A year after sale, Dodgers headed in right direction
Ownership group has changed the culture and outlook surrounding historic franchise
LOS ANGELES -- One year on the job, the Los Angeles Dodgers' new ownership group has shaken up the rest of Major League Baseball and returned the franchise to a significant role in the Southern California sporting scene.
You ain't seen nothing yet.
While it has made a quick fix to an image that had been tarnished during the McCourt era, the new owners were not ready for any celebration Thursday, the one-year anniversary of the announcement of the purchase of the franchise by a group headed by Mark Walter, several of his partners in Guggenheim Capital LLC, NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and sports executive Stan Kasten.
They know there is a ways to go for them to overtake their long-time rival San Francisco Giants, the defending World Series champions, who they will play in a three-game series beginning on Friday.
The Dodgers have bumped the payroll from a year ago more than 128 percent, to $223 million -- just $5 million shy of the Yankees and $64 million ahead of the Phillies, who had the third-highest Opening Day payroll.
They even began a major makeover of Dodger Stadium, which opened in 1962 and is the third-oldest ballpark in the big leagues, behind Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.
Just the same, the Dodgers will go into the weekend in fourth place in the National League West, ahead of only San Diego.
The battle has to be won on the field, not in the world of marketing.
And that is why it is important that for all the attention given to a series of moves that included the acquisition of Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Carl Crawford, there also has been an overwhelming effort to revitalize scouting and player development.
"This is a start," said Kasten, the president and CEO. "In this market, we couldn't come in and say to the fans, 'Wait for four or five years and we'll be OK.'
"Where we're fortunate is our ownership and fan base will allow us to do both. Our fans bought into this. They responded with a season-ticket increase from 17,000 to 31,000."
Of course, it is safe to say that the new ownership group had plenty of room to grow the franchise. It was at a low point in its history, having been dragged down by issues regarding both the ballpark and the personal lives of previous owners Frank and Jamie McCourt.
"Last year was a struggle," admitted Kasten.
That, however, is in the rear-view mirror. It is not even a point of discussion within the new regime.
The Dodgers' ownership is focused on the future, and in Kasten, they have every reason to believe he will be able to chart the right course.
Kasten has been running teams since 1979, when at the age of 27 he became general manager (and later president) of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. Seven years later, he became president of the Atlanta Braves. And in 1999, Kasten became the first person to hold the president's title simultaneously for three pro sports franchises -- the Hawks, Braves and the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers.
More recently, Kasten was president of the Washington Nationals, overseeing the transformation of that franchise into one of the most competitive in baseball.
Now Kasten is in Los Angeles, looking to return the Dodgers to their long-time station among baseball's elite franchises, and he's aware that the building process is about to undergo a radical change in which teams will face limits on how much they can spend on signing amateur talent.
Baseball has adopted signing pools that are assigned to each team in the annual First-Year Player Draft, which may soon include all players globally.
"I have to be focused on the long-term, and work on that daily," said Kasten. "Every team that has had sustained success has done it through player development, and we are looking for sustained success."
And that's why Kasten last November hired Bob Engle to oversee international scouting and gave him the budget to hire 10 additional international scouts. Engle, who had been serving in the same role with Seattle, established himself as one of the game's elite evaluators during his days with the Toronto Blue Jays, working for Hall of Fame general manager Pat Gillick.
Kasten also brought in former player, manager and coach Pat Corrales to be a special assistant, and hired Gerry Hunsicker, who oversaw the development of the Houston team that was an NL Central force in the late 1990s and early 2000s, to be a senior advisor.
"If baseball is going to put limits on what you can spend to sign players, the advantage is going to go to the teams that have the best scouts and the best people in player development," said Kasten. "That's something we want to be proactive in addressing.''
It's not like Kasten is reinventing the wheel.
"The Dodgers created the farm systems and scouting systems," said Kasten. "The Dodgers were the first organization to get into the international market. It's the Dodgers way."
So it could be said that the Dodgers are looking to get back to their future.