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Artless Dodgers

They were once L.A.'s team, proof of the city's ascendance. Now we hardly know their names

It is a crystalline January morning at Dodger Stadium, the blue sky and green sod and white mountains as perfectly synchronized with the baseball gods as a fan could pray for. The rhythms of wood on leather, leather on dirt, leather on leather, summon a distant childhood. A California soundtrack echoes off the empty bleachers: Beach Boys, Los Lobos, Sheryl Crow, Grateful Dead. In most of America, baseball is still in hibernation. In Los Angeles—a month before spring training, three months before the season opener—the ritual of "winter workouts" is already under way, a feature of Dodger lore renewed year after year, if only because, well, here on the West Coast, 3,000 miles from Brooklyn, you can.

Dancing around the infield is Maury Wills, a touch gray but still nimble at 69. He is schooling a squad of minor league prospects in the art of baserunning, even if few of them know that the old man once captivated this city by stealing a record 104 bases back in Dodger Stadium's inaugural season. Wills's teammate, "Sweet Lou" Johnson, is hitting grounders to another crop of rookies; when Dodger officials learned that his 1965 World Series ring was being auctioned on the Internet last year—three decades after Johnson lost it in a drug-fueled spiral—they bought it for $3,457 and returned it to his finger. Wes Parker, the smooth-as-silk first baseman who won Gold Gloves from 1967 to 1972, stops by to offer pointers. So does Don Newcombe, the first African American pitching star of the major leagues. Tommy Lasorda, as garrulous as ever at 74, is stationed behind the batting cage, signing autographs, telling off-color jokes, and spreading the gospel of Dodger Blue—he elixir, he has often said, that runs through his veins. "If you don't love the Dodgers," he cautions a group of visitors in the Dugout Club seats, "there's a good chance you may not get into heaven."

If you squint into the sun, through the soft focus of nostalgia, you can almost imagine that these are still your Dodgers, that the team still stands for something proud and true. But if you travel from the field level to the Top of the Park gift shop, up by the $6 seats, you will find that a different kind of legacy has begun to accumulate: Gary Sheffield jerseys. Chan Ho Park bobble heads. Hideo Nomo figurines. Orel Hershiser baseballs. Ramon Martinez and Devon White key chains. In what should be a citadel of Dodger marketing, the racks are nearly as full of ex-Dodgers as they are of current favorites. These are not sentimental reissues—the kind that might honor the old-timers down on the field—but leftovers, the detritus of a team in chaos. Who is the marquee Dodger of today, the transcendent personality emulated by children and worshiped by a city? The clerk behind the counter shrugs. The last Dodger to fit that bill was Mike Piazza. He has not been a Dodger since 1998. "We sometimes get Piazza stuff, but we can't keep it in stock," the clerk says. "If we had it all the time, he'd still be our biggest seller."

This is not a story about how the Dodgers have sunk into mediocrity, though they have done nothing if not that. Perennial underachievers, mired of late in third place, they have finished an average of 14 games behind the National League Western Division leader in the four years since Piazza was traded away; this year they are 25-1 long shots to win the World Series. No, this is about something worse than mediocrity, something that hurts more than a September swoon. This is the story of a ball club we no longer recognize. Once a family more than a franchise, the Dodgers under Rupert Murdoch's multibillion-dollar entertainment empire have become as characterless and interchangeable as last fall's TV lineup. Players come and go like bad sitcoms, canceled even as the promos urge us to tune in. The only two Dodgers to make the All-Star team last year are already history. In fact, six of the highest-paid Dodgers in 2001—presumably the building blocks of a team—will be missing this year, just as eight top Dodgers were shipped out the year before, and four the year before that, and nine the year before that. Worse than lovable losers, the Dodgers are strangers in their own town.

