Dodgers and L.A.: Romance has soured, but the relationship is far from over

They were married, this town and this team, on a blustery spring afternoon in 1958.

They were young and enigmatic, the dinner-party invite everybody wanted. Eventually, though, the union began to fray. The town started seeing other people. The team made one bad decision after another. They sold off some of their most precious possessions and then, last week, lost their home to foreclosure.

At least they've hit bottom.

Major League Baseball's takeover of the Dodgers on Wednesday marked a breathtaking collapse for one of America's premier sports franchises — and another test of loyalty in the 53-year romance between Los Angeles and the club.

That relationship, sturdy and emulated for so many years, has veered in recent years from enchanted to estranged. Now, the town and the team will start over — never again, perhaps, with the luster they once had, but with their futures woven together inextricably.

When Commissioner Bud Selig wrested control of the Dodgers from the team's beleaguered owner, Frank McCourt, it effectively put that relationship on the couch. Suddenly, there are thousands of shrinks — public officials, former players, fans, all fretting over sagging attendance, an image of mediocrity on the field and far worse in the front office. They're full of advice, from reconnecting with fans by reducing parking prices to creating a perennial contender by reinvesting in scouting and minor league operations.

But dozens of interviews revealed one common thread: The town and the team are too important to each another not to find a way.

"They will come out of this, one way or another," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who kept a radio next to his bed as a boy in order to listen to games without getting in trouble for staying up too late. "This city will not allow the Dodgers to implode."

Huge effect on L.A.

The whole "national pastime" thing was a bit of a ruse until 1958. The game was already 112 years old, but the westernmost major league franchise at the time was in Kansas City. Then, the Dodgers of Brooklyn and the Giants of Manhattan headed west — the Dodgers to Los Angeles and the Giants to San Francisco.

It would be difficult to overstate what the Dodgers' arrival meant to the psyche and image of Los Angeles. This was such an adolescent city that then-Mayor Norris Poulson jokingly welcomed Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley to "the sticks." It was, said Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers' longtime manager, "the opening of a bridge from the East to the West."

From the start, said former Mayor Richard J. Riordan, there was a sense that the Dodgers were "one with Los Angeles." The team's uniforms were tidy and white, the word "Dodgers" written in schoolteacher script in a lavish blue known to color junkies by the hexadecimal code 005596 — or, as Lasorda would label it, simply "Dodger blue."

Like its city, the team seemed to be in a hurry to succeed; the Dodgers won the World Series in 1959, just their second year in Los Angeles, defeating the Chicago White Sox, and again in 1963, when they won four straight games against Mickey Mantle and the New York Yankees.

The Dodgers were soon viewed not just as an exemplary team, but as a new standard in professional sports management.

Part of it was the glamour of Hollywood — Cary Grant hung out in the dugout, and Doris Day made goo-goo eyes at the players. But a significant part of that image derived from the O'Malley family's ownership. The Dodgers were privately, locally owned, working in a picturesque stadium. Tickets were affordable, in part because of O'Malley's pioneering efforts to recruit educated businessmen to run his team.

Not every Angeleno buys into the hagiography, or the notion that it was a halcyon era compared to the recent troubles.

"I think McCourt is a junior G-man compared to the O'Malleys," said musician Ry Cooder, an L.A. native whose 2005 concept album "Chavez Ravine" evoked the rich Mexican American culture that was swept aside when the neighborhood was razed, creating an open space that came to house Dodger Stadium.

"Professional sports is not a holy institution," Cooder said. "It's a money thing and always has been."

But many believed O'Malley's drive matched that of the city — what Michael D'Antonio, the author of "Forever Blue," a book about O'Malley, called "the aspirational spirit of Southern California."

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Over the years, the Dodgers also developed a knack for showcasing players whose success could not be measured merely in baseball statistics.

Back in Brooklyn, the squad had already broken baseball's color barrier by fielding Jackie Robinson, an African American and a former star athlete at UCLA.

