Walter, Kasten high on Dodgers
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It was the morning of the Cactus League opener for the Dodgers at Camelback Ranch, and Mark Walter walked around the back fields of the complex for the first time with team president Stan Kasten as his guide.
Walter is one of the lead partners in the group that purchased the Dodgers in May. The $2.15 billion deal included the club, Dodger Stadium and the Spring Training facility in Arizona known as the Ranch.
In the afternoon after his tour, Walter ducked out of a box while watching his club drop a 9-0 decision to the White Sox, the team that shares the facility.
"I love it. It's a great place, isn't it?" Walter said. "I think it's fantastic."
It was a day made for the movies with a picturesque high, blue sky and temperatures in the mid-60s. To say that Walter and Kasten were in heaven seemed like an understatement.
"What could be better than this?" Kasten said. "I've said this a lot: I've been to the postseason a lot, I've had great fun, I've been with winning teams, but being part of the rebuild for this franchise, in this market and for this fan base is the most fun I've ever had in my life."
No wonder. In other phases of that highly successful career, Kasten has been president of the Braves and Nationals. He's never been involved with something like this, though. Walter promised last summer that his group would spare no expense building the Dodgers into a championship team and Kasten has had an open checkbook.
In short order, the player payroll has risen to $220 million, and an additional $100 million investment to improve venerable Dodger Stadium is just about complete. The group recently sold its media rights to Time Warner for a reported $7 billion to $8 billion over 25 years, and Dodgers fans have bought a club-record 28,500 season tickets.
"And there's still a month to go," said Kasten, adding that the club will soon cut off season-ticket sales at some still-to-be-determined level.
"... I think all this is a statement about the game," Walter said. "Fans are starting to connect even more with baseball. It really is a wonderful game, because there's an intellectual side to it, there's an athletic side to it. But it's not that simple. You just can't go buy three great players and win every year. I love other sports, too, but baseball has that whole, 'Anybody can win thing.' There's great competitive balance."
Certainly, in the first blush of their ownership, the Dodgers are trying. This past season, they brought in stars Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford through trades. And this winter, they signed free-agent pitcher Zack Greinke.
All the moves last year didn't matter much. On Aug. 25, the day of their big mega-trade with the Red Sox, the Dodgers were two games behind the Giants in the National League West. They finished eight games out, two behind the second Wild Card-winning Cardinals. Meanwhile, the Giants won the World Series for the second time in three years.
Expectations are high now for the Dodgers, and criticism would follow if they don't win.
"I suppose people will say we were foolish or something and maybe they'll even be right, if that's the case," Walter said. "I know Stan is going to do everything possible for the long term. We know that you can't be a perennial strong team, strong franchise, without a farm system and player development. Stan is going to build that.
"I feel that especially in L.A., where there's been a down period we'll say, we needed to do something to tell the fans we cared and wanted to be back. Whether that results in a World Series ring right away or not, there's really no guarantee of that. But it does tell people we care a lot."
Los Angeles has become the city of champions. The NHL's Kings are the defending Stanley Cup winners and the Lakers have won 11 NBA titles since moving west from Minneapolis in 1960, 10 of them under the ownership of Jerry Buss, who passed away Monday.
Kasten, a former GM and president of the Atlanta Hawks, knew Buss well and attended his memorial service along with Hall of Fame Lakers star and Dodgers owner Magic Johnson at the Nokia Theater in Beverly Hills on Thursday. Kasten knows that Buss and Johnson -- with the help of Kobe Bryant -- set the gold standard. Kasten is also well aware that through all his years as a baseball and basketball executive he has only one championship to his credit -- with the 1995 World Series champion Braves. During his early years with the Nationals, Kasten kept that fact circled on a chalkboard in his office.
Notwithstanding, the Dodgers have won five of their six titles since moving west from Brooklyn, but none since defeating the A's in the '88 World Series. So there is serious ground to make up. But no one is taking anything for granted. Even now, both men admit that the Giants are still the team to beat.
"I was at the Super Bowl and the Giants owner told me, 'Don't sign anybody this weekend,'" Walter recalled with some mirth. "I said, 'Come on! You've got hardware stacked up in your car. Leave me alone!'"
It is the fervent hope of Kasten, Walter and Los Angeles fans everywhere that the Dodgers have possession of that World Series hardware when they all return to open the Cactus League schedule here again next year.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.