Whither the Dodgers?

If controversy surrounding Frank McCourt were happening to the owner of the Yankees instead of the Dodgers owner, books would already have been written and the casting for the HBO special would be well underway. Because it is happening in baseball’s second largest media market, rather than New York, ithas not gotten the attention it might have. It could be argued that given the size of the Los Angeles market and the import of the Dodgers to baseball in general, the story has gotten surprisingly little publicity.

The reason that argument is not precisely right is that the Dodgers, once of baseball’s proudest and best run franchises, no longer occupy that role and have been on baseball’s periphery for a number of years. Between 1941-1981, the Dodgers not only dominated the National League, winning 16 pennants in 41 years, but employed some of the game’s biggest and most exciting stars. The Dodgers were also at the center of two of baseball’s most important developments in the post-war period. First, they were the team that integrated Major League Baseball when Jackie Robinson played his rookie year for Brooklyn in 1947. Second, they led the move westward when, along with the Giants they left New York for California following the 1957 season. Additionally, shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, Sandy Koufax, who is Jewish, emerged as the Dodgers best player and biggest star, thus cementing the team’s reputation for diversity and tolerance.

Since beating the Yankees in the 1981 World Series 30 years ago, the Dodgers story has been different. During the last three decades they have won only one pennant and World Series and went more twenty years without even making it back to the NLCS. Their current 22 year streak without a World Series appearance is the longest in franchise history. Symbolically, the beginning of the demise of the Los Angeles Dodgers off the field can be traced to April 6, 1987 when then general manager Al Campanis made extremely offensive racist remarks on national television, ironically as part of a media celebration of the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut.

While it is not fair to tar the whole organization with Campanis’s racism, that event initiated a period of years, interrupted only briefly by one last pennant and World Championship in 1988, but beginning in earnest in the 1990s, when the Dodgers were defined by poor management, uninteresting and usually poor baseball and the occasional bad off the field story. This year, for example, the Dodgers season began with an incident that should have cast a pale over the entire year as thuggish Dodgers fans beat up a fan of the visiting San Francisco Giants so badly that they put him in a coma. This horrific event, however, has largely been pushed out of the national media by the McCourt circus.

Moreover, while Frank McCourt may be a bad owner of historic proportions, the ownership group, Fox Entertainment, from whom he bought the team was not much better and was given to bad player decisions, poorly thought out contracts and the like. During the six seasons, 1998-2003, that Fox owned the Dodgers, the team did not make a single appearance in the post-season. McCourt has pushed the memory of the Fox Group out of the minds of many, but at least on the field, the Dodgers have done better under McCourt than his predecessor.

It is good for baseball when teams like the Dodgers and Yankees, famous teams playing in big cities, are not only competitive, but are well run and help the sport project a positive image. The Dodgers have not met this description in a few decades. The team that as recently as the early 1980s, had some of baseball’s most famous and dynamic stars, with strong appeal to large ethnic groups, for example Fernando Valenzuela, has made little on the field impact in recent years. The Dodgers still have a large fan base, and are still involved what may, if history is weighed properly, be baseball’s best and oldest rivalry, but their profile nationally has not been very good in the past couple of decades.

At a time when concern about the structural inequalities of baseball and the advantages this gives to big market teams are as strong as ever, the Dodgers provide a counter-example, as a team that given the market in which it plays, still strong attendance and extraordinary history have been underachievers long before Frank McCourt took over the team. Blaming McCourt is easy, and even fun for some; and there is plenty for which to blame McCourt, but the Dodgers problems go back well before the bought the team; and his actions are perhaps just the latest installment in mismanagement and buffoonery from Dodger executives since the glory days of 1941-1981.