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Book Review

Bleeding Dodger Blue, for Better or Worse

TRUE BLUE: The Dramatic History of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Told by the Men Who Lived It; By Steve Delsohn; William Morrow $24, 292 pages

April 03, 2001|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The time is right for a book like this, because Dodger fans are worried. Has their favorite team lost its way? The Dodger Way, that is--those legendary guidelines laid down by Branch Rickey before the team left Brooklyn: Build from your own farm system. Play fundamentally sound baseball. Hire good managers and leave them alone--Walter Alston for 23 years, Tommy Lasorda for 20. Keep ticket prices reasonable. Exude class. And win.

Since the O'Malley family sold out to Rupert Murdoch's Fox Group in 1998, have the Dodgers become just another dysfunctional group of spoiled players with a clueless front office (the Mike Piazza trade!) and no sense of tradition? Or, Steve Delsohn asks rhetorically in this oral history of the team from 1957 to the present, can it "regain its stability, repair its tattered image and resume winning World Series rings"?

One of the 124 people Delsohn interviewed--current and former Dodger players, opponents, executives, sportswriters, broadcasters and longtime fans--isn't shy about answering that question. But first, the book. The idea behind it is simple, though Delsohn, who has also written oral histories of firefighters and Notre Dame football, had to do a lot of legwork.

He takes the Dodgers' tenure in Los Angeles decade by decade, asking his interviewees to comment on memorable moments, from the depressing (general manager Al Campanis' firing after he made racist remarks on "Nightline" in 1987) to the sublime (hobbling Kirk Gibson's pinch homer off Dennis Eckersley to win the opening game of the 1998 Series against the Oakland A's).

Mostly, it's a litany of the familiar. The despair of Brooklynites who lost their beloved Bums to L.A. The goofy left-field screen at the Coliseum. Sandy Koufax's meteoric six years as the best pitcher in baseball. Giant pitcher Juan Marichal bashing Dodger catcher John Roseboro with a bat. Reliever Tom Niedenfuer's fateful pitch to the Cardinals' Jack Clark in the 1985 National League league playoffs. Fernandomania. Orel Hershiser's scoreless-innings streak. The eight-year reign of the Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey infield. Steve Howe's drug troubles. That Piazza trade.

Now and then a fresh insight surfaces. Walter O'Malley's decision to leave Brooklyn wasn't motivated by greed alone, says Mark Reese, a documentary film producer and son of shortstop Pee Wee Reese. O'Malley proposed a new Brooklyn ballpark to replace Ebbets Field but lost out in a "monstrous clash of ego" with Robert Moses, New York's highway and development czar. "Moses was absolutely ferocious," Reese says. "There was no way O'Malley was getting that [stadium] land."

Similarly, Peter O'Malley (who, like Koufax and Piazza, declined to be interviewed) sold to Fox in part because his plans for a National Football League team in Dodger Stadium were stymied by Councilman Mark Ridley Thomas (whose district included the Coliseum) and Mayor Richard Riordan, according to Times sports editor Bill Dwyre. "There was a lot of anger" on O'Malley's part, Dwyre says.

On the other hand, the discussion in "True Blue" about who got the better deal when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles--Walter O'Malley or the city--is limited by the lack of a non-sports viewpoint. Nobody bothers to recall the anger of the Chavez Ravine residents who were evicted so that Dodger Stadium could be built.

And there's little hard analysis to accompany the opinions, as salty as many of them are. Is the current Dodger malaise--no postseason wins since 1988, seemingly permanent displacement by the Atlanta Braves as the best-pitching team in the league--merely a cyclical, temporary thing? Or, as some fear, have changes in baseball's culture and economics made a return to glory unlikely?

Delsohn lets Lasorda have the last word: "This is the Dodgers," he says. "There is no doubt in my mind we can come back. No doubt at all."

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