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FAY VINCENT: Divorce and the Los Angeles Dodgers -- A Stunningly Ugly Mess

How many baseball fans know the derivation of the name "Dodgers" by which the Los Angeles franchise is known? Answer later. When I was a kid in New Haven and beginning to follow baseball, the Brooklyn Dodgers stood for excellence even if their crazy fans and odd shaped ball park required some tolerant understanding. 

To their eternal credit this was the pioneer team that brought Jackie Robinson (1947) and many other black ball players to the big leagues. Other teams were laggards --the Yankees' first black player was Elston Howard in 1955 and the Red Sox did not embrace diversity with Pumpsie Green until 1959. But things have certainly changed and the turmoil afflicting the migrated Los Angeles Dodger franchise these days is stunningly ugly. 

The appellation "dodgers" was used to describe the fans who adroitly "dodged" around trolley cars as they made their way to the ball yards in the early days of baseball in Brooklyn. These days the Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Selig and the owner of the Dodgers, Frank McCourt are dodging each other's allegations after the commissioner acted to assume control of the franchise. The facts of the dispute are largely hidden but there are some aspects one can discern even through the fog of competing insults. Three things are clear:

1. After a messy divorce the owner is in a financial bind and seems to want to use money from the baseball business to help meet his personal and divorce financial needs.

2. The commissioner has serious concerns about the financial and business stability of the Dodgers.

3. The commissioner believes he has to take control of the franchise to protect the best interests of baseball.

The battle is joined and there is talk of litigation. In baseball, all owners are bound by the so-called Major League Agreement, a historic document every owner signs that gives the commissioner a broad array of powers including the authority to take whatever action he deems to be "in the best interests of baseball." 

That grant of enormous power has been sparingly used by commissioners over the years. Only rarely has its use been challenged. I do not believe a court ruling against a commissioner asserting that authority has ever been finally confirmed by full appellate review. 

When I was commissioner the Chicago Cubs were so upset by my attempt to realign the National league they sued me and got a court to make a preliminary ruling against me. 

The matter soon became moot when I resigned and the league split into three divisions. In any court battle the commissioner has to be rated the favorite as each side in this current battle is surely aware.

But that does not mean the commissioner is free to act with impunity. Mr. McCourt will claim the commissioner has in fact seized his team and thus taken his property without paying him for it. The commissioner will respond he was required to act to protect both the interests of the game and those of the Dodger owner. 

Obviously to do that successfully will require some agility and some carefully structured legal maneuvers. Taking a person's property without fair compensation violates all manner of legal proscriptions and the Commissioner will want to be careful he is not vulnerable. 

The person named to oversee the Dodgers was briefly called a "trustee" but was immediately renamed merely a "monitor." Good legal work by the Commish. There is a big difference between taking control on the one hand and monitoring on the other. 

It would be wise to keep the owner involved in some limited fashion to allay his concerns. After all, so long as the team is still owned by Mr. McCourt, he alone continues to bear the financial risks of ownership. The commissioner will not want to assume too many of the attributes of ownership however strong he believes his authority to be. I suspect each side will move cautiously. The risks of inserting a federal judge into this situation are considerable.

This latest combat between an owner and a commissioner raises an interesting issue. How free is an owner to use the financial assets of a franchise in ways that benefit the owner but not the franchise? Mr. McCourt wants to sell off future television rights for a large sum and generate cash to meet personal needs. He says he will keep sufficient capital within the franchise to meet all obligations. 

The commissioner clearly is concerned. By taking money out of the team and using it for divorce or other personal purposes the owner would not be violating any baseball rule so long as his team remains well financed. Baseball rules regulate teams and not owners for the most part. 

The baseball concern is to be sure the team is properly and solidly capitalized and there are rules within baseball to be sure the teams maintain specified debt- equity levels. Assuming these are met, owners historically have been free to spend and even to take home however much of the baseball money as they wish. 

As all sports businesses get bigger and the owners becomes more involved in complicated businesses, there may be valid reasons to begin to scrutinize owners more closely. Perhaps the major sports leagues will have to begin to widen their rules if they want to restrain owners from using teams to finance outside activities.

Fay Vincent is a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries and from 1989-92 served as the Commissioner of Baseball.

Fay Vincent is a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries. He served as the Commissioner of Baseball from 1989-92.