The battle over ownership of the Dodgers is one of the pieces of the Jamie and Frank McCourt split. She was baseball’s most powerful woman.
The battle over ownership of the Dodgers is one of the pieces of the Jamie and Frank McCourt split. She was baseball's most powerful woman. (Carlos Delgado, The Associated Press)

The breakup of a marriage might begin as a private and poignant process, but it can become something else entirely when the split involves a celebrated power couple and their community property includes a beloved public trust.

When that happens, you get the media free-for-all that Frank and Jamie McCourt created with last week's acknowledgment that they have separated and with their subsequent legal crossfire about who owns the Dodgers.

In McCourt vs. McCourt, we have a family spat that's likely to be fought in the raucous court of public opinion even as the serious war is waged in divorce court.

Who's naughty, who's nice? Who deserves to end up as owner of L.A.'s favorite ball club? How might all this affect the Dodgers' ability to field a winning team?

Will a woman face unique obstacles as she tries to convince the man on the street that she should run a marquee Major League Baseball franchise?

Baseball fans and gossip fans alike will be batting around these topics for a while.

"The question (for baseball fans) is will the Dodgers emerge financially stable and have the ability to put a compelling team on the field," said David Carter, a Los Angeles-based sports business consultant who teaches about that topic at USC. "Until then, people will be watching this like a pileup on the 405. They can't bear to watch, but they can't turn away."

Any hope that the two would avoid legal hardball was lost this week when Frank McCourt, who claims to be the franchise's sole owner, fired his wife, who was the Dodgers' chief executive officer and was considered the most powerful woman in baseball.

Jamie McCourt, apparently planning to fight the firing in court, was reported to be putting together investors to try to gain control of the club from her husband.

It could turn into a "Jon and Kate thing," said Dr. Richard H. MacDonald, who teaches about marriage and family relations at California State University, Northridge, referring to the much-publicized marital blowup between reality-TV stars Jon and Kate Gosselin.

A celebrity couple's divorce becomes a nasty spectacle "if the people want to destroy the public images of each other," MacDonald said.

But even if the McCourts stay off that low road, their battle for the hearts and minds of Angelenos is likely to inspire debate on a number of fronts, say experts in the fields of sports, divorce, public relations and gender issues.

At the bottom line, it's about sports, said Steve Brener, the former Dodgers media relations director who is a partner in the public relations firm Brener Zwikel & Associates.

"Fans of the club want to put the best team on the field," Brener said. "I'm sure both McCourts want to achieve that goal. They're both very smart people, OK? I don't think you can go wrong with either one running the team."

Many baseball fans recall the 2008 divorce of San Diego Padres owner John Moores and his wife, Becky. The financial hit forced Moores to sell the team, but not before the payroll squeeze cost the club star players.

Perhaps the most intriguing prospect in the McCourt dispute is the possibility that control of the Dodgers could go to Jamie, a former attorney educated at Georgetown University, the University of Maryland and the MIT Sloan School of Management.

L.A.-area fans are more accustomed than most to women running professional sports franchises. Georgia Frontiere owned the Los Angeles Rams and Jackie Autry owned the Angels. Each inherited the team from a deceased husband.

But most Dodgers fans grew up with the club run by cigar-chomping Walter O'Malley and his son Peter.

On a Dodgers online forum Friday, an anonymous participant wrote: "Every guy knows that 98 percent of women only act interested in sports to get (men). Jamie, you are in that 98 percent, don't ruin the Dodgers."

Christine Brennan, a USA Today sports columnist who often writes about women in sports, said of fans with that attitude: "May I introduce those people to Title IX (the federal mandate for equal opportunity for men and women in sports and other school activities), which has been the law of the land since 1972? May I introduce those people to the 12-year-old girl in their kitchen with the baseball cap on her head? Sports is for women, too."

Marshall Waller, a divorce lawyer based in Beverly Hills, said gender perceptions could be influential in Jamie's and Frank's PR duel.

"Our society is a lot better than 30 years ago but I can see the general sense in this country that (the team) should go to him - don't let a woman run the team," Waller said. "In the court of public opinion, Jamie McCourt has her hands full."

kevin.modesti@dailynews.com