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Dodgers and L.A.: Romance has soured, but the relationship is far from over

The town and the team are too important to each other not to find a way through current struggles, interviews indicate. 'This city will not allow the Dodgers to implode,' an elected official says.

April 23, 2011|By Scott Gold and Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Tommy Lasorda, center, gets a beer and champagne bath from Burt Hooten, left, and Rick Sutcliffe, right, after the Dodgers clinched the National League West title in 1978.
Tommy Lasorda, center, gets a beer and champagne bath from Burt Hooten,… (Los Angeles Times )

They were married, this town and this team, on a blustery spring afternoon in 1958.

They were young and enigmatic, the dinner-party invite everybody wanted. Eventually, though, the union began to fray. The town started seeing other people. The team made one bad decision after another. They sold off some of their most precious possessions and then, last week, lost their home to foreclosure.

At least they've hit bottom.

Major League Baseball's takeover of the Dodgers on Wednesday marked a breathtaking collapse for one of America's premier sports franchises — and another test of loyalty in the 53-year romance between Los Angeles and the club.

That relationship, sturdy and emulated for so many years, has veered in recent years from enchanted to estranged. Now, the town and the team will start over — never again, perhaps, with the luster they once had, but with their futures woven together inextricably.

When Commissioner Bud Selig wrested control of the Dodgers from the team's beleaguered owner, Frank McCourt, it effectively put that relationship on the couch. Suddenly, there are thousands of shrinks — public officials, former players, fans, all fretting over sagging attendance, an image of mediocrity on the field and far worse in the front office. They're full of advice, from reconnecting with fans by reducing parking prices to creating a perennial contender by reinvesting in scouting and minor league operations.

But dozens of interviews revealed one common thread: The town and the team are too important to each another not to find a way.

"They will come out of this, one way or another," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who kept a radio next to his bed as a boy in order to listen to games without getting in trouble for staying up too late. "This city will not allow the Dodgers to implode."

Huge effect on L.A.

The whole "national pastime" thing was a bit of a ruse until 1958. The game was already 112 years old, but the westernmost major league franchise at the time was in Kansas City. Then, the Dodgers of Brooklyn and the Giants of Manhattan headed west — the Dodgers to Los Angeles and the Giants to San Francisco.

It would be difficult to overstate what the Dodgers' arrival meant to the psyche and image of Los Angeles. This was such an adolescent city that then-Mayor Norris Poulson jokingly welcomed Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley to "the sticks." It was, said Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers' longtime manager, "the opening of a bridge from the East to the West."

From the start, said former Mayor Richard J. Riordan, there was a sense that the Dodgers were "one with Los Angeles." The team's uniforms were tidy and white, the word "Dodgers" written in schoolteacher script in a lavish blue known to color junkies by the hexadecimal code 005596 — or, as Lasorda would label it, simply "Dodger blue."

Like its city, the team seemed to be in a hurry to succeed; the Dodgers won the World Series in 1959, just their second year in Los Angeles, defeating the Chicago White Sox, and again in 1963, when they won four straight games against Mickey Mantle and the New York Yankees.

The Dodgers were soon viewed not just as an exemplary team, but as a new standard in professional sports management.

Part of it was the glamour of Hollywood — Cary Grant hung out in the dugout, and Doris Day made goo-goo eyes at the players. But a significant part of that image derived from the O'Malley family's ownership. The Dodgers were privately, locally owned, working in a picturesque stadium. Tickets were affordable, in part because of O'Malley's pioneering efforts to recruit educated businessmen to run his team.

Not every Angeleno buys into the hagiography, or the notion that it was a halcyon era compared to the recent troubles.

"I think McCourt is a junior G-man compared to the O'Malleys," said musician Ry Cooder, an L.A. native whose 2005 concept album "Chavez Ravine" evoked the rich Mexican American culture that was swept aside when the neighborhood was razed, creating an open space that came to house Dodger Stadium.

"Professional sports is not a holy institution," Cooder said. "It's a money thing and always has been."

But many believed O'Malley's drive matched that of the city — what Michael D'Antonio, the author of "Forever Blue," a book about O'Malley, called "the aspirational spirit of Southern California."

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Over the years, the Dodgers also developed a knack for showcasing players whose success could not be measured merely in baseball statistics.

Back in Brooklyn, the squad had already broken baseball's color barrier by fielding Jackie Robinson, an African American and a former star athlete at UCLA.

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