As Dodgers’ TV blackout drags on, they’re losing sight of their fans
He was a first sergeant in the 3rd Army in World War II, a Bronze Star medal winner, the owner of a contracting business, a husband of 66 years, a father of two, and after nearly a century of living, Jim Ballard had decided on his reward.
A burgundy recliner, a bottle of Arrowhead spring water, a can of Planters Cocktail Peanuts, a 47-inch TV, a silver remote control, and the Dodgers.
“Watching the Dodgers on television was my life,” he says.
In the modest home tucked among oak trees and avocado farms two miles above the Pacific Ocean, Ballard, 94, would hunch over the sports section every morning on the small kitchen table, pull out a pen, circle the time of the Dodgers television broadcast, then schedule his day.
“The Dodgers were something to plan around,” he says. “They gave me something to look forward to.”
Those plans have changed. The Dodgers changed them. A year ago, his team was stunningly pulled from his family room, his nightly rituals, his life, and he has no idea when they are coming back.
“I feel so helpless,” Ballard says. “It’s like my team just forgot all about me.”
The Dodgers television blackout, which affects about 70% of Southland cable/satellite subscribers, has been a quality-of-life blackout for a man facing another summer of “Frasier” reruns, Turner Classic Movies, and going to bed early and angry.
“Screw ‘em,” he says. “The hell with them.”
Two years ago the Dodgers formed their own television channel, SportsNet LA, and sold distribution rights to Time Warner Cable for $8.3 billion. To cover those costs, TWC is seeking nearly $5 a subscriber from other pay-TV operators, making it the third-most expensive sports channel in the country. So far, no other major distributors have bought the channel, citing concerns over the cost.
Mergers that were expected to resolve the issue have been put on hold. Negotiations have stalled. TWC reportedly is losing as much as $100 million a year on the deal, but there is still no resolution in sight.
As unbelievable as it might sound, for a second consecutive year it appears the most enduring sports franchise in the nation’s second-largest market will be available to only 30% of local television households.
Jim Ballard is part of that other 70%. He is a human face in this argument over dollars. He is part of the community the Dodgers conveniently ignore when trying to rationalize their refusal to rework the TWC deal and put their product back into everyone’s homes.
The Dodgers say fans should be thrilled that they are spending those billions to build a winning team while refurbishing an aging stadium. The Dodgers don’t understand that many of those folks, for reasons ranging from physical to economic, will never set foot inside that stadium to watch that winning team.
“The Dodgers always brag about selling out every game, but what about people like me who can’t come to the games?” says Ballard, who has been in a wheelchair since suffering a stroke in November.
In this battle of baseball greed, the war hero is collateral damage, and he knows it.
“Sure, I feel like a sucker,” he says. “Every Dodger fan should feel like a sucker.”
On a recent weekday morning at his longtime Carpinteria home, Ballard is wearing a faded Dodgers T-shirt that he’s been pulling in and out of his closet for 15 years. It is the only sign that this was once a Dodgers home.
“It’s so sad,” said John McCoy, Ballard’s grandson and caretaker. “The Dodgers were once everywhere around here, and now they’re nowhere.”
Their pay-TV operator is Cox Cable, which does not carry SportsNet LA. They have inquired about switching to TWC, but it is not available in their area. They have tried listening to the games on a portable radio, but the reception is bad.
“I try to keep following them in the newspaper, but I don’t know what some of them even look like anymore,” Ballard says.
Last weekend they actually saw the Dodgers when they played the Angels in a spring exhibition broadcast on the Angels’ Fox Sports West home. But the Dodgers played only two starters, and Ballard grew even angrier.
“The only game we get to watch, and it’s spring-training scrubs,” says Ballard. “I said, ‘Those lousy bastards.’”
Recently, when it became apparent that the blackout would extend into this season, Ballard threw his pen on top of his newspaper and growled.
“I guess I’m going to have to become an Angels fan,” he said.
But he knows that’s not happening. He tried that already. He can’t suddenly root for another team. It’s too difficult. Ballard has too much Dodgers history.
After serving in the war as a bridge builder for Company F in the 347th Engineering Regiment in Europe, Ballard settled in Los Angeles in 1945 with his British wife Margaret and embraced the Dodgers when they arrived 13 years later.
The Dodgers were his favorite pastime. Then, after Margaret died in 2010, the Dodgers became his life.
He and grandson McCoy would watch every game after her death, reveling in the connection between the team and her memories. Margaret would always sit on the plaid couch doing crossword puzzles and occasionally cheering. John never forgets those cheers.
“There’s things that would happen in a game that would remind me of a time when I got up and yelled, and she would get up and yell with me,” he says. “That was nice.”
Now that’s gone, and he still can’t believe it, still can’t understand how the blackout could last another season, and his anger has become focused and clear.
“I’m mad at the Dodgers, only the Dodgers, and the reason is that they formed a damned channel that only 30% of people in Los Angeles can watch, and that’s ridiculous,” he says.
The way he sees it, the solution is simple.
“It’s easy, the Dodgers can put them on TV right now if they just reduced the price, right?” he says. “It’s amazing they won’t realize what they’ve done and reduce the price.”
He’s right, of course. The Dodgers could solve all of this with one stroke of a pen. They could renegotiate the awful deal with TWC and fix the problem immediately. But that would require giving back some money. As this blackout slowly defines their legacy, the new Dodgers ownership group doesn’t seem to be the sort that would give back money.
Above his television hangs a photo of 1st Sgt. Jim Ballard standing and smiling outside a barracks in Verdun, France. He was strong enough to build a bridge in the middle of a freezing winter with German fire falling around him.
These days, he can only sit and wait for the channel to change.
“I just wish somebody could tell me how I could fight this,” the war hero says.
Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke
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