August 9, 2012 by Jeff Kallman • Print Story •
Pending the other owners' approval, which isn't likely to be withheld, Peter O'Malley is back in baseball. And in southern California, to boot. Only it may take a few people a little time to get used to thinking of an O'Malley owning the San Diego Padres.
All but forced to sell the Los Angeles Dodgers to News Corp., which sold the team in turn to Frank McCourt, O'Malley left the game with a reputation mostly as spotless as his father's had been controversial. The father had too refined, too embedded a taste for wheeling, dealing, and (some said) stealing; the son had too much taste for the quiet way. Walter O'Malley was once reputed to have beaten his front-office and farm system employees out of rightful earnings or rewards; Peter O'Malley remains famous for sending gallons of vanilla ice cream to his employees for every day the Dodgers occupied first place.
San Diego may be scratching their heads now and then, even as they're smiling at the rhetorical possibilities. But vanilla ice cream around the front offices probably beats a Big Mac (McDonald's founder Ray Kroc once owned the team, somewhat notoriously) any day of the week. No one will be likely to accuse O'Malley — as Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage, once a key on the Padres' first World Series entrant, said of the Krocs' signature product — of poisoning the world with his favorite treat.
The Padres now have this much in common with the Dodgers: Another sport's Hall of Famer, in this case golfer Phil Mickelson, will co-own them. O'Malley's group includes Mickelson, a lifelong Padres fan; and, Ron Fowler, a successful San Diego-area beer distributor. But the Padres also have now what the Dodgers haven't had since Bill Clinton's impeachment: an O'Malley hand on their tiller. And, for the same reason basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson now co-owns the Dodgers, Mickelson, O'Malley, and Fowler, will co-own the Padres: an owner (John Moores) forced to sell in or in the wake of a divorce settlement.
When McCourt finally agreed to let the Dodgers go, he'd gone from a reasonable if sometimes clumsy steward of the franchise's reputation. The Dodgers did have four first-place finishes in the National League West under his ownership, but he'd bought the team with debt, as heavily leveraged a buy as has ever been seen in baseball. Then he hiked ticket and concession prices constantly to help offset the purchase, while simultaneously trimming Dodger Stadium security.
Baseball government and the IRS came in due course to believe McCourt, too, was siphoning Dodger money to finance a lifestyle thought to be extravagant even by the common standards of the giga-rich. When his contentious divorce was settled at last, his now-former wife, surrendering her claim to half the Dodgers' ownership, got six of the couple's eight homes, leaving McCourt with a measly two.
O'Malley first put a group together to buy the Dodgers back in 2011. God only knew enough Dodger fans were so disgusted by McCourt that they hectored him to find a way to wrest the team back every time they ran into him. But he'd been compelled to sell in the first place, in 1998, because a) he couldn't convince Los Angeles's city fathers to let him build a new NFL facility on Dodger-owned land, depriving him of a revenue source that might have enabled his family to keep the Dodgers; and, b) absent that, he'd have faced a profound tax beating had he merely passed the Dodgers to his and his sister's children, as he also thought of doing.
Those children now are likely to handle the Padres' day-to-day operations. The Padres are a franchise in need enough of revival. Don't think for a minute that their father/uncle won't take a hand enough in guiding them. If anyone can tell you the best and the worst about running a baseball team, Peter O'Malley can.
This isn't the first time the Padres have managed to land a formidable former Dodger presence. Indeed, they were born with one. Legendary Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi left the Dodgers at the end of 1968 to take the same job with the embryonic, expansion Padres. By the time the team showed its first signs of serious life in 1975, Bavasi took a hike when he fell into disfavour with the Krocs, who bought the team that year. Bavasi wasn't wild about their intention to hire Alvin Dark (which they would, eventually, in 1977) as the team's manager.
And the Padres reaped a benefit, on the field and in the press, when they outbid the Dodgers, after the 1982 season, for then-iconic, free-agent first baseman Steve Garvey, who'd help push them into their first World Series after years of doing likewise for the Dodgers. Garvey also just so happened to tie the National League record for consecutive games played in Dodger Stadium — in a Padres uniform, in his first return to the park where he'd excelled for so many years.
The Padres got Garvey in the first place because a) Garvey wanted to negotiate a new deal in spring 1982 but the Dodgers then didn't like negotiating with players until their contracts actually expired; and, b) O'Malley, who wanted to keep Garvey in the worst way possible, was willing to pay him $5 million over four years but Garvey wouldn't budge on a five-year deal, and O'Malley continued, stubbornly, to follow what was then a Dodger policy of not competing in the open market for one of their own.
Which symbolized that even O'Malley could be only human, after all. Not that he hadn't shown it before. Seven years before spurning Garvey's bid to open new contract talks a little early, then-GM Al Campanis got too personal in talking contract with Andy Messersmith. It moved the usually easygoing right-hander to refuse to talk to any Dodger official lower than O'Malley. To that, O'Malley was more than agreeable. Where he disagreed was with Messersmith's key demand: a no-trade clause. It wasn't the Dodger way of doing things until then, and O'Malley saw no reason to try it in 1975, either.
O'Malley may have been the essence of sincerity when he said he had no intention of trading his best pitcher. But Campanis had put enough iron into Messersmith's spine that the pitcher would work the entire 1975 season without signing a contract. O'Malley tried sweetening the pot as Messersmith pitched on, offering three-year deals that escalated with each offer, as in $200,000+ annual salaries. Messersmith stood fast and, after another sterling season, took his reserve clause challenge to an arbitrator ... and won his and all players' free agency, finishing what Curt Flood started a few years earlier.
In time, it wouldn't be stubborn clinging to tradition but a revenue shortfall he couldn't redress, that pushed him to sell the Dodgers. Los Angeles's even more foolishly tradition-bound politicians obstructed his more sensible stadium plan by their absolute insistence — to which they still cling, probably — that the antique, threadbare Los Angeles Coliseum should be the sole legitimate option for any NFL franchise coming to Los Angeles. Without the revenues a new NFL stadium would have brought, O'Malley was forced to surrender the baseball franchise that was in his blood.
Dodger fans who once begged O'Malley to find a way, any way to get the Dodgers out of McCourt's hands, must now be scratching their heads a little, thinking of an O'Malley owning any other team, never mind a downstate National League West competitor. Indeed, the primary reason O'Malley didn't take the Dodgers off McCourt's stained enough hands was that the price kept rising high enough and fast enough to go beyond the O'Malley family reach.
He and his group landed the Padres for $800 million. If you wanted clues that O'Malley's group was going to be the likely winner for the team, be advised, as the North County Times says, that certain things would not have been done if O'Malley had objected, specifically the contract extensions for outfielder Carlos Quentin and closer Huston Street, both of whom were rumored to be on the non-waiver trading block.
All the Padres have to do now is hope the golfer, the beer seller, and the O'Malleys can find the way to give the scuffling Padres one more thing in common with the Dodgers: even one World Series ring. Never mind six.