Alexander: In Dodgers’ run of success, it’s easy to forget what came before

Before commencing the mass nervous breakdown that comes with the baseball postseason, it might be worthwhile for Dodger fans to take a moment and reflect on what the landscape was like a decade ago.

Maybe this is what happens when you feel like you’ve been liberated.

On May 2, 2012, Mark Walter, Stan Kasten, Magic Johnson and the rest of the Guggenheim Baseball ownership group took the keys from Frank McCourt and held a news conference on the Dodger Stadium turf. They had paid $2 billion for the team – for what was then a distressed asset after eight years of Frank McCourt’s ownership – and a lot of baseball people figured they had horrendously overpaid.

But some of those same baseball people might have had a premonition. No sooner did Walter and his syndicate take over the team than two rival teams signed key players to extensions – the San Francisco Giants with pitcher Matt Cain and the Cincinnati Reds with slugger Joey Votto – largely to keep them out of the Dodgers’ clutches.

As we have since learned, that was wise strategy.

The Dodgers under Guggenheim act as a big market team should, albeit one with an $8.3 billion TV rights contract (which sort of explains the $2 billion purchase price). They keep their own when appropriate, they are willing to pay for the best available talent on the market, and they also use their resources to build an infrastructure to go with it, be it in technology, analytical analysis, facilities, coaching or scouting.

This will be their 10th consecutive postseason, following their ninth division title in 10 years, four 100-win seasons in the last six seasons (they also went an MLB-best 43-17 during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season) and a .612 winning percentage in that span. It’s not totally satisfying, of course, since they’ve won only one World Series in that span, but that disappointment is (a) an example of the vagaries of the baseball postseason and (b) acknowledgment that the standards have risen considerably.

From the start, Guggenheim ownership demonstrated it would act boldly, with a payroll-expanding blockbuster trade for Adrián González in August of 2012. They were eliminated from wild-card contention on the next to last day of that season. From there, the bar has been raised to the point where winning the World Series is the only acceptable option for Dodger fans.

It’s hard to put this current run into perspective while the goal is still out there, Manager Dave Roberts noted the other day.

“Those numbers don’t lie in the sense of the consistency, what we’ve done, the winning, going deep in the postseason, winning in the regular season,” he said. “So yeah, we don’t get too caught up in it. But I think when you do look back, I personally look at people with longevity or teams with longevity, consistency as a sign of excellence.

“And, you know, I think that we’re pretty much the bar in my opinion.”

Whereas today the Dodgers set the standard, under previous ownership they were doing just enough to get by competitively. There were other priorities, you see.

As was suspected earlier in the McCourt ownership but verified after Frank and Jamie’s marital split, which became public right before the 2009 National League Championship Series against the Phillies, the two were using the Dodgers as their personal ATM. After Frank McCourt filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June of 2011, an MLB filing in bankruptcy court that November claimed that McCourt had taken $189 million out of Dodgers revenues for personal use.

To the end, McCourt was hoping the next media rights contract would bail him out and enable him to retain ownership, but then-Commissioner Bud Selig refused to approve McCourt’s plan to get an advance from Fox on an upcoming TV deal, which was to begin in 2014. Ultimately McCourt gave in and agreed to go away, though the process to sell the club out of bankruptcy stipulated that the owner would approve the next buyer, not MLB.

But consider the difference.

The Dodgers made the postseason three times in eight seasons under McCourt, but their chances of going further were hamstrung by management’s reluctance to spend. McCourt reasoned – as a filing during the divorce trial confirmed – that the Dodgers’ payroll should stay around the $80 million mark if possible, reasoning that it was foolish to spend $150 million or more on payroll when you could win the division with a little more than half that expenditure.

Win a World Series? Get to a World Series? Are you kidding?

It reached a point when the Dodgers’ young nucleus became good enough that moves were available to help them get to a World Series. But, as then-General Manager Ned Colletti ultimately confirmed, McCourt wouldn’t approve any trade in which the other team didn’t pay most or all of the salary of the incoming player.

They were able to get Manny Ramirez in 2008 because the Boston Red Sox were anxious to get rid of him. But deals with Cleveland for C.C. Sabathia in 2008 and Cliff Lee in ’09, pitchers who could have made a difference in the postseason, were killed because of that edict. Both might have gotten the Dodgers to the World Series. (Lee, in fact, went to the Phillies and helped keep the Dodgers out.)

For most of McCourt’s ownership, the Dodgers ranked sixth to eighth in payroll. On his last Opening Day in 2012, they were at $105.4 million and eighth. That might as well have been a lifetime ago.

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The Guggenheim Dodgers have been first or second in payroll in eight of the past 10 years, and according to the Cot’s Contracts website their 40-man payroll for competitive balance tax purposes this year came to $302.3 million.

But it’s called doing what it takes to win and competing successfully in a big, diverse market – in this particular year, 111 victories on the field and a club record and MLB-best 3,861,092 tickets distributed, some 541,000 ahead of second-place St. Louis.

A reminder: Attendance in 2011, with Dodger fans having had just about enough of McCourt’s ownership, was 2,934,808, the only year dating to 1995 that they didn’t crack 3 million. And remember, that’s tickets distributed, and there were a lot of games where the on-hand crowds were small enough that everybody got the message of the fans’ discontent.

There will be no discontent when Tuesday’s best-of-five NL Division Series begins, aside from what happens on the field against the Padres. In a decade, the Dodgers and their historic yet renovated ballpark are again among the sport’s crown jewels.

And isn’t it nice, Dodger fans, to again follow an organization that sets its standards high, rather than one that considers a division title the ultimate goal?

jalexander@scng.com