Has L.A. become the city of borrowed stars?
MAY 15, 2013 8:30a ET
And then, wait.
It’s different. It’s wrong. Even though you know it’s true.
Such was the case as I pulled my car out of The Grove approximately 48 hours after moving to Los Angeles in late April. There, in front of me, was a man crossing the street, a man wearing a T-shirt with the number five on the back. There was the name above it, stretched out in that perfect arc: Pujols.
It was just another Albert Pujols shirt, much like mine, stashed somewhere in a box in my parents’ house in St. Louis. Much like the ones everyone I knew owned for the past decade. Much like the one my friend was wearing when we snuck down into the best seats in Busch Stadium when we were 18, during a waterlogged extra-innings game in which the Cardinals’ pride and joy hit a walk-off home run just before midnight, when we felt like that was the greatest moment sports could give us, that it was wholly and irrevocably ours.
Except this was an Angels shirt. Because I’m in Los Angeles, and Pujols is an Angel, and as OK with it all as I truly am, it’s still not exactly easy to type all that.
Pujols is still St. Louis’s star, no matter how wary many there might be to admit it. In a way, too, Dwight Howard is Orlando’s, Josh Hamilton Texas’s, Mike D’Antoni Phoenix’s favorite coach, Andy Enfield the man whose fame is intrinsically tied to that Florida beachfront school.
They’re LA’s names, now, to be certain, but not quite. No matter the discord they wrought or the accusations they engendered, no matter the alienation or the feelings of being robbed these men left dotted across the country in cities smaller and less glittering than here, their ties to what came before are still strong. There’s still the fact that these men are not quite of this city, that they don’t quite yet belong, that in 10 years we’ll likely remember them for what came before they took the big money and the big job.
These are LA’s borrowed stars, and from the second Kobe Bryant limped off the court after hitting those free throws on April 12, his Achilles torn and his future in question, they were the best this city had. They’ve also, in so many instances, fallen short.
Kobe was, and is, the star of this city. So was Magic Johnson, and so is Matt Kemp, and even Jonathan Quick and Blake Griffin, for that matter. It’s not that Los Angeles doesn’t have its athletes, its names, its faithful few. It does. It’s just that the deep pockets of its teams have made a habit of supplementing those homegrown ranks by wooing big-name free agents and swinging trades for players who want to play under the twinkling Hollywood lights. Of course they have.
Only lately, it’s been more money, big money, some would say unreasonable money. There was Pujols’ $240 million and Hamilton’s $143 million. There’s the close to $118 million it’ll take to keep Howard in town, the $108 million that’ll land the Clippers Chris Paul for five more years.
With that money, too, there have been fewer results. Pujols has gone from the best player in baseball to an overpaid everyman. Hamilton, though it’s still early, has hovered around a .200 batting average in the early months of the season. Howard, well, the Dwightmare speaks for itself, and even Paul has been the source of some reported discord among teammates, not to mention the Clippers’ early playoff exit hardly works in his favor.
Are any of these men truly Los Angeles’s to claim? If they were, would this be any easier? It’s hard to say. But what’s becoming readily apparent in southern California of late, as baseball teams slog and the NBA season fades into distant memory, is that the model might be broken, or at least worth a tweak. Buying up other teams’ used — if great — goods involves an inherent risk, and sometimes money perhaps shouldn’t trump all.
Sometimes it’s worth noting that the Cardinals would only offer Pujols so much. Loyalty had its limits, so as to not cripple a franchise. It’s worth noting how Howard stomped his way out of Orlando with a trail of casualties in his wake, how even Hamilton comes with his risks off the field. It’s as if Los Angeles has at times felt above these cost-benefit analyses that have left other teams tearing up contract offers and moving on, or as if the teams don’t even deign to worry that money and palm trees won’t cure all that immediately upon arrival.
Granted, developing talent from an early age has its risks. There are more flameouts than success stories, more moribund prospects than golden boys. The surprises, the Kobes and Pujolses who came out of seemingly nowhere to win championships and change cultures, are even fewer. So of course it’s easier to buy up what’s already proven. Of course it’s easier to let the Orlandos and St. Louises of the world do the dirty work.
But it’s not quite the same, and there’s something to be said for that. It’s not quite the same, and in too many high-profile cases, it’s no longer working.
There’s something to be said for tradition, no matter that money and egos have gone a long way towards erasing it in sports. There’s something to be said for wearing your same purple Bryant jersey until it fades to lavender, your same red Pujols one until it turns pink. There’s a connection there, a deeper love that makes that lavender jersey or pink shirt far better than anything crisp and new, and so when teams struggle, loyalty remains. Just look at the Lakers this season and Bryant. He did everything in spite of his team, engendering even more citywide love than before, perhaps, if that’s possible. But that ability to put the player apart from the struggles doesn’t happen without history, without a sense that this guy is here for me, and always has been, and that his blood runs the color of this team, and this team only.
A year ago, I was in Los Angeles to cover a Timberwolves-Lakers game. It was around the start of spring training, late February, and so the billboards were popping up all over town, readying the city for America’s pastime.
As I drove through Playa del Rey to a meeting, I noticed one, an Angels sign. It featured Pujols’ likeness, along with the words “El Hombre.”
It was another of those something-is-not-right moments.
Years before in St. Louis, Pujols had asked for fans to stop calling him by that nickname. Meaning “the man,” El Hombre was in some ways an homage to Stan Musial, Stan the Man, the aging treasure not only of baseball in St. Louis, but of the city itself. No matter that it was meant to honor his predecessor, though, Pujols wouldn’t have the nickname. He wasn’t the Man. That was Stan’s designation, and he was no Stan.
And so El Hombre ceased to be a thing, at least until Pujols signed that outsize contract with the Angels. Then, of course, it became the perfect selling point in Southern California, the perfect slogan, until again, he had to ask people to stop. The billboards were phased out, and to many in Los Angeles, it likely mattered little.
But to Pujols, and to a city of people in the middle of flyover country who’d worshipped the man for the decade before, it mattered so much. Because some things don’t translate. Some things are simply lost, and hundreds of millions of dollars doesn’t buy tradition, necessarily, or devotion, or love.
It doesn’t buy the kind of irrational, blind adulation that is the reason sports matter to people. It doesn’t even always buy wins. And so now the city of recycled stars waits for its true star, Bryant, to retire, for someone new to take his place. If only time could stop, Los Angeles has to hope, or aging could cease, or injuries could fully heal, because the candidates thus far are hardly overwhelming. If there’s one thing the city should hope, though, it’s that whoever rises out of the purple and gold ashes is one of its own.