|FRANK McCOURT Thriving in LA|
McCourt's giving it his all
Charity hits home for Dodgers owner
Dodgers owner Frank McCourt lives in Jack Benny's old house and his neighbor is Hugh Hefner. His sons and his wife, Jamie, are top executives with the team. He has moved his real estate development business here in Los Angeles from Boston and attendance at Dodger Stadium is pushing 4 million. His farm system might be the best in baseball.
Southern California has been very good to McCourt, who lost his bid to buy the Red Sox to John Henry's group even though he owned prime real estate on the Boston waterfront for a possible new ballpark.
McCourt already has poured $60 million into improving Dodger Stadium, which will become the third-oldest park in the major leagues (after Fenway Park and Wrigley Field) when the new Yankee Stadium opens in 2009. By next offseason, that number will rise to $125 million, but he says what means most to him, more than a World Series championship, is ThinkCure, a new charitable fund based on the Jimmy Fund.
McCourt's grandfather, Francis, was part of the ownership group of the Boston Braves that started the Jimmy Fund. Legend has it the Jimmy Fund was the brainchild of former Patriots owner Billy Sullivan, who was the Braves' public relations director at the time.
"It's interesting because you don't have the records so nobody really knows exactly what went on in the room when it was launched," said McCourt. "I heard it was Billy's idea. I don't care whose idea it was, it's just great. If it was him, then I give him all the credit in the world. I'm just proud that it was during the time my grandfather was part of the team. Just to feel that modest connection to it is something we're proud of. In '53, the Braves went to Milwaukee and they played the Red Sox in an exhibition game with the proceeds going to the Jimmy Fund. That's sort of when they passed the ball to the Red Sox and the rest is history."
McCourt remembers putting his nickels and dimes into a piggy bank when he was a kid so he could donate the money to the Jimmy Fund. McCourt said he wanted to be established in LA before he launched ThinkCure, and he also wanted the blessing of the Jimmy Fund. He met with Jimmy Fund executive director Mike Andrews during spring training at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., to discuss his vision.
"I knew it was going to be good, but after speaking to Mike and the support he gave me, I came out of the meeting feeling it was going to be great," said McCourt.
With Andrews's advice, McCourt has partnered with City of Hope and Children's Hospital of Los Angeles, much like the Jimmy Fund with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
"The Jimmy Fund was the first charity to raise money for children's cancer and Dr. Farber was the first doctor to start a hospital focused on cancer research," said McCourt. "It's an amazing history. To go from those humble beginnings to going to raise more than $50 million a year, if ever there was a success story, that was it."
McCourt feels ThinkCure has "the possibility of being on the scale of the Jimmy Fund." What he doesn't want is the perception that he's competing with the Jimmy Fund.
"Mike really elevated this quickly," said McCourt. "He said it was great and whatever he could do for us. He said we need all the allies we can in the fight against cancer. I felt so good after that lunch with Mike. He's been great about helping us stay very focused and avoid the pitfalls. He told us to align ourselves with the best research institutions and he helped us identify them and the right partners. He gave us great advice. He's been a great resource for us and has pledged to continue to do so."
On the baseball side, McCourt said he has learned so much about running a major league team. He has hired and fired Paul DePodesta as general manager, and has hired GM Ned Colletti and manager Grady Little. McCourt has brought in some Boston people little by little, people he's familiar with, and he feels the organization is on the right track.
"You could see at the trading deadline we could have had any player out there, but we decided to stick to our plan," he said. "We really think this team is going to be good for a long time."
Like Henry and Co. did with Fenway Park, McCourt made the decision that refurbishing Dodger Stadium was a better option than building a new ballpark. It will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2012 and McCourt has publicly made a 25-year commitment to the park. He has replaced all 50,000 seats, replicating the stadium's original seatbacks. New field seats were added, drainage has been improved, and next offseason the concourses will be widened and the bathrooms and concession areas will get an upgrade.
The Dodgers' spring training headquarters will move to a state-of-the-art facility in Phoenix in 2009.
"Anecdotally, I would ask Dodger fans about Dodgertown and they'd say how great it was," said McCourt. "I'd ask, 'How many times have you been there?' 'Well, I've never been there.' When we played the Red Sox at Dodgertown, I can't help but look out and three-quarters of the fans were Red Sox fans. It's not right. If the shoe was on the other foot, it just doesn't feel right. It's 3,000 miles away. It's too difficult to get there. Our fans will have a chance to watch us in spring training."
Help unwanted list
Ten players whom teams tried to move at the trade deadline:
1. Adam Dunn, Cincinnati: The best player in the group, but no team was willing to give up top prospects.
2. Jose Contreras, White Sox: His ERA has risen in each of his last six starts. "Could a guy have been worse at the precise moment when teams were scouting him for the deadline?" asked one assistant GM.
