23 February 2007

The End of Something Great

A beautiful view of Holman Stadium in Dodgertown, Vero Beach, FL.

When Frank McCourt bought the Dodgers in 2004 for $357 million, fans were rightfully concerned. The man was an outsider, a Boston native, whose highly leveraged purchase of the Dodgers implied that a new fiscally conservative era was dawning for the team. Fans worried that the team was just another acquisition for McCourt, one designed to raise him from the realm of the very rich to the mega rich.

The fans' concerns seemed warranted. After all, this was a guy from one of the most diehard baseball towns in America, yet he wanted our team? (Previously McCourt had attempted to buy the Red Sox but had lost out to John Henry and his ownership group.) McCourt had also made his fortune as a real estate developer, and Chavez Ravine, the site of Dodger Stadium, is a potential goldmine if ever an owner had the gall to move the team to another site, tear down the stadium, and put up high-priced condos and hotels. That prospect seemed ever more likely with McCourt, though perhaps it was a sign that went unnoticed that McCourt's valuable waterfront property in Boston went undeveloped, instead being used as parking lots. (L.A. Times columnist and resident satirist T.J. Simers still calls McCourt The Parking Lot Attendant.)

So the fans were afraid. The L.A. Times' sports writers, a group very conscious of the team's storied tradition, were afraid as well. The prospect of a new owner had actually brought hope to Dodgers fans -- after decades under the paternal stewardship of the O'Malley family, the Dodgers had spent six years in thrall to the Fox Corporation. In baseball above all other sports, and for the Dodgers above all other teams, save perhaps the Yankees, family ownership means something. It carries certain comforts and implicit promises -- namely, that the fans and the team will be respected, that the team won't serve as just another revenue stream for a far-off corporate tycoon, and that the owners will be as invested as the fans are. Dodgers fans got another family -- in fact, Frank McCourt's wife, Jamie, was appointed Vice Chairman and President of the team -- but it was not the family we wanted, and by all accounts, the Dodgers were their second choice, a purchase made based on opportunity. It seemed that it could have been any other team that McCourt bought; only chance made it the Dodgers.

Over time, however, the fears dissipated. Whether McCourt ever had plans to tear down Chavez Ravine and only changed them because of the public outcry that would erupt is unclear. It's very possible, but McCourt offered no confirmation.

And as time passed, McCourt actually seemed to get a handle on what it takes to be a good owner. Though the Paul DePodesta era was seen by many as a foolish endeavor, it was a good move at the time. After all, like any good businessman, McCourt was only following the industry trends that seemed to have bred success -- sabremetrics, in this case -- and DePodesta had learned from the best, Oakland GM Billy Beane. Yet it was also McCourt's acute sensitivity to public opinion that likely caused him to prematurely fire DePodesta, just as the farm system that he and scouting director Logan White had rebuilt was beginning to bear fruit. Even so, McCourt did well again by hiring Ned Colletti as DePo's successor. Here was another qualified candidate, this one more of the old vanguard, having received his apprenticeship under Giants GM Brian Sabean. Most importantly, McCourt invested in his product -- he refurbished Dodger Stadium and allowed the Dodgers to spend money to acquire the players they needed.

The results were plain: attendance was at record levels in 2005 and 2006. While the team was painful to watch in 2005, in 2004 it had won its first playoff game since 1988, and the team bounced back in 2006, winning the wild card before being swept by the Mets in the NLDS.

But in the intervening period, the cracks began to show. McCourt's obsession with public image and fan perception and his heavy-handed use of PR firms drew criticism from the media. Los Angeles ostensibly is a town built on image, but when it comes to the Dodgers, this is not Hollywood, even if a few celebrities frequent the games. No, save that for the Lakers (whom we love all the same). The Dodgers are a different breed, a team that has almost miraculously retained its identity and its vigorous sense of tradition and history after the alleged betrayal of the Brooklyn exodus. They are a team that easily eschews all notions of demographics and class, in part because, unlike basketball, baseball tickets are rather affordable. The popularity of baseball in Latin America and Japan has also served to bring L.A.'s large minority populations to the ballpark in great numbers.

Beyond the mix of cultures, there is also something intoxicating in the air, a communal sense that develops during every game without fail, whether it's a beautiful 80-degree Sunday or a crisp night when the sun fades behind the palm-speckled hills, a sense that Damn, we are lucky to be alive and enjoying this together. In this incomparable milieu, Dodger fans share a mutual respect and passion (I cannot count the number of times I have high-fived a stranger after a home run) that is at once ineluctable and cherished. We know we are blessed by geography, weather, and the glories of the past. All that we ask from our owner in return is that he respects these things, that he respects us, and that he knows that the tradition, the mythos, the names -- Robinson, Hodges, Snider, Koufax, Drysdale, Valenzuela, Hershiser, and so, so many more -- can never be dismissed or forgotten.

It was with the names of Dodger greats, though, where McCourt first went wrong. The outfield wall of Dodger Stadium had, for a few years, been covered with a collage of Dodger legends accompanied by the years of their finest seasons. A year into McCourt's ownership, that homage was gone, replaced with advertising. Fair enough, we told ourselves. It is, after all, a business, and many other stadiums do the same. We comforted ourselves with the thought that our old friends might one day return and watch over the too-green grass again.

Of course, that hasn't happened yet, and I don't expect it to. Still, that action would perhaps be forgivable, given that McCourt has maintained the sanctity of Chavez Ravine and has allowed his general mangers to spend freely. But the time of tacit forgiveness is over, the time of simply tolerating McCourt not because he's done much that is good but rather because he hasn't done much that is bad is over. This off-season the Dodgers announced that they would leave Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida, after spring training 2008. Instead, they will move to Glendale, Arizona, where they will share a site with the Chicago White Sox. There will be a 40,000-square foot clubhouse and a 15,000-seat stadium. Management claims that the new site is more suitable because of its proximity to Los Angeles, but when the New York Yankees are charging $190 for exhibition games, the motivation is clear. Dodger Stadium can't be torn down, so it's time to commoditize spring training instead.

The Dodgers have occupied Dodgertown since 1948, the longest tenure at a spring training site for any major league team except for the Detroit Tigers at Lakeland (1945). For a better understanding of the place and what it means not only to Dodger history but to baseball history, read Tom Verducci's excellent column.

Here's one important anecdote among many: Walter O'Malley chose Dodgertown in part because he felt that Jackie Robinson would experience less racism there than in some other Southern towns. Where is that sensitivity in Frank McCourt?

Though I have not been able to visit Dodgertown, by all accounts and the pictures available, it is a gorgeous place, a rolling expanse of fields, palm trees, and wide-open diamonds that Verducci rightfully calls “baseball heaven.” It is only fitting that in such an idyllic place young men can pursue their passions, can quite literally throw themselves into their dreams. And when the day ends, they can walk down Don Drysdale Drive, Vin Scully Way, Duke Snider Street, over the mounds that Koufax and Sutton and Drysdale tread, across the infields where Garvey and Cey played catch and Scioscia learned to block the plate.

Some of the Lion in Oil writers are planning a trip to Dodgertown next spring so that we can see it before it's gone. It's probably too late now for any sort of petition or letter-writing campaign. Too late to turn back the clock and enjoy it without knowing the end is in sight. But I wish we could all the same.

(Click here for more pictures of Dodgertown.)

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