I WAS 7 YEARS OLD in the summer of 1949 when I turned on a console radio in Galveston, Tex., and discovered baseball. Someone named Jackie Robinson hit a home run into a street called Bedford Avenue as the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the New York Giants. Not one summer day since has passed without the Dodgers being a part of my life.
Thirty-eight years is a long time to stay married to one team, especially when you're forced to live apart. I admit to brief flings with teams closer to home, if not closer to heart--the Astros, and before them the Cardinals--but honest, dear, they didn't mean a thing, and what really matters is that I never once even looked at the Giants.
All this time I have been a member of baseball's largest family: the Dodger diaspora. Scattered throughout the country, we knew that the Dodgers were truly America's Team long before the Dallas Cowboys dreamed up the phrase or the Atlanta Braves cheapened it. We understood, long before people began writing nostalgic books about the Dodgers, that the history of the team mirrored the American experience: the end of segregation, the struggle to be free of Yankee dominance, the westward odyssey, the discovery of riches in California. The allure of the Dodgers made up for the hardships of separation--the mornings of opening the sports section only to discover that once again the West Coast games had been left out; the nights of staying up past midnight to spend yet another 50 cents on a 900 telephone number that offers the latest scores; the disorientation that comes from distance, from not being able to listen to Vin Scully, from having to find out about a trade by coming across a new name in the box score.
Still, it's been a good life--up until now. The trouble started last September, when the Dodgers lost 17 of their last 22 games and finished a scant half-game out of last place. Last place! Surely this year would be better, yes?
No. On opening night, Dodger executive Al Campanis touched off a firestorm when he said on ABC-TV's "Nightline" that blacks weren't qualified to manage in the major leagues. The team lost its first five games. Campanis lost his job. As the team struggled through the summer, Sports Illustrated sent a writer to Los Angeles to compose an obituary for the Dodger Blue mystique. The entire baseball world put the Dodgers on the couch.
As the Dodgers sank closer and closer to the suddenly familiar climes of last place, I made a pilgrimage to Los Angeles from Texas to see for myself what had gone wrong. I talked not to the players (ballplayers always think they're just a hit here and a cliche there from winning) but to the organization men who run the Dodgers, names unknown to the average fan, names like Executive Vice President Fred Claire and minor league operations director Bill Schweppe.
What I found was not reassuring. The Dodgers, the most successful organization in baseball since the team moved to the West Coast, are going through the most Californian experience imaginable. They are having an identity crisis.
THE FALL OF THE Dodgers has been dissected as thoroughly as the fall of Rome. Theories abound. On the weekend that I spent at Dodger Stadium, the patrons in the left-field seats were an Oxford of baseball scholarship.
"This team's got no chemistry." This was the most common complaint by far, generated by the summer-long bickering between Pedro Guerrero and Mike Marshall. But Don Sutton and Steve Garvey feuded for years, and that didn't keep the Dodgers from winning three pennants.
"Lasorda's a clown." Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda is Rodney Dangerfield in uniform. His eyes pop, his belly sags, his blood bleeds blue, he gets no respect. More to the point, though, he's guided the Dodgers to five first-place finishes in 11 years. Nobody thought Walter Alston could manage, either.
"The scouts can't tell a curve ball from a fastball." In recent years the farm system hasn't produced talent the way it once did. But it's hard to put all the blame on the scouts. Players like Reggie Williams and Jeff Hamilton verified the scouts' judgment by looking good in the minor leagues. Only when they got to the Dodgers did they start to look bad.
"Nobody is in charge." News reports have made it sound as if there is more intrigue in the Dodger organization than in Lebanon--in particular, a power struggle between Lasorda and Fred Claire. If there is one, Lasorda is as foolish as his critics believe. The line of authority was settled in 1982, when owner Peter O'Malley elevated Claire from vice president of public relations to executive vice president. Claire is firmly entrenched as the man ultimately responsible for the fate of the Dodgers.