3. Richie Sexson, Seattle: $14 million this year and next for a guy flirting with a sub-.200 season.
4. Sammy Sosa, Texas: According to one GM, "He could help, but if he doesn't play much it wouldn't be pretty."
5. Juan Rincon, Minnesota: He served a suspension for taking a banned substance; a righty who should have had some value.
6. Steve Trachsel, Baltimore: He could be a candidate for a waiver deal.
7. Jack Wilson, Pittsburgh: After acquiring Cesar Izturis, Pirates GM Dave Littlefield couldn't move Wilson and the $14.5 million owed to him over the next two years. Big problem.
8. Kyle Farnsworth, Yankees: Hard-throwing righthanded reliever doesn't have the best reputation in the clubhouse. When a team with a bad bullpen is trying to move him, what does that say?
9. Wily Mo Peña, Boston: The White Sox almost took him if the Red Sox had been willing to give up Manny Delcarmen or Justin Masterson. There's still hope Washington's Jim Bowden, who traded for him in Cincinnati, wants him again.
10. Johnny Damon, Yankees: Injuries really took their toll. Normally there would be teams lined up for him. Now the Yankees are using him as the designated hitter and playing him in left and have no plans for him to return to center, where Melky Cabrera is established. Damon is upset. Could the Red Sox wind up looking good on this one?
Gabbard gets fresh start and Rangers get fresh starter
A few questions for former Red Sox pitcher Kason Gabbard:
What was it like for you the day you were told you'd been traded to the Rangers?
KG: "I don't think you're ever prepared for it or expect it happen, and then I got the word from [manager] Tito [Francona] and [pitching coach] John Farrell and you just start a new chapter in your life. I was able to go out in the outfield and say goodbye to people. There were a lot of people I came up with that I wanted to say goodbye to. There are no hard feelings for me. The Red Sox treated me very well and gave me every opportunity since they drafted me. I owe them a lot."
You made your first start Wednesday [against the Indians] and pitched pretty well: 5 2/3 innings, 8 hits, and 3 runs. Was it strange to be pitching for a different team?
KG: "I guess pitching is pitching. You go out there and you apply the same things you know and do your best. I'd pitched against Cleveland just a few days before, so there was some familiarity for me, and I'm sure there was a lot for them. But it was great to be out there that quickly for a new team. I just hope they liked what they saw and that this can be something I can build with and be here for many years to come."
You went to high school at Royal Palm Beach (Fla.) High with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and you were both traded to Texas at the deadline.
KG: "Yeah, that was neat. Jarrod was a freshman when I was a senior, and I hadn't talked to him for a couple of years, so it's great when you go to a new team to see someone you grew up with and you played with as a kid like that. I know everyone is very high on him and he's going to be a fixture here for a long time"
Why did you ask for No. 13?
KG: "I wore it throughout my childhood, Little League, high school, college, and some in the minors with the Red Sox, so when I got to Texas I just asked, if it's available I'd love to wear it. They said fine. It's always brought me good luck. It's a good number for me so it's fun to get that back."
Does it feel good to know you may not have to go up and down to the minors anymore?
KG: "I don't think you ever feel that way. You have to keep proving yourself up here. Once you think you have it made, you don't."
Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. Did hell freeze over? In a three-game series against the Blue Jays, Devil Rays relievers allowed one earned run over 13 1/3 innings; 2. You've heard about a pitcher flying open? Well, umpire Kerwin Danley's fly was open for 4 1/2 innings of the Mariners-Angels game Wednesday before a Mariners official called to tell him to zip up; 3. What am I missing? The Cardinals were willing to take on most of Matt Morris's $9.5 million this year and next, but were trumped by the Pirates, who picked up all of it?; 4) One sports book I'll read, Bill Plaschke's upcoming biography on Tommy Lasorda; 5. Yankees fans: How can you boo Roger Clemens off the mound?
The lowdown on Martin
Derek Lowe has always had a special place for Jason Varitek, the catcher he came up with and was traded with to Boston by the Mariners. When asked how Russell Martin, whose 18 stolen bases are the most by a Dodgers catcher in more than 100 years, compared with Varitek, Lowe said, "That's tough. 'Tek is special in terms of handling a staff and calling a game. Russell is a young catcher and he's growing into that and doing a great job. They're different in that Russell has great speed for a catcher and he has a lot of tools. 'Tek probably had more power. But Russell is an All-Star catcher, a guy that our staff is growing more and more comfortable with. The finished product is going to be unbelievable."
Dodgers manager Grady Little isn't sure whether Bill Mueller will return next season as the team's hitting coach, but he hopes he does. "It's up to Billy," said Little. "We heard about whether Billy could be a coach to guys he had just been playing with. The answer is yes. They respect him and listen to him and our hitting has improved." If Mueller doesn't stay, two names to consider: Dodgers Triple A hitting coach Mike Easler and Ron Jackson, Little's hitting coach in Boston.