How a city reached its limit with the Dodgers

Los Angeles is a tough town to lose. It's a huge, sprawling metropolis of aqueducts, actors, avatars, beaches, mountains and freeways.

Somehow, incredibly, like a wallet or a set of car keys, the Dodgers lost it.

Seriously, it was in their hip pocket a minute ago.

"Where was the last place you had it?" is always the dumb question people ask.

The maddening fact is the Dodgers had L.A. but now they don't — and you can't blame it on the McCourts.

It's a Lakers town now and all other contestants are playing for parting gifts. The drop-off factor from No. 1 to No. 2 is roughly Mt. Everest to Holmby Hills.

How the Dodgers lost L.A. is the child's-play, sticks-and-balls version of Winston Churchill's 1938 "While England Slept."

While the Dodgers dithered the Lakers rode, like Slim Pickens on his A-bomb in "Dr. Strangelove," into an Internet explosion.

Lakers flags long ago replaced Union 76 balls on our car antennas.

As much as the Lakers earned their status, this never should have happened — it's like the Broncos misplacing Denver.

Los Angeles was — and never should have ceased being — Dodger Town.

"It will be again," says Fred Claire, the team's former general manager. "I don't know how. The roots are so deep in the community. . . . It's just my gut feeling. I just know the foundation of all of that. It's not as if it will be gone forever."

The Dodgers' reign lasted, unchecked, for about 40 years. The headstone would read 1958-1998.

The Rams owned L.A. first because they got here first, relocating in 1946 from Cleveland.

People forget the grip on us the Rams once had — fans later would call it a "choke" hold. They won the 1951 NFL title and alternated two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin.

Waterfield was married to movie star Jane Russell.

The players were nicknamed "Crazy Legs," "Night Train" and "Deacon Dan." In 1957, the Rams became the first team in football history to attract more than one million fans. A home game against San Francisco that year drew 102,368.

The next year, though, the Dodgers arrived from Brooklyn, moved into the Rams' Coliseum digs, and won the town over — seemingly forever.

"The Dodgers were really L.A.'s team," Jim Murray, The Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, recounted in his autobiography. "In the beginning, it was the Rams. They were the first big league operation to embrace Los Angeles. And their advent coincided with the spurt of interest in pro football, which, for a time, seemed about to put baseball in the supporting role category

"But the Rams jilted L.A. and left the Dodgers supermen. Not even the Lakers, when they came, nor the Raiders, when they did, could shake the Dodgers' hold."

Winning early helped.

The Dodgers claimed the World Series title in 1959. While the Rams would never win another title in L.A., and the Lakers spent the 1960s lighting cigars for Red Auerbach, the Dodgers added championships in 1963 and '65.

Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax became fastball fixtures as Hollywood celebrities flocked to the stadium (Doris) Day and night.

By 1962, the Dodgers had moved into a shiny new stadium on a hill overlooking downtown.

"The sun still rose in the east," Jane Leavy writes in her biography of Koufax. "But that's about all. Dodger Stadium spoke to the ascendancy of the west. It was the place to be, and to be seen, especially if Koufax was pitching."

The Rams were still popular, and in the 1960s were led by swashbuckling quarterback Roman Gabriel and the "Fearsome Foursome" defensive line. But George Allen, the coach who preached "the future is now," never figured out how to push past Green Bay, Minnesota or Dallas.

The Lakers arrived from Minneapolis in 1960, castoffs from a third-rate league, from a far-off land of lakes.

Despite the presence of Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, the Lakers played in front of empty seats at the Sports Arena. Employees were deployed to count patrons as they entered, praying to hit the financial break-even number of 4,000 spectators.

The Dodgers held sway even as the Lakers took off in the 1980s after the arrival of Magic Johnson and "Showtime."

The Dodgers answered five Lakers NBA titles with "Fernandomania." They beat the damn Yankees in the 1981 World Series, soldiered on through the Pedro Martinez trade, Al Campanis on "Nightline," and capped a decorous decade with Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson in 1988.

"The Dodgers," Claire said, "were the Dodgers."

The Rams limped out of the town competition in 1980 when they moved to Anaheim, their bitter split from the Valley fan base every bit as nasty as the McCourts' divorce.

