Blog from Steve Dilbeck, who chats with him.

Evans was hired as the Dodgers’ general manager in 2001 at a time the team seemed mired in mediocrity and the farm system had lost its way.

Most publications ranked the team’s minor league system near the absolute bottom in baseball, but in three short years it was ranked in the top 10.

Evans rebuilt the front office and brought in good people like Kim Ng, vice president and assistant general manager, and Logan White, assistant general manager of scouting. And then they went to work.

They drafted Matt Kemp, James Loney, Russell Martin, Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton, players the team is now built around, as well as Jason Repko and James McDonald.

“I’m really proud of the fact that these guys panned out,” Evans said. “I was really lucky. I had a terrific staff. I feel good about what we did there.”

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Phillies Nation took a look at the Dodgers using Wins Above Replacement.