Artless Dodgers

They were once L.A.’s team, proof of the city’s ascendance. Now we hardly know their names
649

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.