Bougainvillea and vines curl around a pergola at the Bel Air Hotel’s outdoor patio restaurant, a lunch spot for Westside powerbrokers. It’s 10:30 a.m., and powerbrokers are scarce at this hour, except for Jamie McCourt, vice chairman and president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who is seated under a canopy at a private table. She smiles when asked what humanitarian work she and her husband, Frank, have done to earn the Scopus Award, an honor from the American Friends of Hebrew University, which they will receive in a ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in December.
“You don’t think saving the Dodgers is enough?” she quips.
Indeed, she is right, for the Dodgers, a legendary name in professional sports, a franchise once associated with excellence on the playing field, stability in the front office and a commitment to progressive causes, most notably the breaking of baseball’s so-called color barrier, fell on hard times during the Rupert Murdoch era.
Perhaps the beginning of the Dodgers’ decline dates back farther, to that moment in 1987 when longtime Dodger executive Al Campanis, given multiple opportunities by Ted Koppel to atone for his ignorance, nonetheless continued to deny the leadership qualities of African Americans on “Nightline.”
The Dodgers went on to win the World Series in 1988, but the architect of that team, Fred Claire, another longtime company man who had replaced Campanis as general manager, later made a number of unpopular trades, such as dispatching young pitching phenomenon Pedro Martinez for the forgettable Delino DeShields. Claire and manager Bill Russell were ultimately fired by Murdoch, whose cable apparatchiks inaugurated their tenure by trading slugger Mike Piazza, a future Hall of Famer, for five players who do not play any longer for the Dodgers.
Since 2004, when the McCourts purchased the team from News Corp, the Dodgers have had a mixed record. They won their division that first year, though they lost in the first round of the playoffs. By the next year, they had parted with clubhouse leader Paul LoDuca, most valuable player runner-up Adrian Beltre and local hero Shawn Green, three players who were critical to the team’s first win in a playoff game since 1988.
After a dismal season last year, which culminated in the firing of neophyte GM Paul DePodesta, the severing of ties with manager Jim Tracy and the hiring of their respective replacements, Ned Colletti and Grady Little, the team has rebounded surprisingly well. Although Eric Gagne, who is out for the season, is the only player who has been with the ball club for as many as three years, the Dodgers have jelled better than might have been expected.
Colletti spent an active winter acquiring a strong group of veterans, including Rafael Furcal, Kenny Lofton and comeback player of the year candidate Nomar Garciaparra, who have combined with some productive rookies and holdovers like Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew to lead the team to a spot near the top of the National League West Division.
So, Jamie McCourt, an attractive, petite woman with blond hair and an easy smile, has every right to argue that in resurrecting the Dodgers she and her husband have performed a public service worthy of the Scopus Award.
McCourt, who as president of the Dodgers handles much of the club’s business side, as opposed to its baseball operations, once attended the Mount Scopus campus of Hebew University. A native of Baltimore, from the same neighborhood as filmmaker Barry Levinson, she is Jewish and has raised her four sons as Jews.
On this midmorning at the Bel Air Hotel, she wears a brown suede jacket over a white top, sporty attire that gives one the impression that she has just come from working out. In fact, she swims every day and typically climbs the stairs at Dodger Stadium instead of taking the elevator.
She may be remarkably slim, like one of the social X-rays in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” but she is also athletic and looks like she might have been a coxswain on the college crew team. That is befitting a woman whose husband, Frank, rowed crew at Georgetown, where they met.
Like Levinson’s characters in his Baltimore-set movies, she speaks with a spirited yet soft voice, but she doesn’t accentuate her double O’s as Danny DeVito did when pronouncing words like “food” in Levinson’s “Tin Men.” Despite her Baltimore lineage, she says she has not seen “Diner,” Levinson’s iconic film about her hometown, because she feared that Levinson “wouldn’t get the diner right.”
McCourt’s father, an appliance discount king, worked near that diner, and she fears that her own memory and her father’s experiences have not been honored accurately.
She has, however, picked up on her father’s sloganeering, which included the priceless couplet, “Jack, you know, will save you dough.” She utters one-liners almost effortlessly.
When Danish pastries are brought to the table, McCourt cracks, “It’s all health food.”
When she recounts her first trip to Israel, in which she traveled around the country for several months on a bus, a mode of travel she abhors, she says, “That cured me of touring.”
When asked about her avid swimming regimen, she says, “There’s no talking to me if I haven’t gone swimming.”
If she is quick with a quip, she is no “screaming meanie,” as L.A. Times sports columnist T.J. Simers refers to her.
“I never scream,” she says. “If you want to pick a nickname, at least pick one that’s true.”
Especially during the McCourts’ first year of ownership, the Times sports section for the most part depicted Jamie and Frank McCourt, the latter known by Simers as the parking lot attendant, as carpetbaggers who have little interest in or knowledge of Los Angeles, social climbers who lack the financial resources to run the team and public relations novices. More recently, Times columnist Bill Plaschke expressed mock distaste for their smooching in public.
Although McCourt and her husband have indeed kissed in public, the rest of the charges don’t appear so valid.