Preserving the soul of a team, to the extent that anyone still believes such a romantic thing to exist, is a struggle everywhere in professional sports. In an age of super-agents and cable rights and tax-subsidized stadiums, loyalty has never seemed more ephemeral, the tension between owners and players never more corrosive. The Dodgers, on the other hand, were never just another team. From their first game in Los Angeles—April 18,1958, before 78,672 fans in the Coliseum—they have been a fixture of the city's iconography, a symbol of America's tectonic shift from east to west. Before they left Brooklyn, baseball's western frontier was St. Louis. The Dodgers turned the nation's pastime, finally, into a national game. They helped catapult L.A. from a curious outpost of orange groves and movie studios into a farsighted megalopolis with big, league swagger. Like Disneyland, they at once reflected our aspirations and projected them to the rest of the world. As the city sprawled, the Dodgers challenged every myth about L.A.'s transience and disposability. Dodger Stadium, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this season, is now baseball's fourth-oldest park. Vin Scully, entering his 53rd consecutive season as Dodger broadcaster, might just be the most revered sports figure in L.A. history—his only competition coming from his Laker counterpart, the equally indefatigable Chick Hearn. The Dodgers gave us a shared heritage, common ground in a centerless landscape.

Brooklynites, of course, have always seen things differently. Their homegrown underdogs mutated into a gang of mercenaries, spurning blue-collar devotion for a terminally sunny refuge. But the Dodgers never blinked. After taking half a century to win their first championship back east, they proceeded to win five more out west. The L.A. heroes may not have been as rumpled or as colorful as their Brooklyn antecedents, but they made up for it with dominance and a cool savoir faire: Sandy Koufax and his four no-hitters in the 1960s; the unbreakable infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Ron Cey in the '70s; Fernandomania and the improbable World Series home run by a hobbled Kirk Gibson in the '80s; a record five consecutive Rookies of the Year in the '90s. Dodger Stadium—more elegant with each passing decade—became the first sports arena in America to top 3 million fans in a single season, a milestone that now has been reached 16 times.

"When I was in the minor leagues, I could hardly wait to get up here," says Maury Wills, who, in 1962, won Los Angeles's first MVP Award. "Being a Dodger was as big as life. It was life itself." As a measure of his obsession, Wills offers a story from those early days, a time when even his family came second to baseball. The Dodgers were in a pennant race. His wife was home in Spokane, Washington, enduring a difficult pregnancy. Wills received a series of telegrams from the doctor. There were complications. It was either lose his wife or lose the baby. "My reaction to that was, `But were playing the Giants tomorrow!'" says Wills, laughing so devilishly that you almost think his response would be the same even today. "I'm not saying that's a good thing—that it's right or it's wrong—but that's how I felt." The doctor was able to save his wife but not the child. Wills remembers playing "one hell of a ball game."

FOR A TEAM THAT HAD TRIFLED SO casually with allegiances in Brooklyn, the Dodgers proved to be one of L.A.'s most stable and paternal institutions. Under the O'Malleys—first Walter, then son Peter—they were owned by one family for 47 years. Where other teams made scapegoats of their managers, the Dodgers coronated theirs for life. From 1954 to 1996 there were just two; during the same period the Yankees changed skippers 25 times. Players wore the same uniform for 10, 15 years. When they retired, they stayed on as coaches for 10, 15, 20 more. Whenever the Dodgers moved into first place or gained a game while in first, free ice cream was served to all employees at 2 p.m. outside the executive offices. Whenever the Dodgers traveled, any player could invite his family to fly on the team plane and stay at the team hotel—again, always for free. Three times, Fortune named the Dodgers one of the nation's 100 best companies to work for, the only sports franchise on the list. The club called it the Dodger Way. "Everyone in those years wanted to pattern themselves after the Dodgers," says Tommy Lasorda, now a senior vice president. "The word Dodgers was synonymous with baseball."

This feature was originally published in the April 2002 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

When Lasorda became manager in 1977, he had already spent a quarter century with the club, mostly in the Dodger farm system. Of the 25 players on his roster that year, 17 had played for him in the minor leagues and almost all lived in Los Angeles year-round. "They were already indoctrinated," says Lasorda, reminiscing over a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, which he orders in Spanish from the Dodger Stadium chefs. Does the spirit of Dodger Blue mean the same thing to the players of today? "Oh, no, no, uh-uh, no," Lasorda mutters between bites. And how could it? When the Dodgers open their season on April 2 this year, only seven will have graduated from the team's farm system. Even fewer will actually call L.A. home.

