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MURDOCH BUYS THE DODGERS

A Fox in the Chicken Coop?

Reaction: Fans fear ticket price hikes, more ads in stadium. Some are willing to give Murdoch a chance.

March 20, 1998|BOB POOL and CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

On Thursday, Dodger blue was the color of the mood, as fans waxed wistful about the end of a tradition.

Of course, the concerns of business and sports long ago merged, the power brokers of each seeing an opportunity to fuel the other's interests. But, somehow, the taint of business seemed to elude the Dodgers. Fans reveled in the knowledge that the team--at least as a corporate entity--had remained serenely unchanged, owned by the same family for almost 50 years.

Until the day that the team's beloved owners, the O'Malleys, officially sold the Dodgers to media mega-mogul Rupert Murdoch. Across the city, fans fretted about what it might mean.

"I have a great fear that Dodgers ticket prices will take off like a Mike Piazza home run," said Richard Varenchik, 53, who works for the California Air Resources Board. (The lowest of the low-priced tickets is four bucks. Cheaper than a movie.) Varenchik proudly noted that the members of his family have been Dodger fans for three generations.

"He is strictly a businessman," Varenchik said of Murdoch. "The O'Malleys were also businessmen, but they also showed concern for the fans."

Not only were, are--let the fans be optimistic. The prices are low and the hot dogs famous (those delicious Dodger Dogs), but the stadium is pristinely uncluttered by advertising. Only a few ads appear in fans' sight lines.

Will the ballpark now become a giant backdrop for advertising Murdoch's business interests, among them Fox TV? Comedy writer Mark Shipper predicts: "There's always going to be a sign behind home plate advertising 'When Animals Attack, Part 6.' "

At worst, they envision an outfield wall plastered with ads, club-level seats replaced by luxury boxes, and games punctuated with gimmicky Fox network giveaways. At best, they hope for, well, support of the status quo.

Dave Kalin, a computer consultant from Beverly Hills, worries that a Murdoch-owned ball team will mean astronomical salaries and less emphasis on bringing up players through the ranks, from the organization's minor league teams, which has been a Dodger tradition: "It is a quick fix. Boom! Pay $10 million or whatever millions on a player and build a team."

Kalin lamented, "Now as result of all this money, it is not a game or a sport, but a business."

The fact that the Dodgers have been a major league money business for years seems not to have made cynics of the fans. "I liked the fact that it was a private, family-run team," said Kalin. "It gave it a mom and pop feel."

Dan Peterson, who has attended Dodger games since 1964, when he was 9, recalled visiting the Dodger Stadium store this December in search of Christmas gifts. He asked if he could show his 8-year-old son, Tyler, the ball field. A stadium worker invited the pair inside.

"We brought sandwiches and sat on the top deck on a bright winter day and had a wonderful lunch," said Peterson, a script coordinator from West Los Angeles. "It was such a nice moment. That one little gesture was so wonderful. I just hope that kind of personal touch doesn't disappear."

(Interestingly, Peterson works on the hit TV show "Party of Five," a staple of Murdoch's Fox network.)

Daniel Goodman, a boat salesman from Canyon Country who began attending Dodger games 20 years ago with his grandfather, urged Murdoch to keep the stadium an inviting place.

"The only thing that concerns me is changing the look of the stadium," Goodman said. "I'm sure he'll be putting a lot of ads up there. But people all over the country are always pointing out how clean our stadium looks--I'd like to see it stay that way."

Just as bad would be to have the players looking like walking billboards: "They'll have Fox logos advertising the network on their uniforms," predicted Lisa Esserman, a children's clothing saleswoman from Chatsworth.

Esserman was eating lunch Thursday at Paul's Kitchen, a Chinese restaurant on San Pedro Street downtown that is a longtime favorite of former Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda and players. Nearly 40 framed 8-by-10 glossy photos of players line the restaurant's walls above autographed balls and bats.

Another diner, apparel manufacturer Steve Maiman of Pacific Palisades, wondered if the Dodgers might soon have a mascot running around the ball field. "It could be a fox, one that's always being chased by a hound but never gets caught," Maiman said.

But not all denizens of the Dodger lunch hangout were against the sale.

"With salaries the way they are, it was the only way to go," said David Scheft, a garment manufacturer from Century City. "It's gonna be OK."

But his loyalties are questionable. He admits he roots for the Mets. "I grew up in Brooklyn and didn't like it when the Dodgers left," Scheft said.

Former Los Angeles Councilwoman Rosalind Wyman--who played a major role in the late 1950s in bringing the team to Los Angeles--said she was heartened when Murdoch picked longtime Dodger executive Bob Graziano to be team president.

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