Keep It Simple, Mr. Murdoch

Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the State Librarian of California. The latest volume in his history of California is "The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s."

How poignant to read and hear so many expressions of hope that Rupert Murdoch, the new owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, will somehow manage to keep the Dodgers what they have been for 40 years under the ownership of Walter and Peter O'Malley. Family-centered, at once flamboyant and unpretentious, the Dodgers kept baseball linked to the simplicities of an earlier era. It was precisely by giving voice to ordinary Americans--by making them see in their team a near-utopian reflection of their own hopes for style and achievement and their own participation in the collective moral community, winning and losing, season by season, day in and day out--that baseball became our national sport.

The Los Angeles to which Walter O'Malley brought the Dodgers from Brooklyn in 1958 was, for all its sprawling size, an intimate city: an enormous village, as historian John Weaver dubbed it. To the City of Angels the Dodgers, rather easily, transferred the sensibility of Brooklyn. Dodger style was polished up a bit, to be sure, and, over the years, acquired a certain subtle note of glitz appropriate to the glitz capital of the universe. But, in general, Dodger fans still enjoyed, as they did in Brooklyn, a sense of experiencing in their team a connection, at once energizing and healing, to the city in which they were leading their lives. As they did for so many years in Brooklyn, the Dodgers helped their fans orient themselves in time and place.

That was one Los Angeles. This is another. Today, baseball and American life have entered the era of "Show me the money!"--and no one has shown the money more effectively than Murdoch, the single most powerful private-sector individual ever to live in this city. No one--not Harrison Gray Otis, not Harry Chandler, not William Randolph Hearst, not Louis B. Mayer, not any of the current mega-millionaires running the entertainment industry--has held the cumulative, interactive power wielded by Murdoch. Not only is the Murdoch empire extensive, it is, like the previous Hearst empire, only more so, at once diversified (many of the great newspapers of the world, a major publishing house, a major film studio, a television network, a nationwide cable network) and unified in the increasingly dominant sector of info-tainment.

Now Murdoch has acquired the Dodgers. In doing so, he has acquired not just a business, but one of the few institutions in Los Angeles that has not been devalued by that big-bucks obsession that has devalued so much of American life. He has acquired it, moreover, at a time when baseball has just about completed the process of selling off its most vital asset--its soul. The gutting of the Florida Marlins by owner H. Wayne Huizenga--who bought a team, pumped it up on big-bucks steroids, won a World Series (Florida's first), then held a fire sale of players, claiming that a World Series was not worth the investment--speaks for itself.

Not that baseball owners, even Huizenga, should be demonized. They, like the rest of us, live in a vastly different value system and economy than the days in which the Dodgers played in Ebbets Field. Look at the contracts recently signed by Jerry Colangelo, managing general partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks: a five-year $48.75-million contract extension for Matt Williams; a five-year, $34-million contract for Jay Bell, and a three-year, $18-million deal with Andy Benes. Talk about, show me the money!

The main reason some baseball owners vehemently opposed Murdoch's ownership of the Dodgers was their fear that Murdoch, so diversified and so integrated and so global, would theoretically be able to play the "new" baseball better than any of them, even Ted Turner, CNN founder and owner of the Atlanta Braves, who has demonized Murdoch as the Darth Vader of mega-media ownership.

It is, I suppose, easy to demonize people such as Murdoch, even Turner or Bill Gates, for that matter. Never before in human history has so much power been held by individuals in private ownership. Murdoch, for his part, seems to have no qualms of, to reverse the imagery of St. Paul, letting his right hand know what his left is doing. When former Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten, for example, wrote a book critical of the Beijing government for HarperCollins, a publishing house owned by Murdoch's News Corp., Murdoch, who has extensive business interests in Hong Kong and China, canceled the contract. An editor quit in protest, and Times Books picked up the contract.

Will Murdoch, in short, manipulate the Dodgers in a similar manner so that the team will dovetail with his other interests? Of course, he will. He has to. That's the nature of baseball these days. In various ways, some apparent (jazzier contracts, higher ticket prices, more luxury boxes, an international traveling schedule, the development of Chavez Ravine as an entertainment theme park) and some obscure (the possible leveraging of cable access to ensure wider Dodgers exposure and perhaps even to block other teams from reaching the airways), the Dodgers can be expected to be brought into synergy with Murdoch's vast media interests.

The question now becomes: How much? What of the old Dodgers will survive Murdoch's ownership? Obviously, Murdoch has got to take the Dodgers into a new era, but if he pumps the team too ferociously with info-tainment steroids, won't something be lost? And if that something is lost, could it not cost Murdoch money?

Or is that something that can be lost from the Dodgers--that sense of intimacy, of belonging, of baseball as cultural and moral occasion--already vanished? Are we Americans--not the greedy owners, not the sky-box crowd--the ones who have lost it? Everyone these days, after all, says "Show me the money!" at the drop of a hat. How else, otherwise, can one express existential value in a world in which the currency of cash has become, paradoxically, the only currency available?

By opposing these trends, however slightly, Murdoch has the opportunity to become not only the most powerful man in metro-Los Angeles but also someone who has identified with, and somehow continued, the best possibilities of American culture in this region. It is, I admit, stretching a point (or, even possibly, being self-indulgently ironic) to cite Murdoch's ownership of the Dodgers as just another immigrant-makes-good L.A. story. A publisher's son from Australia, goes such a possible scenario, traumatized by the business misfortunes of his father, flees to London, flees to New York, saying, "I'll show them!"--and, brother, does he ever!

But at the end of it all, being able to live anywhere, he chooses Los Angeles. Despite all his money and his expense, Los Angeles speaks to something in his fundamentally egalitarian nature. (All Australians are fundamentally egalitarian.) Los Angeles speaks to something better, something finer in his nature, some memory of earlier days in South Australia, a time and a place when ordinary men, such as his father, could rise to business success and knighthood, where heroes never lost the common touch.

London denies Rupert Murdoch a seat in the House of Lords. Los Angeles makes him a Knight of St. Gregory. New York pesters him to death. Los Angeles leaves him alone, even sees him, despite his dough, as still something of an ordinary bloke.

Now Rupert Murdoch has the opportunity to do something for the national sport of his adopted country and the hometown team of his chosen city: Keep the Dodgers simple, as far as possible; keep the team connected to the aspirations of ordinary people; keep the Dodgers removed from those compelling pornographies of cash that, with the cooperation of all of us, have demeaned the national sport. Am I being ironic? Or naively hopeful? Only time--and the Dodgers--will tell.

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