Some of that continuity would likely have been lost anyway, given the mounting economic pressures of the sport. But nothing could have disassembled the Dodgers more surely than Peter O'Malley's decision in 1998 to sell the team for $311 million to Murdoch's Fox Group, a global media conglomerate that saw "content" where the rest of us saw civic treasure. Fox executives had pledged to respect Dodger culture, but Murdoch, despite having lived in Los Angeles for 13 years, had never set foot in the stadium. What he cared about was winning the regional sports cable TV wars—and the Dodgers were little more than a pawn in his battle with the Walt Disney Company over the rights to air local games. In the Dodgers, Murdoch had ready-made programming for Fox Sports Net 2; Disney, which owns the Angels and the Mighty Ducks, was hoping to show home games on a competing version of its ESPN network. "The truth of the matter was, the economic reason was that we were trying to establish a second sports cable network in Southern California and Disney was trying to get one going, too, around their teams," Murdoch acknowledged in an interview on The Charlie Rose Show last December. Not only did Disney abandon its plans for a regional network, but Fox ended up securing the rights to air the home games of Disney's teams. "By getting in first, we sort of—they didn't find any room to get in," Murdoch said.

If that does not chill the spine of anyone who has ever relished a Dodger Dog on a warm summer night, it is only because of the plundering that has already taken place. Without baseball people at the top, or a conscience to guide the team, four decades of tradition came tumbling down. "Obviously, I thought there would be some changes," says Peter O'Malley, who continues to believe that the Dodgers need the deep pockets of a corporate owner to remain competitive. "But I never imagined—I never dreamed—there would be so many changes so quickly. If you count the number of pitching coaches, batting coaches, scouting directors, department heads, managers, and general managers that the ball club has had since I was there, I don't think there's another organization in baseball that's had that turnover in so short a period of time. Ever." In the four seasons under Fox, the scorecard reads like this: three batting coaches, four pitching coaches, three directors of minor league operations, four managers, five general managers. The trainer of 22 years was ousted. So was the equipment manager of 17 years, the bullpen coach of 23 years, and three part-time batting-practice pitchers—guys who made $45 a day but had spent a combined 73 years with the club. "The last couple of years have been a very difficult time for all of us who have ever cheered the Dodgers, and that surely includes me," O'Malley says. "The organization needs to settle down. It needs to stabilize. I don't want to be critical or second-guess at a distance, but maybe more patience could have been shown."

Most of those moves were behind the scenes, but even the occasional fan could sense that something had been lost. Advertising began to crop up on the once-pristine outfield fence. The ushers, with their genteel navy blazers and straw boater hats, suddenly went casual, with khakis and Aussie hats and golf shirts emblazoned with the B.U.M. sportswear logo. Rock and rap encroached on Nancy Bea Hefley's organ time. The Cool-a-Coo ice cream sandwich, a Dodger signature for 27 years, was scratched from the menu. "What's been lost is almost like our sense of touch with the Dodgers," says Bill Plaschke, the Los Angeles Times sports columnist. "Fox has taken the corner grocery store and turned it into a Wal-Mart, with huge aisles and bright fluorescent lights and players you've never seen before. You go to a game now, and it's almost like you need a map."

Baseball, it has been said, is too much of a business to be a game and too much of a game to be a business. Yet baseball is also something deeper, a reservoir of oiled mitts and cut grass and fathers and twilight, the attic of American boyhood. It is about the senses, the whispers of memory, that make us care even when the sport falls short of its promise. The first ball game I ever saw was in Portland, Oregon, my hometown, where we had only the minor league Beavers to root for. I cannot tell you if they won or even whom they were playing. But I can tell you about being five and holding my dad's hand, about being so eager to catch a foul ball that I pleaded for us to get to the stadium earlier than we should have for a soupy August afternoon. I ate a hot dog, drank an orange soda, and threw up during the national anthem.

