In Dodgers' rise, management has owned the situation

Thanks to Guggenheim Baseball, a team that was short on money, direction and hope is fat with all three, and on the brink of an NL West championship.

PHOENIX — The quickest, most impressive remodeling job in Los Angeles sports history started with a hammer to the heart.

Shortly after the new Dodgers owners took possession of Frank McCourt's dump in the spring of 2012, they met with the players and promised an influx of cash and changes that would make the organization championship-worthy again.

The downtrodden players barely believed a word.

"We were like, 'Yeah, we've heard this speech before,'" recalled A.J. Ellis.

Yet when they returned from their first trip under the new regime, they discovered that the new regime had hit them close to home. The Dodger Stadium aging family room had been quietly but totally renovated. New paint, new carpet, new TV, new bathroom, new play structures.

Their wives and children and other loved ones were thrilled. The players were sold.

"That it happened so fast, to something so important to us, we were all like 'Man, these guys are serious,'" said Ellis.

One season later, less than 17 months after taking control of the team, Guggenheim Baseball will soon complete the transformation by sending a tear-down team into the baseball's elite neighborhood known as October.

A team that was without money, direction or hope is now fat with all three. A team whose allegedly conniving owner put it on a shoestring budget now has the richest payroll in baseball. A team that had virtually closed its international scouting department now has two of the hottest new foreign-born players in the game. A team that hasn't been a serious postseason factor in 25 years is now a Las Vegas favorite to win the World Series.

Even Magic Johnson has never thrown a no-look pass like this.

The Dodgers' clinching of the National League West championship was delayed another day Wednesday when the Arizona Diamondbacks took advantage of shaky sub starter Stephen Fife — and a lousy home-plate call by first-base umpire Jim Joyce — in a 9-4 victory.

But the clinching will come, perhaps as soon as Thursday afternoon, and when it does, the ownership group led by Mark Walter, Stan Kasten and Johnson will have been a $2.15-billion bargain.

One year before Guggenheim Baseball took control, this column chronicled a trip to Dodger Stadium that included $2.55 tickets from a discount website, no traffic, no concession lines, huge swatches of empty seats and fans falling asleep.

Today it is the hottest ticket in town, the team is the hottest attraction in baseball — it leads the league in home and road attendance — and the talent earlier resulted in the hottest streak in recent baseball history with 42 wins in 50 games.

"Two years ago it was not fun to come to the ballpark every day," said Ellis. "We were making do with what we had, piecing things together, there wasn't an energy, there wasn't a buzz … and it's all changed now."

How much has it changed? Of the 48 players who touched a ball in the final full season under McCourt, only eight remain.

"Wow, I did not realize that was the number," said Ned Colletti.

The change took place as quick as you can say "click," which is the sound of the McCourt monetary handcuffs being removed from the general manager's wrists. Colletti had quietly built two National League Championship Series teams under McCourt, but he was tying the roster together with shoestrings that resembled Manny Ramirez's dreadlocks, and neither NLCS club ever had realistic title hopes.

After spending about 10 minutes with Kasten, Colletti felt the sweet freedom of endless possibility, and embraced it.

"Stan says to me, 'Let's think bold, think about players who had a chance to get better but couldn't,'" Colletti said. "I'm thinking, this is going to be good."

Mixing old baseball evaluations with baseball's new math, Colletti quickly turned the idea of "good" into "great."

He first rebuilt the Dodgers' international scouting department with veteran eyes and a fat wallet, and it produced Yasiel Puig, then Hyun-Jin Ryu.

"We had to make a statement in that area, and ownership gave me the money to make that statement," said Colletti. "That was huge."

He swallowed hard and pursued the big contract of Hanley Ramirez, an investment that would previously have been impossible. Yet Kasten barely blinked.

"I told him how much money we were inheriting and he only said, 'You like the player?'" Colletti recalled. "I said, 'I love the player'…and he told me to make the deal."

Then there was the massively expensive deal with the Boston Red Sox that many critics felt was a waste of money. Yet today, Adrian Gonzalez is the team's steadiest force, Carl Crawford is part of its vital four-man outfield rotation and Nick Punto is an important cog off the bench.

"This showed that our thought process was allowed to grow, we were allowed to think in many different ways without a low ceiling," Colletti said. "We were able to be bold."

That boldness has brought them to this week in mid-September when Arizona fans are chanting "Beat L.A." and Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly is setting up a playoff rotation, and Ellis is standing in front of his locker in quiet amazement.

"These guys came in and made lots of promises," he said of the Dodgers ownership.

"But they went above and beyond every promise they made."

There are many innings to play, a postseason to be endured, and expectations will be huge. But, for now, considering where this journey began, the cheap-champagne ending to the one of the vintage regular seasons in Dodgers history must be viewed as the initial fulfillment of that promise.

Twitter: @billplaschke



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