Artless Dodgers

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