In 1965, the great pitcher Sandy Koufax declined to pitch Game 1 of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. At the time, Yaroslavsky was a student at Fairfax High. He said one non-Jewish teacher used to tease the Jewish students when they were absent for religious holidays, accusing them of using the time to go to the beach. After Koufax's non-start, "he never said that again," Yaroslavsky recalled.

In 1981, "Fernandomania" gripped Los Angeles — including its burgeoning Latino community — as the young pitcher Fernando Valenzuela became the first player to win the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards in the same season. Then came the Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo, the first in a wave of prominent Asian players joining American baseball squads.

Other teams have won more championships, but when it comes to pairing baseball success with cultural import, "it's hard to imagine a baseball team that's more central to the national mythology," said David Kipen, a book critic and former director of the National Endowment for the Arts' National Reading Initiatives program. "The Dodgers led the way in breaking the color line. They led the way in western migration."

Ron Cey was a mainstay at third base in the 1970s and 1980s — a period in which the Dodgers won four pennants and became the first franchise to draw 3 million fans in one season. Unlike in most other major league cities, he said, even when the team got into a "funk," "they didn't come down on us that hard."

"They really did treat us like family," Cey said. "The reason for that was that they understood that we had a track record — they understood where we would be in September."

A corporation takes over

In 1988, the Dodgers won their most recent World Series, upsetting the heavily favored Oakland A's — a title marked by one of the most stirring moments in team history, when an injury-laden Kirk Gibson hobbled up to the plate and hit a pinch-hit, fist-pumping home run to win Game 1.

Announcer Vin Scully, whom many regard as the franchise's embodiment and most durable asset, immortalized the moment as Gibson joyously hugged his teammates: "In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!"

But — not insignificantly — the Lakers won the NBA championship the same year, and had become, arguably, the more iconic sports franchise of Los Angeles. Los Angeles might have been "the sticks" in 1958, but by now it was anything but.

Peter O'Malley had taken control of the Dodgers after his father's death. Those close to Peter O'Malley say he searched for a legacy of his own, but after his drive to build an NFL stadium was quashed, he seemed to withdraw. Baseball salaries were skyrocketing in an era of free agency, and private owners were being driven out of the game.

In 1998, Peter O'Malley sold the Dodgers to Rupert Murdoch's Fox Entertainment Group for $311 million.

"When Peter sold the team, it was an acknowledgement of the inevitable: the corporatization of sport," D'Antonio said. "No one at Fox was emotionally invested in the team. So you lose something in that moment."

The new team executives made a number of decisions that alienated fans. Popular all-star catcher Mike Piazza, whose father was childhood friends with Lasorda, was traded a year after slugging 40 home runs. Kevin Brown, an aging pitcher, was signed to a contract valued at more than $100 million — a stunning price tag at the time and a deal that was dogged time and again by injuries.

During the Fox years, the Dodgers did not win a single playoff game.

A growing estrangement

In 2004, Fox sold the Dodgers to McCourt, a real estate developer, in a deal that was financed largely with debt, the parking lots developed by McCourt serving as collateral. McCourt's own attorney has said McCourt put "not a penny" of cash into his $430-million purchase.

Since then, the town and the team have grown increasingly estranged.

McCourt declined to comment for this article, replying with a statement noting that he has invested $150 million in improvements to Dodger Stadium; moved the team's spring training operations from Florida to Arizona, closer to its fan base; and raised nearly $1 million for cancer research through the team's official charity.

However, the team has accumulated more than $400 million in long-term debt, according to court records, while prices for tickets and concessions have crept up. The team traded for an all-time great, Manny Ramirez, in 2008; Ramirez electrified fans and turned the left-field bleachers into "Mannywood," but the next year he was suspended for 50 games for violating baseball's drug policies.

