Diverse Dodgers’ roster mirrors melting pot that is Los Angeles
The sweeping panorama from the loge level at Dodger Stadium isn’t much different than it was when Jaime Jarrin broadcast his first game from there 55 years ago.
But what Jarrin now sees from the radio booth has changed. A lot.
“It is unbelievable,” said Jarrin, a Hall of Fame broadcaster who has been narrating Dodger games in Spanish since 1959. “When a Japanese pitcher is pitching, when a Korean is pitching, you can see more Asians in the ballpark.”
On his mid-game walks through the concourse, the language he often hears is Spanish.
“It’s a reflection,” Jarrin said, “of the demographics of Southern California.”
The Dodgers, more than any other professional sports team, reflect the region’s rich diversity. In the clubhouse of a team that set a Los Angeles Dodgers’ record by winning 104 games during the regular season, there were players from eight countries speaking more than a half-dozen languages.
Toward the end of the season, the pitching staff alone had players from six nations; manager Dave Roberts, whose mother is Japanese, is one of only two African American skippers in the major leagues; and the front office is guided by a Jewish president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, and a Muslim general manager, Farhan Zaidi.
“The Dodgers’ tradition has been kind of out front of the diversity piece of things,” Roberts said. “It makes us stronger.”
The Dodgers were the first Major League Baseball team to sign an African American player, the first to have players from Korea and Taiwan, and the second to have one from Japan.
“It is very much part of the DNA of this franchise,” said Dodger president Stan Kasten, tracing the team’s lineage from Jackie Robinson through Sandy Koufax, Fernanado Valenzuela, Hideo Nomo and Chan Ho Park. “It’s always been part of how this franchise operates.”
The NFL’s Dallas Cowboys are called “America’s Team,” but the Dodgers belong to Southern California, as much the home team in Little Tokyo and Koreatown as in largely Latino Huntington Park and the polyglot communities of Orange County, the South Bay and San Fernando Valley.
The older Korean crowd, whenever there’s a good hit or [Hyun-Jin Ryu] strikes somebody out, there’s a big cheer.
Dodgers fan Justin Lee
In Koreatown on a recent evening, every employee in a restaurant was wearing a Dodgers jersey or T-shirt. Owner Jason Lee confessed he wasn’t much of a baseball fan, but as a smart businessman he recognized an opportunity.
There are 15 high-definition televisions in his place, and all of them were tuned in to a Dodgers game against the Washington Nationals because Korean pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu was on the mound.
“We do this every time he pitches,” a waitress wearing a dark blue Dodger T-shirt said.
The OB Bear restaurant was named after the Doosan Bears, a powerhouse Korean league team from Lee’s hometown of Seoul. Lee said he inherited the name when he and his mother bought the place in 1994, but he quickly learned that baseball could help fill the restaurant’s 33 tables.
That same year, Chan Ho Park debuted with the Dodgers, becoming the first Korean to play in the major leagues. On days Park pitched, Lee said people would begin lining up outside his door hours before the game.
“That’s why we have so many TVs,” he said.
Now it’s Ryu people come to see. “The older Korean crowd, whenever there’s a good hit or he strikes somebody out, there’s a big cheer,” said Lee’s U.S.-born son, Justin, who was wearing an oversized white T-shirt with a drawing of a blue Dodger batting on the front.
On this night, Ryu was struggling and it was mostly quiet. And when he left the game in the fifth inning, customers headed for the door.
“It’s always been a pretty heavy Dodger family,” the younger Lee said of the Korean community. “But after Ryu, it’s really been a pride-of-Korea kind of thing.”
His father, who prefers golf to baseball, nodded.
“I’m very proud,” he said, adding with a smile, “it’s good for business.”
On another September evening, on the field-level concourse at Dodger Stadium, Hiyora Hiro stood in line with a couple of friends waiting for a beer.
Two in his group were wearing blue T-shirts emblazoned with the name and number of the player who would later nail down the Dodgers’ 100th win of the season, ace right-hander Yu Darvish.
“I am from Hiroshima,” Hiro said in halting English, bragging as if it was near where Darvish was born.
Only relatively speaking was he correct. Hiroshima is about the same distance from Darvish’s home town of Habikino than Los Angeles is from Fresno. But his point was made: there is plenty of national pride.
The Dodgers have long been an MLB team watched by Japanese baseball fans because of Hideo Nomo, the first player from the islands to win a prominent big-league role. He won 43 games as a member of the Dodgers rotation from 1995-98, then re-joined the club in 2002 and won 16 games in back-to-back seasons.
“For many of us the sight of Hideo Nomo taking the mound was a source of tremendous pride,” said Glen Yamamoto, another Dodgers fan. “He took the Japanese American community by storm.”
Yamamoto said he was grateful that Nomo came along when he did because children such as his own needed role models to show them that Japanese people could compete at the highest level in sports such as baseball.
Raised in Ventura County in the 1970s, Yamamoto followed the Lakers and Rams but had a more emotional connection with the Dodgers, with Vin Scully providing the soundtrack for his childhood.
“[Joe] Ferguson's throw to the plate, [Rick] Monday's rescue of the American flag, [Steve] Garvey's Cinderella write-in appearance at the All Star Game,” he said, ticking off the memories.
However, nobody on any of those teams looked like him.
