Dodgers' new ownership takes the field
Walter, Kasten, Johnson promise to return team to past standard
It was shining through everywhere, in famous faces, familiar voices and the animated body language of those attending the lively introduction of the Dodgers' new ownership group. Led by Guggenheim Partners CEO -- and new chairman of the Dodgers -- Mark Walter, it also features club president and CEO Stan Kasten and part owner Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the beaming new face of the franchise.
It took place, fittingly, in center field. This is the home turf of Matt Kemp, who along with Clayton Kershaw, is the latest in a long line of Dodgers superstars. Several of them, including Maury Wills and Don Newcombe, attended an outdoor news conference that quickly turned into another Magic Show.
Bringing the same energy and resonance he used to orchestrate five Lakers NBA championship parade celebrations, Johnson declared that "it's a new day in Dodgertown." He vowed to recreate in Chavez Ravine all the elements of his "Winnin' Time" success as the "Showtime" ringleader.
"We don't have to reinvent the wheel," Johnson said, having paid a tribute to former club owner Peter O'Malley, seated near the dais. "We just have to go back to where you had it before."
Johnson, eager to move into his new office, vowed to actively participate along with Walter and Kasten, working "tirelessly" to produce an enduring winner on the field along with enhancements of the 50-year-old ballpark.
"We're not going to gouge the fans just because we paid a nice sum for this franchise," Johnson said, disclosing that general parking would come down from $15 to $10. "We don't want the fans to think because we wrote a big check [$2 billion], we're going to stop writing checks for talent. We don't want people to think we're short on money now. That's not the case."
Kasten will work alongside general manager Ned Colletti in personnel matters in an effort to return the Dodgers to a place of consistent excellence.
As the primary architect of the Atlanta Braves' dynasty in the 1980s and '90s, Kasten noted the Dodgers' fast start in stressing that the goal is to "win now -- we're not going to wait two years."
There will be an unspecified amount of room available in the budget to pursue established talent in trades and free agency while fortifying the farm system, Kasten said.
"We're in a market where fans expect to contend now," Kasten said. "There's this real thing called Dodger pride. As someone who has competed 3,000 miles away, it's a feeling that doesn't exist with other franchises. Players feel it the first time they put on their uniforms.
"We commented the other day when we spoke to the team that we would build a winning way, a culture of winning from top to bottom. For me, it begins with player development. It was pioneered by the Dodgers in Brooklyn. That's the tradition we're going to continue.
"We have to make a [scouting and development] commitment nationally and, more importantly, internationally."
In the tall, reserved Walter, Johnson can see parallels in ownership style with the Lakers' Jerry Buss. Buss left it to general manager Jerry West and successor Mitch Kupchak to make the moves that kept that franchise at the top of the heap.
"Mark's like Dr. Buss," Magic said. "He'll put money into the team and stay out of the way. He wants to win."
Johnson, a big baseball fan growing up in Michigan, called it "one of the happiest days of my life."
He said he was flattered that Walter and Kasten wanted him to join Guggenheim Baseball Management -- along with Mandalay Entertainment chairman Peter Guber, Guggenheim Partners president Todd Boehly and Texas energy investor Bobby Patton -- when they were putting together their winning bid to Frank and Jamie McCourt.
"Mark answered all the questions I had," Johnson said. "We ran the numbers -- 2 billion. We know this can be a successful franchise. This is the right group.
"When I talked to the [Dodger Stadium] employees [on Wednesday], I said, 'I need you to bring that passion and love every day to the ballpark. If you do that, our fans will feel it, and our players will feel it from the fans.'"
Legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully -- one of the few individuals holding a place in the region's hearts close to Johnson's -- mastered the ceremonies, concluding that this would be the last ownership exchange that would have his involvement.
"It's time to meet the group that will bring the Dodgers higher than the Sistine Chapel," Scully said.
Scully acknowledged such Dodgers greats as Wills, Newcombe, Tommy Lasorda, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and Tommy Davis, all wearing Dodgers jerseys. Bill Russell and a collection of stars from the past appeared, adding to the Dodgers pride theme emphasized by Walter, Johnson and Kasten.
"I'm a guy of the '70s and '80s," said Lee Lacy, productive as a second baseman and outfielder. "I can truly relate to bringing the Dodgers back to the way it used to be. I remember this place packed night after night after night when I played on World Series teams in '74, '77 and '78.
"I especially liked what Magic said about not having to reinvent the wheel, and what Kasten said about [players] interacting with fans. Fred Claire, when he was in charge of public relations, used to send us out in uniform to do clinics in places like Pasadena, Compton, the San Fernando Valley -- all over Southern California. The fans here love baseball and proved it over the years."
Walter, who said he grew up not far from the "Field of Dreams" in the Iowa-based movie, called it "an incredible, happy day," thanking his parents for teaching him "the value of hard work and love."
Johnson took it from there, as only he can, with spontaneous bursts of pure joy and raw emotion.
Kemp, who said he could take Magic one-on-one in a scoreboard video message alongside Kershaw, drew a response from the point guard of the ages.
"Matt Kemp challenged me," Johnson said. "He's got to win the World Series first. Then he can get the chance to play me."
Johnson made several references to O'Malley, who carried on the family business from father Walter O'Malley, spanning 48 years.
"Mr. O'Malley, you put pride in the Dodgers," Johnson said, asking the former owner to stand. "What we want to do is bring the pride back to the city and organization. We want to win on the field and make sure the fans have the best experience they've ever had. We want to make sure it's fan-friendly and safe."
Guggenheim Baseball Management is the third owner of the team since O'Malley sold it in 1998.
"We committed, the three of us, to build a championship organization, a winning team from top to bottom," said Kasten, a former executive of the Washington Nationals and NBA's Atlanta Hawks as well as the Braves.
The sale of the team, the stadium and land surrounding it became official on Tuesday as the group closed its $2 billion purchase, ending the McCourts' stormy eight-year ownership..
Guggenheim paid an additional $150 million for a 50-percent interest in the property surrounding Chavez Ravine and the stadium parking lots, in a joint venture with McCourt.
The purchase, announced March 27, was the key element in the Dodgers' emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. McCourt filed for bankruptcy last June when he couldn't meet player payroll or pay bills after MLB Commissioner Bud Selig declined to approve a $3 billion agreement between FOX and the Dodgers to extend their television broadcast rights.
In response to repeated questions about McCourt possibly capitalizing on parking revenue, Johnson and Walter quashed that possibility -- Magic firmly so, in no uncertain terms.
"We own it 100 percent," Johnson said. "He won't get a dime for the parking."
Walter stressed that McCourt can profit only from future development, adding, "We don't have any current plans for development. Nothing can be developed unless we think it's good for us."
"As much as this is a big day for us, [and] we're very, very happy to be here, this is not about us," Walter said. "This is about the Dodgers, one of the most honored and storied franchises in history. We are passionate about making this organization the best that it can be from every respect, from winning, from its relationship with the community, from all the philanthropic and other things that it can be a platform to help with.
"We know this is going to be hard work. And we also know it's going to take time. I promise you this commitment to work will be a labor of love."
The McCourts bought the Dodgers in 2004 from News Corp. for a net purchase price of $371 million.
The most emotional moment of the day came when Johnson fought back tears while responding to a question about bringing prominent African-American ownership into Major League Baseball.
"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Jackie Robinson and also all the other unbelievable players we have here," Magic said. "It's very emotional. I can't even put into words how it is. ... It's a great time -- loving this community, loving the Dodgers, loving baseball -- to be part of this. My wife, [Cookie], is here, my son Andre. My staff is here. We're going to get it done."