The Dodgers did reach the playoffs four times in six seasons — also noted in McCourt's statement to The Times. "Then we turned around and went back down into the tank again," Cey said — winning less than half of the team's games in 2010.

The team, meanwhile, was plagued by the bitter divorce proceedings between Frank and Jamie McCourt.

Frank McCourt fired his wife and claimed sole ownership of the club. Court papers indicated that the couple had taken home more than $100 million in personal distributions from the Dodgers — using the team's revenue "as if it was their personal ATM or credit card," financing a lifestyle that included homes in Holmby Hills and Malibu. It was also revealed that the couple had paid a healer to channel positive thoughts toward the team.

As Frank McCourt's personal and financial troubles deepened, the public's attention turned to his front-office and off-field antics. The owner began to upstage his team.

"I think he put Frank McCourt before the Dodgers," said Robert Daly, the former head of Warner Bros., who grew up worshiping the Dodgers in Brooklyn and later served as the team's managing partner, chairman and chief executive.

Since 1988, when the Dodgers and Lakers both brought home championships, the Lakers have won five more NBA championships and are currently in the hunt for a sixth. The Dodgers have won nine playoff games — total.

By now, the Dodgers' fervent fan base has begun to drift away. Season-ticket sales have fallen by more than a third since 2007. The Dodgers still sold 3.6 million tickets last season, ranked third in baseball. But they are ranked sixth in attendance so far this season, and the Angels are expected to outdraw the Dodgers for the first time in the 51 years they have shared Southern California's baseball market.

Then, at the Dodgers' home opener in March, Giants fan Bryan Stow was beaten in the parking lot, leaving him with a fractured skull.

Another low point — the final straw, perhaps — came when The Times revealed April 16 that McCourt needed a $30-million loan from Fox to meet the team's first payroll this season. It was the second time in a year that Fox had given money to McCourt to cover expenses, and this time the money went straight to McCourt personally, not to the Dodgers, according to people briefed on the deal.

Selig announced his decision four days later.

Hope and sorrow

Baseball's announcement has had the unusual distinction of being greeted, simultaneously, as a sign of great hope and sorrow.

Daly saw it as the nadir of a long slide.

"The franchise is in bad shape. It's sort of an embarrassment," he said. "It's not over till it's over, as Yogi Berra said. But I cannot say that I am not rooting for a change in ownership."

But Lasorda said he was stunned.

"I never dreamed of anything like it," said Lasorda, whose voicemail on his cellphone warns friends that they might not get into heaven if they fail to pull for the Dodgers. "They have to win back the fans. You can get them back, believe me. All you have to do is make them happy."

Ownership issues are just one piece of what the Dodgers face in repairing their relationship with Los Angeles.

It starts, Lasorda said, with a winning team — and with players who are home-grown through the Dodgers' farm system, not imported at a high cost because of what they did for another club last year.

Others say the Dodgers must become more accessible and more responsive to their fans. Cey, for instance, said that in his day, team executives frequently sprinkled players around the stadium to sign autographs — a simple gesture that went a long way.

Others suggested that the team find a way to make an immediate peace offering to the city, something that would be perceived as substantive, such as a reduction in parking prices, without further eroding the team's finances. Baseball is a business, Yaroslavsky said, but "an American institution" as well — and the team "has a responsibility to the community."

Yaroslavsky said that when he was a member of the Los Angeles City Council in the 1970s, he asked Walter O'Malley the secret of the Dodgers' success. O'Malley replied that he cared less about ticket prices than other clubs because he knew that if he could get someone in the door, he could create a fan for life — and would make money in the long run.

"Their world isn't just a world of people who can afford box seats. It's also a world of 10-year-olds who will one day hope to afford box seats," Yaroslavsky said. "You want to hook 'em early.… Obviously, the Dodgers organization is in a world of hurt right now. But all of us hope that they can pull out of this for the good of the city."

scott.gold@latimes.com

reed.johnson@latimes.com

Times staff writer Bill Shaikin contributed to this report.

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