The Raiders swooped into the vacuum, won a Super Bowl title in 1984 and enjoyed a dedicated, if not barbarian, following.

Claire never viewed the Raiders as a threat.

"The Raiders' motto, 'Just Win Baby,' was the opposite of the Dodgers," he said. "The Dodger feeling was always let's win . . . but it's more than that. It's doing things the right way, because winning itself is never guaranteed."

Continuity, Claire said, was the key to sustaining during lean years.

"You go back, since the arrival in 1958, take it from '58 through '98," Claire said. "You'll find three general managers, three ticket managers, two managers, maybe two traveling secretaries . . . and one ownership. It was continuity. There were good times, and bad times, but there was continuity."

Going to Dodger Stadium was like a trip to Disneyland — it was the same every time.

Losing Los Angeles seemed unfathomable — especially after the Rams and Raiders departed in 1994.

It would take an outrageous breach of public trust, an egregious act of arrogance — imagine the Chicago Bears turning on Dick Butkus.

Yet, that's just what the Dodgers did.

You can town-track the sea change, Dodgers to Lakers, to a period between March 1998 and June 1999.

It began with Peter O'Malley selling ownership to Fox, much more interested in Murdoch Green than Dodger Blue.

News Corp. then made the cataclysmic misjudgment, in the spring of 1998, of thinking it could trade Mike Piazza and not pay a price for it.

"It wasn't just a trade," said Claire, the team's general manager at the time. "It was a trade of a franchise player in his prime."

The deal, brokered by higher-ups without Claire's knowledge, ripped a chasm. Claire was soon fired, along with manager Bill Russell.

The purge of institutional "Dodger Way" knowledge led to a mass exodus that led to . . . the Angels.

The continuum was broken.

"It didn't so much have to do with me," Claire said. "There was a way we did things. This wasn't the way I was trained and guided for 30 years."

Yes, Piazza miscalculated in holding out for $100 million, thinking he was worth it. Not long after the trade, though, Fox thought pitcher Kevin Brown was worthy of $105 million.

Asked whether he would have been traded had O'Malley still owned the Dodgers, Piazza said, flat-out, "No."

Jim Murray had his pinkie on the pulse: "The Dodgers traded away more than a part of their team," he wrote then. "They traded away part of their soul."

David T. Estrada, a reader, presciently pondered in The Times' Saturday letters section of May 16, 1998: "Will we be cursed for the next 100 years? I liken this to the Boston Red Sox deal that sent Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees."

The Lakers, simultaneously, were retooling with Shaquille O'Neal and teenager Kobe Bryant.

They lacked only leadership.

In June 1999, Phil Jackson was introduced as coach at a Beverly Hills news conference.

He remarked of the roster: "It's young, it's on the verge. It's been on the verge, and yet it hasn't quite gotten over the top. It's a similar situation to what happened 10 years ago in Chicago, and we hope to have the same type of success."

Five more NBA titles later, Jackson retired as coach this spring, and the Lakers had same owner he came in with — Jerry Buss.

"One of the strengths of the Lakers was the very strength that was there with the Dodgers," Claire said. "One critical, key word: continuity."

The Dodgers changed hands again in 2004, Fox to McCourt, but it was actually sleight of hands.

Horrified blue bloods watched the Angels, led by former Dodgers, steal the O'Malley blueprint and win the 2002 World Series.

Mike Scioscia, the popular Dodgers catcher who preceded the popular Piazza, recently celebrated his 1,000th win as Angels manager.

There's that word: continuity.

It's a Lakers town now.

Dodgers attendance is free-falling this season, yet Claire has invested too much to think the Dodgers can't reclaim the territory.

"That brand, that name, what once was, was so strong," Claire said. "I don't view this as lost and lost forever. I'm too competitive. It means that much to me. I cared too much then and I care too much now."

There is a window-crack of opportunity here. Bryant's Lakers might be on the down side. Does Kobe even like the new coach?

If the Dodgers could somehow combine stable ownership, timely hitting and a security guard when you need one . . . who knows?

Maybe Dr. Frank Jobe could perform Tommy John surgery on the Dodger masthead.

This much is certain: major rehab will be required.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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