Apr 26, 2011 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
One week, Major League Baseball appropriately honors Jackie Robinson with all of its players donning Jackie’s no. 42, a reminder of how the Dodger organization, first in Brooklyn and then in Los Angeles, set the standard for the entire game.
Just a week later, MLB took over the day-to-day operations of the Dodgers. Just to write this line is shocking enough.
How did one of sports’ indelible franchises, an organization accustomed to success, turn so bad so fast? Well, mainly because a family business turned into a business where family (not to mention ego and greed) ruined everything.
For half a century, the O’Malley family controlled the Dodgers. Curse old man Walter all you want for ripping the heart out of Brooklyn, but there’s no doubt his move to L.A. helped make baseball a coast-to-coast entity, and better in the long term.
Once in Southern California, O’Malley showed everyone what a model organization looks like. It started by building Dodger Stadium, a beautiful park that, half a century later, still outshines most others. Other than cosmetics, the place now looks quite similar as to what it did in 1962.
Then it spread to a philosophy (The Dodger Way, you might say) where talented young players are nurtured through a first-class farm system in places like Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla. Then they go to the big club and, for the most part, stay there.
And talk about stability – just two managers, the humble Walter Alston and loquacious Tommy Lasorda, who served a combined 43 years. They had different styles, but the same unending success, all supported by huge crowds. In one 15-year stretch, the Dodgers led in attendance 14 years.
Even as free agency dawned, Peter O’Malley, who took over after his father died, kept things simple, left his baseball people alone (unlike some other owners) and didn’t chase every big-dollar star. More winning followed, from the comeback-filled 1981 title to the Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershiser-led 1988 unit that shocked the Mets and A’s.
Then, just as baseball was coming back from its 1994 strike, the O’Malley family got out, selling the Dodgers to Fox….who promptly turned it over to Frank McCourt six years later for $430 million. And everything began to fall apart.
For one thing, the Fox crowd, much like the CBS group that owned the Yankees in the decade before George Steinbrenner took over, saw the Dodgers as just another corporate asset. That neglect led to mediocre results, unacceptable to anyone that bled Dodger Blue.
With McCourt, it got worse. It turned out that (1) most of McCourt’s money was borrowed, (2), he spent a lot on himself instead of the Dodgers and (3) he got involved in an ugly and public divorce where, again, the Dodgers were little more than an asset getting knocked around in the courts.
It only figured that, weeks before MLB took over, there was the ugly incident on Opening Night where Brian Stow, a San Francisco Giants fan, was beaten into a coma by Dodger fans, earning the team nationwide scorn because it didn’t employ a head of security. Somehow, McCourt had his son on the payroll, but not someone to keep fans safe.
No wonder Bud Selig got fed up. He’s got two messes to consider, both of them involving the National League franchises from the nation’s two largest cities. Aside from the Dodger drama, there’s the Mets’ situation, with the
Wilpon family desperately seeking partners in the wake of getting cleaned out in the Bernie Madoff saga.
As those dramas linger, their American League counterparts continue to clean up. Artie Moreno’s Angels in Anaheim are miles ahead of the Dodgers now, with big crowds, affordable beer and winning most of the time. And it’s even more lopsided in New York, where the Steinbrenner family, love them or loathe them (and there’s no in between), swim in oceans of plentiful revenue, and the team keeps winning.
Irony appears everywhere in this story. The Mets were only born because the Dodgers left Ebbets Field and the Giants left the Polo Grounds, leaving the NL without a counterpart to the Yankees. Now the former and present tenants of Brooklyn and Queens languish, on and off the field, while San Francisco’s Giants still bask off last year’s World Series triumph.
Only one constant remains in the Dodgers’ sad saga. Tune in to a random home game and you can still hear Vin Scully at the microphone, 60 years after he started in Brooklyn, spinning a tale better than any announcer half his age.
Maybe Scully will last long enough to see his beloved Dodgers find a real owner and a real purpose again. For now, though, a treasured baseball asset resides under MLB’s protection, a ghostly shadow of the blue and regal presence they once held.