Even then, I knew of the Dodgers. My parents had grown up in Brooklyn, and they made sure I understood that this had been a team unlike any other, one with the moral courage to even the playing field. Jackie Robinson was right up there with Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. in our pantheon of household heroes. When I got to be a Little Leaguer, my dad would toss me pop flies and grounders in the backyard, adding drama by attributing each ball to a fantasy batter. He took the names straight from the lineups of his own youth: Pee Wee Reese, Cookie Lavagetto, Carl Furillo, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella. Names that, by the 1960s, already had the feel of old flannel. I did not update that mental roster until I moved to Los Angeles some 20 years later. I knew by then that there were people who delighted in bashing the Dodgers, who thought of them as showy and self-righteous, too enamored of their own mythology. But I had never lived in a big-league town before—never lived on my own before—and was hungry to belong. I found an apartment in Echo Park, a 15-minute walk through the Elysian hills to Chavez Ravine. I bought a $10 cap at a mini-mart and tuned my car radio to 790 AM. They were small acts but, for a young man starting a new life, ones that made the city a little less lonely. I loved the imagery, the crispness of the blue on white, the geometry of the L overlaying the A. To see it all through the words of Vin Scully was to experience something at once intimate and communal. During the Cinderella season of 1988 I waited until 7 p.m. every day to begin my commute, so that I always had his sweet hum to accompany me home.

Smarter baseball people than me have argued that the Dodgers were already in decline by then, that the '88 championship was a fluke that may have even hastened their troubles, masking what had become an increasingly stagnant and stingy organization under O'Malley. I saw no reason to fret. They were my Dodgers. I judged them not merely by the standings but by how they made me feel—and with each freshman class of the '90s, they kept adding to my own lineup of favorites: Karros, Piazza, Mondesi, Nomo, Hollandsworth. If some of those years were lacking, at least the Dodger uniform was still something to be earned and not bought. When my son got to be old enough to play ball, those were the names that I called out while tossing him pop flies and grounders.

The first to go was Piazza, a trade that will haunt the Dodgers all the way to Cooperstown. Besides being the best-hitting catcher in the game, maybe in history, Piazza was also the most popular Dodger of his day—and probably the team's most marketable player ever. He was pretty enough to do shampoo commercials; he was dangerous enough, with that pencil-thin Fu Manchu, and ethnic enough, with those double-barrels, to have credibility in urban L.A. When he came to bat, women stood up in the stands and waved MARRY ME, MIKE signs.

As his appeal soared, however, Piazza's relationship with the Dodgers grew weary. He was voted onto the All-Star team in each of his five seasons here, but Piazza never led the Dodgers to a championship, never even won them a playoff game. With the 1998 season approaching, former center fielder Brett Butler ripped Piazza, calling him a "moody, self-centered, '90s player" who had failed to live up to his hype. As if to confirm that perception, Piazza unwisely chose opening day that year to bitch about his contract. He was looking for a seven-year extension that would have made him baseball's first $100 million man. The Dodgers were offering about $80 million over six years, a deal that would still have made him the highest-paid player in the game. Although Piazza would later insist that he always expected to remain a Dodger, his public funk set off a panic at the Fox Group, whose purchase of the team had become official just a few weeks earlier. Without an agreement, Piazza would become a free agent at the end of the season, in which case the Dodgers would likely lose him anyway and receive nothing in return. The trade was made by Fox Television chairman and chief executive Chase Carey, a Hollywood suit. "It was a mistake, absolutely," O'Malley says. "I think today if you were to call Chase, he would tell you that."

Murals came down. TV spots were yanked. The Blue Crew fan club had to go hunting for a new leader. It got worse when Piazza signed a seven-year, $91 million contract with the New York Mets later that season, a sum that was not so far from what the Dodgers had put on the table. The Mets thought it a small price. "We needed an identity, a marquee player, someone the fans could latch onto, that the players could latch onto," said Mets general manager Steve Phillips, and that is precisely what the Dodgers had lost. By the time they realized it—and tried to get the Mets to consider trading Piazza back to them the following year—the Dodgers only bought themselves more ridicule.

