This year’s biggest baseball news has centered around the LA Dodgers, first when Dodgers fans beat a visiting Giants fan into a coma in the stadium parking lot after a game, then when Bud Selig announced that Major League Baseball will assume control of the Dodgers due to the team’s financial insecurity in the wake of owner Frank McCourt’s divorce. I asked several friends to explain, in no less than three words and no more than three paragraphs, what comes to mind when they think about the Dodgers. What struck me about the responses was the difference in perspectives among various age groups. To wit:
From a sixty-something: “I always liked them because they were the first team to beat the Yankees in the WS while I was alive, then they did it again.”
From a fifty-something: “This is the team that really ‘created’ the modern era of baseball with Jackie Robinson. They brought him to the majors a year before Truman integrated the armed forces, 7 years before Brown v. Board of Education and 8 years before Rosa Parks.”
From a forty-something: “Trailblazing in race relations and farm instruction, triumphant for generations, on both coasts, Fernando-mania, the same infield for a decade (Cey, Russell, Lopes and Garvey) and Gibson’s HR.”
From a thirty-something: “I think about Kirk Gibson limping around the bases. And about how they’ve lost to the yankees 8 times in the World Series.”
And from a twenty-something: “where former Yankee players and managers retire to when they’re sick of (expletive) NY weather”. And “what the Nets should be called after moving to Brooklyn.”
I’m admittedly cherry-picking responses, and I’m leaving out some great ones (four of nine responders mentioned Kirk Gibson), but I think these five tell the story pretty well. After losing one World Series in 1920 as the Brooklyn Robins, the Dodgers were largely irrelevant until the ’40s, when they made three World Series and lost them all to the Yankees. The first iconic moment in team history, which several responders mentioned, was the signing of Jackie Robinson in 1947. This could easily have been a bust, but Robinson was so good, as was Roy Campanella when he came along the next year, that it turned the Dodgers into a model franchise.
They would finally break through with a World Series victory in 1955, one of the most famous teams of all time, starring Robinson, Campanella, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, and Don Newcombe. When the team moved to Los Angeles in 1956, they had played in six of the last ten World Series. This was another move that could have cursed the franchise, as Pat said best in his response, “Walter O’Malley got a bum rap.” Pat continues: “but it was the fans who stopped showing up and the city refusing to let him build new a park to replace the crumbling Ebbets Field that made him move the team”.
The move turned out to be a good one, as the Dodgers drew more fans than ever, got some company on the West Coast when the Giants moved out, and won the World Series again in 1959, ’63, and ’65. If the ’50s Dodgers are remembered for their lineups, it’s the pitching that made the ’60s teams famous, as Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale led these teams to glory.
The Dodgers remained relevant through the Steve Garvey years and into the Orel Hershiser years, making three Series in the ’70s and winning two in the ’80s (the only team in baseball to do so). In many ways, Kirk Gibson’s homer off Dennis Eckersley in Game One of the 1988 World Series was the last iconic moment in Dodgers history. Since then, they’ve made the playoffs five times, including two of the last three NLCS, but they’ve never been within a game of the World Series. Between ’88 and 2004, they never won a playoff game, and Jose Lima preening for every camera in sight after winning game three of the ’04 NLDS against the Cardinals (which the Dodgers would lose, three games to one) sticks in my head more prominently than any moment in their two recent playoff runs.
Since 2004, the Dodgers have had a few chances to return to relevance. Manny Ramirez carried the ’08 team on his shoulders, hitting 17 home runs in 53 games after a midseason trade and almost singlehandedly beating the Cubs in the Division Series. Matt Kemp is currently reliving some of the promise he showed in ’07 and ’09 before Hollywood stole his focus. Greg Maddux and Nomar Garciaparra came through town, but at the wrong end of their careers.
Today’s Dodgers have some star power (Kemp and Clayton Kershaw will contend for the major awards this year) and some depth (particularly in their starting rotation), but unless they rip off wight or nine wins in a row sometime in July or August, the narrative in LA won’t be about baseball. The headlines will be more Hollywood than Mannywood, more gratuitous violence than penetrating fastballs, more Jamie McCourt’s monthly spa treatment demands than Andre Ethier’s home/road splits.
If you’re a fan of another team, or just a fan of Hollywood drama, I suppose it’s best to just enjoy the ride, as there’s always something entertaining about the modern Dodgers. But if you like the Dodgers, it’s probably best to focus on the memories, or as Eric puts it, “Jackie Robinson, Vin Scully, and Kirk Gibson hobbling around the bases in the ’88 Series.” Those were the days.