On the issue of funding, Jamie McCourt says that no solo purchaser in the history of Major League Baseball has spent as much money by himself in purchasing a team as her husband did in buying the Dodgers. Unlike Yankee honcho George Steinbrenner and owners of other teams, the McCourts purchased the Dodgers without partners, she says, a statement that is not completely accurate, in that News Corp was a “minor, noncontrolling partner” at the outset of the deal, according to the Boston Globe.
While the purchase price, anywhere from $421 million to $431 million based on reports, may be higher than that paid by any one individual for a baseball team, the McCourts borrowed heavily in order to finance the acquisition. The structure of the deal, in which the McCourts put up their South Boston real estate property as collateral and assumed significant debt, including a loan of more than $100 million from News Corp, led some to speculate that they were arbitrageurs looking to game the market and sell the property after a year or so.
Though such speculation may have been unfounded, there was no denying that the deal was highly leveraged. No less than Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor and authority on baseball economics, has stated that Major League Baseball likely waived its debt percentage rule for the McCourts. That rule would have required the McCourts to have at least a 50 percent equity stake in the team at the time of purchase.
Now, more than two years after the purchase, the financing seems more sound. Earlier this year, the McCourts sold News Corp the family’s prized 24-acre waterfront property in the Seaport District of Boston. That sale reportedly satisfied all of their financial obligations to Murdoch’s company.
This past winter, the team also invested roughly $45 million, according to McCourt, in renovating the stadium, putting in new seats and restoring the original color palette to the famed venue that the New Yorker’s Roger Angell once called the “pastel conch.” The Dodgers also acquired numerous free agents during the off season to boost its payroll to a competitive level.
Nor have the McCourts shied away from personal expenditures. They purchased a home and the adjacent property in pricey Holmby Hills and send their youngest of four sons to the elite Harvard-Westlake private school.
In short, they do not look like they are on the verge of bankruptcy or about to leave town, particularly since McCourt says she loves Los Angeles and all its diversity: “There are so many immigrant populations. It’s sort of the way New York must have been once. It’s a place of opportunity. Every day you wake up, it’s ‘today’s the day I’m going to succeed.'”
Oozing optimism, McCourt and her husband have taken a leadership role in Los Angeles and in the Jewish community, joining the Temple of the Arts, where they were recently named founding members, as well as many civic organizations like the Leadership Council of the Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles.
She cares deeply about literacy and education, holding a bachelor’s from Georgetown, a law degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. She also studied at Hebrew University for a semester of law school and at the Sorbonne while she was in college.
“Education is the great equalizer,” she says. “Everyone should have a fair shot.”
With the Dodgers’ Dream Foundation, she has helped award college scholarships named after Jackie Robinson to minority youth.
She has also reached out to women in the community. The highest ranking woman in Major League Baseball, McCourt says that women comprise 40 percent of the Dodgers’ fan base. “The female consumer,” she says, ruminating for a moment, “is critical.”
To tap into that critical base, the team has created the Dodgers WIN (Women’s Initiative & Network). Last year, the team held four events for women in the community. This year, there will be 11 events, McCourt says, where women and teenage girls can learn about the game and receive baseball clinics from players and coaches on the Dodgers.
She says that second baseman Kent, often characterized by the media as being gruff, is “an ardent supporter of our women’s initiative.” She adds, “If you have 150 women between 18 and 34 gawking at you, who could complain?”
Despite such good cheer, not all women have enjoyed a welcome in baseball. One woman in the Dodgers front office, Kim Ng, a vice president and assistant GM, was insulted a few years ago by Bill Singer, a former Dodger pitcher who was at the time a broadcaster for the New York Mets. More recently, a San Diego Padres employee was criticized by Keith Hernandez, also a Met broadcaster and a former National League MVP, for being in the dugout.
If the atmosphere for women in baseball remains less than optimal, McCourt still sees opportunity for prospective distaff employees. She has added several women to the Dodgers payroll, including chief financial officer Cristine Hurley and Camille Johnston, head of communications.
“You don’t have to just be a statistician,” she says.
You can even be an owner like McCourt, who wanted to write her thesis at MIT on buying a ball club or a new ballpark. With Wall Street the craze at the time, she had to settle for writing about “naked short selling,” but her interest in baseball goes back to her childhood, when she played shortstop in games in her neighborhood: “I’d come home when I was 7 years old and announce that I was buying a baseball team and a camp.”
Of course, that mirrors her husband’s interest. Frank McCourt’s grandfather owned a piece of the Boston Braves. As Jamie McCourt says, a love of baseball is “in his blood,” all of which runs counter to the skepticism of some critics who said that the McCourts, with their real estate background, would raze Dodger Stadium and build condos.
While the McCourts are showing that they care for baseball and Los Angeles, Boston has not completely left them.
Jamie McCourt says that she has to leave for lunch. Who is she meeting? Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is in town and whom she knew back in Beantown.
When asked if it’s a fundraiser for 2008, she flashes a smile that suggests more than she’s telling, and then she strolls out of the posh surroundings for her next engagement.