Hungry for a new hero to launch the 1999 season, the Dodgers went shopping on the free market. They made a hard run at Randy Johnson, the six-foot-ten strikeout artist. But Johnson snubbed the Dodgers, opting instead for the Arizona Diamondbacks, a lowly expansion team that he thought was doing more to beef up its roster. He now has a World Series ring to prove he was right. Still looking for a headline-grabbing name, the Dodgers finally lured Kevin Brown, another veteran pitcher who was coming off successive World Series appearances. Getting him to L.A. took an industry-rattling seven-year, $105 million deal, the first triple-digit contract in baseball history—and a good bit more than either Piazza or Johnson is making. The fact that his contract included an unprecedented perk—12 yearly trips for his wife and kids on a chartered jet between Los Angeles and their home in Macon, Georgia—did little to improve his image as anything but a hired gun. "If Kevin Brown gets us to the World Series, he pays for himself," then-general manager Kevin Malone said.

Kevin Brown has not taken the Dodgers to the World Series. He has not won a Cy Young Award. In his three years here, he has been good, at times very good, but he is solitary and prickly, saddled with expectations he may never be able to meet. He is also 37 and trying to come back from a season-ending elbow injury. What is a Dodger fan to make of this famously dour competitor, a soldier of fortune who has yet to conquer L.A.'s heart?

If the Dodgers has somehow managed to get to the World Series, all might have been forgiven. If the Dodgers had pleaded for patience or time to rebuild, once it became apparent the new regime was in over its head, failure might have been forgiven even then. Baseball is a game of such intricate specialization—leadoff men, setup men, utility men, pinch hitters, switch-hitters, cleanup hitters, starters, middle relievers, lefties, righties, closers—that otherwise-savvy executives often take years to begin deciphering its mysteries. But the new Dodgers did not win. They did not lose gracefully, either. Desperate for a quick fix, Fox continued to spend wildly, boosting payroll from a modest $43 million under O'Malley to a stratospheric $110 million by the end of last season. That is supposedly the virtue, or at least necessity, of corporate ownership; it allows the team to function as a loss leader, to sink more into talent than a sole proprietor could afford. But Fox awarded contracts like so many foul balls, filling the Dodger clubhouse with a procession of has-beens, retreads, head cases, and flameouts, all paid like future Hall of Famers.

Dodger officials compounded the problem by blowing smoke at every opportunity, acting as cocksure and self-congratulatory as the crew of the Titanic. When he was hired as general manager in 1998, Malone called himself "the new sheriff in town" and dismissed his critics as jealous "Dodger haters." He was ousted 16 days into the season last year, after challenging a heckler to a fight during a game in San Diego. When manager Davey Johnson came on board in 1999, he introduced himself at a press conference by saying that, with the talent on the Dodgers, "they could hire the village idiot and win." Fired after two desultory seasons, he is now more sober in his assessment. "A lot of bad decisions were made—management decisions, personnel decisions, probably from top to bottom," says Johnson, who had been baseball's winningest active manager. "I'm not saying they were made maliciously, but great organizations don't make those mistakes."

As the 2000 season approached, Fox came to the same realization and sold a 10 percent interest in the team to former Warner Bros. chief Robert A. Daly, making him the club's chairman and CEO. Daly is a Brooklyn native and lifelong Dodger fan, someone who used to check his pager for the latest score while attending movie premieres. His arrival was widely applauded as the first step in restoring the organization's mystique. (When I requested an interview, wanting to know how much progress he thought he had made, I was told that Daly would not be available.)

Daly's most important decision so far has been to hire a new general manager, Dan Evans, who had spent 19 years in the relative obscurity of the Chicago White Sox front office. Evans is diplomatic and even-keeled, unlikely to repeat the mistakes of his shoot-from-the-lip predecessor. But he is still having to prove himself a worthy heir of the Dodger Way. During baseball's annual talks in December, he showed up for a meeting with Cincinnati Reds general manager Jim Bowden. "Where's Tommy?"' asked Bowden, refusing to discuss possible trades unless his old friend Lasorda was at the table. Evans tried to get the session going. Bowden again rebuffed him. Evans finally contacted Lasorda by cell phone and invited him to the meeting. Even then, Bowden insisted on waiting until Lasorda actually arrived. "When you think of the Dodgers," Bowden told the executives in the room, "you think of Tommy Lasorda."

