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Dodgers: Healing the home team

Whoever ends up owning the Dodgers should take some clues from the O'Malleys, who for nearly half a century put the needs of fans — and the game in general — first.

May 17, 2011|By Michael K. Fox

Major League Baseball's takeover of the Los Angeles Dodgers raises the question of who might be the team's next owners. It's the hope of many Angelenos that the O'Malley family, which owned the storied franchise for nearly half a century, will return to the front office in some capacity. But whoever the next owners turn out to be, they should adopt the O'Malley approach of promoting a family-friendly atmosphere at Dodger Stadium and emphasizing player development at home and abroad, with the ultimate goal of restoring the team's tradition of regular World Series appearances.

The next owners must act quickly and decisively to restore trust with fans and create incentives to bring them back to the ballpark. Fans must receive value for their money and feel confident that the money they spend at the ballpark is used wisely for the improvement of the team. Most important, families must feel safe in and around the stadium.

In 1997, a family of four could enjoy a Dodgers game for $104, which included a package deal of four $12 box seats, four hot dogs and four sodas, two beers, two game programs and two Dodger caps and parking. Today, the same experience can run $600 or more; an authentic Dodger cap alone now costs $35.

While luxury box and premium field-level seating may continue to command top dollar from corporate patrons, the next owners should adjust ticket prices for other desirable seats as an enticement for middle-income families to return to the stadium.

Great pitchers think several hitters ahead, and Walter O'Malley, who brought the team to L.A., thought generations ahead. He understood that the future success of baseball in general, and the Dodgers in particular, relied on developing player talent and building interest in the game outside the United States.

Beginning in 1956, the Dodgers made regular spring trips to Japan, where they quickly became goodwill ambassadors for America's pastime and established lasting relationships with local professional teams. Those teams, including the famed Tokyo Giants, in turn visited the Dodgers' spring training camp in Vero Beach, Fla., creating a future pipeline for major league talent including Hideo Nomo and Hiroki Kuroda.

In the 1970s, the Dodgers established training facilities in Latin America. Other clubs followed suit, and today many of the greatest players in the game are products of those outposts. The team's foresight in seeking talent in Latin America paid off in 1981 when pitching phenom Fernando Valenzuela burst onto the scene. Latino families filled Dodger Stadium, and "Fernandomania" was on.

The family's passion for baseball was never more evident than when Peter O'Malley overcame opposition from the International Olympic Committee to establish baseball as a demonstration sport in the 1984 Summer Olympics. To pull it off, the family assumed the risk for millions of dollars in travel, lodging, transportation, security and other costs, sparing the IOC any financial burden if the event flopped. Instead, sellout crowds at the eight days of doubleheaders at Dodger Stadium produced the third-highest attendance of the 32 Olympic events that year and led to baseball's elevation to a medal sport in 1992 (though it has been dropped for the 2012 Games).

The Dodgers were privately held under the O'Malleys, but the family regarded ticketholders as their board of directors. Decisions were based on the onfield needs of the team and the expectations of fans. In the 41-year O'Malley era in L.A., the fans received dividends in the form of nine World Series appearances, one every 41/2 years. Peter O'Malley proudly called the Dodgers "the best buy in town" during his years at the helm. The team's next owners must be equally dedicated to regaining best-buy status.

Michael K. Fox was a Dodgers marketing executive from 1978 to 1987.

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