A 50th anniversary at Dodger Stadium, with a sober undertone

Dodger fans marked the 50th anniversary of that familiar pilgrimage up the hill that overlooks downtown Los Angeles, past the palm trees and into the sun-splashed stadium scented with hot peanuts and freshly cut grass.

On Tuesday, the milestone came with a sold-out crowd buoyant with renewed hopes about the team, as owner Frank McCourt prepared to finalize his sale of the storied franchise to an investment group that includes Laker legend Magic Johnson.

But the heavy security presence was also a sober reminder of one of the team’s darkest hours.

A year has passed since Bryan Stow, a San Francisco Giants fan, was beaten and nearly killed in the stadium parking lot on opening day. The attack turned a harsh spotlight on the raucous and sometimes violent atmosphere that had taken root in the stadium’s stands and also exposed the Dodgers’ cutbacks in security staffing.

Determined to avoid any serious incidents, the Los Angeles Police Department deployed a few hundred officers in a deliberate show of force in and around the stadium. Squads of officers patrolled the parking lots on foot, horseback and bicycle; scores of uniformed and undercover cops took up posts throughout the stands and near the concession stands where lines for beer grew in the warm afternoon.

“My goal is that the first thing fans see when they come through the gates is an LAPD officer and the last thing they see when they leave is an LAPD officer,” Chief Charlie Beck said. “America’s pastime should be a family sport. We want to welcome families back to Dodger stadium.”

Beck appeared to get what he wanted as the afternoon game went off without a hitch. Police reported 55 arrests, almost all for minor, alcohol-related offenses — a drop from the 92 arrests on opening day last year and 132 in 2010.

Many fans said they appeciated the police presence, though some said it was a bit heavy-handed.

“You kind of see all the security and it’s like, ‘Wow, we’re not that bad as Angelenos.’ But I understand why it has to be,” said Mark Vasquez, 33, who had met friends in Boyle Heights for breakfast and a few beers, instead of tailgating.

The action on the field kept the sellout crowd in high spirits as the Dodgers eked out a victory in a close game with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The iconic voice of television and radio announcer Vin Scully, however, was missing, as he was sidelined with what the team said was a bad cold. It marked the first opening day Scully hadn’t called in 35 years. Scully, in his 63rd season with the team, received a huge ovation from the sellout crowd when his absence was announced.

Nods to the team’s five decades in Los Angeles were woven throughout the day. The team’s former owner, Peter O’Malley, accompanied his sister to the mound for the ceremonial first pitch. Their mother, Kay O’Malley, threw the first pitch when the stadium opened in 1962. And the Beach Boys, Southern California natives who exploded onto the music scene that same year, sang the national anthem.

McCourt, a villainous figure to many fans for his management of the team, was not in the owners’ box, but was rumored to be watching the game from a stadium suite. Former basketball superstar Johnson was in New York for the opening of a Broadway play about his on-court rivalry with Boston Celtic Larry Bird.

That the game sold out was noteworthy. Last year the team’s traditionally loyal fan base deserted in droves amid safety concerns, the team’s lackluster performance and a sordid divorce case involving McCourt and his wife that revealed how the pair had milked the team for tens of millions of dollars to support their lavish lifestyles.

Indeed, while the start of every baseball season carries with it a sense of hope for fans, there was the undeniable feeling among the Dodger faithful Tuesday that this season meant something more than just wins and losses.

“You definitely feel a change, a more positive energy,” said Jose Legaspi, 36, who took the day off from work and drove from Fontana with his wife for the game.

Police reported to the stadium before dawn, wanting to be in place to disrupt any fans still determined to carry on the once-widespread tradition of showing up long before game time for tailgate parties. Since the Stow beating, cracking down on tailgating has been of particular concern to police since pregame drinking fueled much of the rowdy behavior inside the stadium.

In the end, relatively few diehards showed up early. Most of the 55,000-plus fans arrived during a narrow window of time shortly before the game, leading to snarled traffic and long delays.

Many ticket-holders took note of the heavy police presence. Their feelings about the heightened security were mixed. Most said they understood why it was needed, but some were disheartened that the seemingly omnipresent police uniforms had created a somewhat oppressive scene.

Still, memories of the Stow beating were not far from peoples’ minds.

Stow, 43, suffered brain damage when two men jumped him and his friends in the parking lot after the game. The father of two has shown progress since undergoing surgeries and intensive rehabilitation, but continues to struggle with simple tasks. After a lengthy investigation, police eventually arrested two men who have been charged in the attack and are awaiting trial.

The beating, coupled with McCourt’s financial woes, left many fans with the feeling that last year was a lost season for the Dodgers. But Lorena Valenzuela, 39, surveying the crowd Tuesday, said this one feels different.

“This year, it’s a magical year.”

Times staff writer Mike Hiserman contributed to this report.

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