By the time the 2001 season was under way, the Dodgers had only one player left to show for the Piazza trade. That was Gary Sheffield, the most uncertain Dodger of them all. He was the kind of hitter who everyone, including the opposing pitcher, knew could change the game with a single swing. He was also cranky and narcissistic and, with his corn-rows and diamonds, maybe just a little too bad for most L.A. fans to embrace. During spring training that year, Sheffield went on a tirade against Dodger officials, Bob Daly in particular, calling them liars for making him believe they were prepared to give him a lucrative contract extension. He demanded a trade. When opening day came and Sheffield was still in a Dodger uniform, he was booed mercilessly, just as fans had howled at Piazza for his outburst three years earlier. I added my boos to the chorus. At the moment when the Dodgers most needed a savior, someone who bled for the team, here was a guy reminding us that it was all just about getting paid. Then, in the sixth inning, Sheffield did what he does best: His solo home run broke open a scoreless game, clinching a 1-0 victory. The boos turned to cheers, the cheers to a curtain call. I grimaced, unable to swallow my distaste so quickly. But I understood the yearning of the people around me. Sheffield might have been a son of a bitch, but at least he was our son of a bitch. Maybe it was better to learn to live with him than to not have him at all.

As it turned out, last season provided much better reasons to cheer. After eight years in the Dodger farm system, 29-year-old catcher Paul Lo Duca forgot that he was not supposed to be able to hit big-league pitching. Relatively small (five foot eight, 185 pounds) and making a minimum-wage salary of $230,000, he ended up with the highest batting average on the team, smacking almost as many home runs last year as he had in his entire career. Lo Duca credited his late mother, Luci, who used to pitch him pinto beans while he swung a broomstick. Before every game he scratched her initials into the dirt behind home plate. After Lo Duca, the second-best reason to be a Dodger fan was Shawn Green, an Orange County kid who returned from Toronto in the deal that sent Paul Mondesi packing. In the first year of his $84 million contract, Green looked like another high-priced dud, but he came back last season to wallop 49 home runs, a Dodger record. Although he was often stone-faced and painfully reserved, he made up for it by awarding his batting gloves to a young fan after each blast. When he chose not to play on Yom Kippur, sacrificing what had been the longest active consecutive-game streak in the majors, he awakened the echoes of Sandy Koufax; it had been a long time since the Dodgers made headlines with an act of character.

"What we're all about is this name here," manager Jim Tracy tells his players on the first day of winter workouts, pointing to the Dodger logo across his chest. "When push comes to shove, this organization is about that fucking name. Not the name on the back of your shirt." It is a line that Lasorda has used for decades, but it is comforting to know that the earnest and cheery Tracy, now in his second season, can deliver it just as saltily. Runner-up for Manager of the Year, he can wax for hours about how the Dodgers have rediscovered their heart, about how they remained in the play-off hunt most of last season despite a freakish string of injuries, about how they won just six fewer games than the world-champion Diamondbacks. "I've been here before, as a coach, where each year we come back and we're standing here like this, saying, `Hell, we're starting over again,'" Tracy says. "We're not starting over. There's too many guys in our clubhouse that are very familiar with what we did a year ago and how we went about doing it. This is a continuation of where we left off." Tracy is nothing if not an optimist. His bright-side, silver, lining, glass-half-full philosophy probably kept the Dodgers in contention longer than they had a fight to be. But this is hardly the same team he managed last year. Gone now is Gary Sheffield, the Dodgers' most productive hitter, having pissed on the club one time too many. So is Chan Ho Park, the Dodgers' most consistent starting pitcher, and relief pitcher Jeff Shaw, who holds the Dodgers' all-time record for saves. In their place you will see a new left fielder (Brian Jordan, from the Atlanta Braves), a new shortstop (Cesar Izturis, from the Toronto Blue Jays), and a slew of new pitchers, including a refurbished Hideo Nomo (from the Boston Red Sox) and the highly coveted Kazuhisa Ishii (direct from the Yakult Swallows of Japan).

