McCourts’ divorce trial threatens to overshadow Dodgers’ push for playoff berth

By Beth Harris, AP
Saturday, August 28, 2010

McCourts’ divorce looms over Dodgers on the field

LOS ANGELES — The local headlines blare almost daily with new details about their impending split. Court documents are rife with he said, she said disagreements and details of lavish personal spending. Yet around the Los Angeles Dodgers’ clubhouse, the ugly split of Frank and Jamie McCourt barely registers a blip.

“It doesn’t exist to me,” said catcher Russell Martin, whose season ended earlier this month because of a hip injury.

“I don’t think anybody in here even thinks about it unless the question’s asked. It’s not like a direct impact on our team and how we play or what we do. Frank’s not going to help us throw strikes or make a nice play on defense.”

The McCourts filed for divorce last October. They haven’t agreed on much of anything during several months of expensive, high-profile legal wrangling.

The trial to decide ownership of the Dodgers is set to begin Monday in Los Angeles, with Frank McCourt claiming he’s the sole owner and Jamie arguing she owns half of the team.

Instead of Dodger baseball, the courtroom drama is likely to dominate the local headlines during the final weeks of the regular season.

“I don’t resent it,” manager Joe Torre said. “I worked for George Steinbrenner. I worked for Ted Turner. Those people didn’t necessarily pick an off day to say things.”

Maybe the team will make some news on the field, too.

The Dodgers have clawed their way back into the NL wild-card race. Their playoff hopes could be decided next week when they host contenders Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Under Frank McCourt, they’ve reached the postseason four of the last six years and played within one step of the World Series each of the past two, falling to Philadelphia in the NL championship series both times.

“That’s not easy to do,” general manager Ned Colletti said.

Outside of celebrating postseason wins, neither McCourt has had a presence in the clubhouse, leaving Torre and his coaches, along with Colletti, to run the team.

“They just handled the business side of it,” outfielder Andre Ethier said of Frank and his soon-to-be ex-wife. “It hasn’t been any of our business all year. That’s the way we’ve tried to keep it.”

Fox Corp. ran the Dodgers for six years, and the team never made the playoffs. The team hadn’t won a playoff game since the 1988 World Series before McCourt took over in 2004.

But this season has been a whiplash ride of injuries and inconsistency with the starting rotation, bullpen and defense.

Top players like Manny Ramirez, Ethier, Rafael Furcal, and pitchers Chad Billingsley, Hong-Chih Kuo and Vicente Padilla have all been sidelined during various stretches. Reliever Ronald Belisario spent two months on the restricted list.

Outfielder Matt Kemp has made more headlines for dating Rihanna than trying to match his offensive performance of last season, and Ethier has struggled as well since breaking a pinky three months ago.

“Sometimes you just have bad years and things don’t come together the right way,” Ethier said. “I wouldn’t say you could blame it on the fact that the ownership’s going through what they’re going through. They have given us the people to go out and do it, and it’s up to the players to execute and make it happen.”

The Dodgers’ opening-day payroll of $94.9 million was down by more than $36.5 million from last year’s total. Frank McCourt declined to comment on the public perception that payroll has been slashed, and Colletti sidestepped the question when asked whether he feels hamstrung by the budget he operates under.

“It’s more important how you spend than what you spend,” Colletti said. “You could have a payroll of $150 (million), $175 (million) or $200 (million), but if you don’t spend it on the right people, it doesn’t make any difference.”

The Dodgers didn’t get the big bat or ace pitcher to put them over the top in the NL West by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Colletti denied that the marquee names weren’t available to the team because of a perceived lack of spending money. Rather, he said the Dodgers didn’t have any tantalizing minor league prospects to offer in return.

“We are relatively thin, so we didn’t have that type of player (to trade),” he said. “Most deals that involve those marquee types, they’ve got someone (in exchange) that has almost some immediate impact on the big league club.”

But they did make some moves, with Colletti hailed for pulling off deals despite the team’s lessened investment in its minor league system.

The team picked up starter Ted Lilly and second baseman Ryan Theriot from the Cubs, who sent along $2.5 million to cover half of their remaining salaries this season. After struggling in Chicago, Lilly is 5-0 with a 1.83 ERA in Los Angeles.

The Dodgers acquired setup man Octavio Dotel from Pittsburgh, along with $3 million to seal the deal. They also got outfielder and leadoff hitter Scott Podsednik from Kansas City, and purchased the contract of outfielder-first baseman Jay Gibbons from Triple-A Albuquerque.

“I wouldn’t have acquired four players at the deadline and continued to look for some more relatively smaller pieces to fortify us the last quarter of the year if I had decided that this (season) was not salvageable,” Colletti said.

They also recently signed their top draft pick, pitcher Zach Lee, and gave him a franchise-record $5.25 million bonus.

But when it comes to high-priced free agents, the Dodgers haven’t added any since Ramirez two years ago. Now, it’s believed they’re looking to unload him and his bloated salary. He was placed on waivers and claimed by the Chicago White Sox this week.

Ramirez returned Aug. 21 from his third stint on the disabled list this season, missing 59 games because of injuries after sitting out a 50-game drug suspension last season. The 38-year-old outfielder is in the final year of the two-year, $45 million deal he signed after the 2008 season.

Another looming issue is Torre’s future. He’s in the final year of his three-year contract and is expected to announce soon whether he’ll return next year.

“I don’t think the ownership really has anything to do with my decision,” Torre said. “I’m content that Frank McCourt didn’t object to my asking for an extra year, and I think he wants me here. So I have to say he’s the only one that I know for sure — ownership-wise — that would want me back for another year.”

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