Yamamoto is the son of a second-generation family from the Oxnard plains. His grandparents emigrated from Japan in 1925, only to lose everything when they were forced off their farm and into an internment camp during World War II.
Many of his relatives played baseball in those camps and brought the sport home to Southern California after the war. Yet, while Yamamoto told all his grade-school teachers he would someday be a professional athlete, major league baseball seemed beyond the reach of kids like him — until Nomo joined the Dodgers.
“His games were televised live in Japan in the middle of the night and our relatives still in our homeland would stay up to watch his every pitch,” Yamamoto said. “By that time, ballplayers of many ethnicities had great success and the flavor of the game changed tremendously — very much for the good.”
Down the hill from Dodger Stadium in Echo Park, a couple of blocks from where Sunset Boulevard becomes Cesar Chavez Avenue, the regulars shuffled into El Compadre Mexican restaurant.
It was the final Monday of the regular season and men and women wearing blue Dodger caps and crisp white jerseys with “Gonzalez” and “Puig” stitched on the back patiently waited for seats at the bar as a harried waitress in a faded blue Dodger T-shirt rushed between the kitchen and the dining room.
“It’s always like this on game days,” she said.
Well, not always. Mexicans weren’t really a big part of the Dodgers until Valenzuela arrived in 1980.
“When I started, the [Latino] fans coming to the Coliseum or to Dodger Stadium were about 8 to 10% at most,” Jarrin said. “Now it’s 40-42% Latinos.”
This year, the Dodgers had just one Mexican player — first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who is injured and not on the playoff roster — the same number they had when Valenzuela made his debut. But as the Los Angeles area’s Latino population has diversified, so have the Dodgers. Late in the season, they had two players each from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Cuba and one from Puerto Rico.
At El Compadre, it is said that the Dodgers mirror the new Southern California. Yarim Araguz of La Puente, whose heritage is Mexican but whose first name is Arabic, noted that the team’s makeup was no different than the workforce in many local business offices.
“Diversity is good, right? Diversity in the workplace, in sports,” she said. “The different races, they all come together.
“[It’s] living in L.A.”
We have guys from all over the world. It makes it fun, it makes it cool in a lot of ways. You get to kind of learn about every culture.
It’s clear the Dodgers search the globe for talent, but they also have plenty in their backyard. This year’s team has three Los Angeles-area natives, infielders Chase Utley (Pasadena) and Justin Turner (Long Beach), and catcher Austin Barnes (Riverside).
Utley said what he sees in the team’s clubhouse isn’t all that different from what he saw in the neighborhoods where he grew up.
“We have guys from all over the world,” he said. “It makes it fun, it makes it cool in a lot of ways. You get to kind of learn about every culture. See what makes guys tick form different parts of the world. There’s something to be learned.”
The one ethnic group that stands out as being underrepresented on the team is African American. Roberts is one of just two black managers in the big leagues — Dusty Baker of the Washington Nationals, a former Dodger, is the other — but the team has only one black player, outfielder Curtis Granderson, on its playoff roster. And he was a late-season pickup.
That’s a void in a baseball community that produced African American stars such as Jackie Robinson, Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray and Ozzie Smith, who all have been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Dodgers aren’t unique in that regard, Granderson noted. The percentage of African Americans on opening day rosters was 7.1% this season, less than half what it was when Gwynn was a rookie in 1982.
“As a fan you always want to look at something say: ‘This person looks like me. This is the reason I want to cheer for them.’ Or why I want to buy this jersey or why I want to come to this game,” Granderson said. “Because I have people that I can identify with.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper’s tidy second-floor office at the Simon Wiesenthal Center on L.A.’s Westside is lined with heavy books and fond memories of a boyhood spent cheering the Dodgers in Brooklyn.
“Baseball is in our DNA,” said Cooper, whose prize pieces of memorabilia include a dark blue cap from the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones.
The rabbi grew up in Flatbush, next door to Sandy Koufax’s aunt and uncle. After seeing his first baseball game at Ebbets Field — when Jackie Robinson homered and Don Newcombe won his 27th game to give the Dodgers the 1956 National League pennant — Cooper said he quickly understood the sport’s power to promote both teamwork and ethnic pride.
He saw it repeated with the Dodgers a quarter-century later in Los Angeles.
“Fernando Valenzuela showed up, he transformed L.A.,” said Cooper, 67. “He empowered an entire community. There’s a little extra sense of pride. And it spans generations.”
It’s a region so sprawling and multicultural that wide swaths — the Central American neighborhoods of the Pico-Union, the Chinese enclaves in the San Gabriel Valley and Filipino communities in Eagle Rock and Santa Clarita — still have no particular player for which to cheer.
But they do see a game in which natural talent trumps national identity and home runs are more important than homelands.
“The decisions made to put these people in place were not like, ‘I’m going to take one Muslim, I’m going to take one Jew,’” Cooper said. “If you’re good at your job, you bring a skill set, the sky’s the limit.”
The Dodgers don’t have a Jewish star such as they did when Koufax was spinning no hitters and Shawn Green was crushing home runs, but Cooper still appreciates the rich tapestry of cultures in the clubhouse.
“It’s a great thing to have, a great thing to celebrate,” he said. “The [Dodgers] understood that L.A. was a special place. They figured it out and they got it right.
“As they say, kol hakavod — hats off to them.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11
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