On opening day, in fact, there will be only one player in the lineup who has worn the Dodger uniform for at least five years, only one player who spent most of the '90s on the team and still remains. Eric Karros should be the Dodger poster child. Entering his 11th season, he is the last link to a time when players devoted their entire career to the same club, to the same town. The one guy who never wanted out. Yet for all his loyalty, Karros stirs more ambivalence than passion. He is the kind of player you want on your team but not the kind of player you can build your team around. He is consistent but not inspiring. He finishes with solid numbers but always seems to need half a season to warm up. "I would like to be thought of as somebody who goes out there and just does the job as well as he can do it—maybe not the best, but somebody who goes out there and doesn't complain," says the 34-year-old first baseman, who was hobbled by a back injury last year that resulted in career lows. "I don't bitch about things. I'm true to my word. That's it."

His role was simpler when Piazza was around. They were buddies. They shared a bachelor pad in Manhattan Beach. The franchise player batted third. Karros protected him, batting fourth. After the trade, Karros never filled Piazza's shoes, never really cared to try. Instead of becoming the team's leader, he has often seemed like its ghost, someone who feels betrayed by the idea that he has been left to turn off the lights. "I think a lot of people from the outside wanted to say, `Hey, this guy came up through the system, he's one of the last Dodgers, he can impart the Dodger tradition to some of the new guys,'" Karros says. "Well, that's ridiculous." There were too many new guys, too many new beginnings. He tries to describe what it was like before, when the players did not manipulate the managers, the managers did not clash with the general managers, the general managers did not fall out with the owners. Then he catches himself. I'm starting to sound like one of those guys who played for years and says, "Oh, back when I played ...' I swore I'd never be like that."

For inspiration, for mystique, for identity, for love—for all the things the Dodgers once delivered—Los Angeles turns now to its basketball team. We are a Laker town. Back-to-back NBA championships have a lot to do with it. But winning is not the only reason. For 23 years the Lakers have been a reflection of a single owner, Dr. Jerry H. Bussan eccentric, often outlandish, aging Austin Powers, but still an owner who is in the game for something more than just synergy. The team's stars, Kobe and Shaq, are not merely among the best players in the NBA; they are those rare transcendent personalities, celebrated for their looks and humor and panache as much as for their prowess on the court. We feel like we know them, like we have watched them grow up. Shaq and his bad rap albums, his Superman thing, his philosophical musings. Kobe and his Adidas commercials, his teenage bride, his fluent Italian. They came from somewhere else, but they belong to L.A. When the Lakers won two years ago, 250,000 people poured out for the parade. When they won last year, the crowd topped 500,000, most of them fans who could not even afford a seat in Staples Center but who still felt the Lakers were theirs.

If the Dodgers shock everyone this year and end up in the World Series, the city will surely be ecstatic. But I wonder if Dodger fans would ever clog the streets of downtown in such numbers, if they would ever turn the freeways into a convoy of blue flags. Basketball is loud and flashy and fast, full of hip-hop attitude, like those "Get the Party Started" spots that Pink does for the NBA. Baseball, even at its most thrilling, is a game of subtlety and deliberation. "We're just not a patient society anymore," says Dave Smith, cohost of the afternoon Dave and Arnie show on Fox Sports 1150 AM. "Ifs the whole MTV generation—you know, quick hits, quick highlights. The traditional baseball fan is dying off." Basketball players have moves; they improvise with the ball, do tricks, star in videos. Baseball is the odd sport in which the offense does not have the ball; players have stances and motions, but they cannot take anyone to the hoop. Basketball is about style: hair, sneakers, "bling-bling," tattoos. Baseball is about uniformity. Caps cover the head. Sleeves conceal the arms. Cleats do not sell for $150 in the mall. The Lakers are like divas. We know them by their first names. If you said your favorite baseball players were Kevin, Shawn, and Paul, would anyone understand? How about if you called them by their nicknames—Brownie, Greenie, Dukie?

My son, Max, is nine, and for several years now I have been coaching both his baseball and his basketball teams in a Monterey Park youth league. Before each season the coaches are called in and asked to pick team names. During basketball last winter, three of us wanted to be the Lakers. The commissioner had to settle it with a coin toss. During baseball last summer, there was no such bottleneck. One coach asked to be the Yankees, another to be the Diamondbacks, a third to be the Angels. And the Dodgers? "I'll take them if nobody else wants them," I said.