A reboot at 50 just what Angelenos need
This was the Dodgers’ home opener in 2011: A despised and defiant owner ... A once-proud franchise barreling toward bankruptcy … A star player musing that he might be on the way out ... A fan sustaining brain damage in a parking lot assault.
This is the Dodgers’ home opener in 2012: A new beginning under one of the most beloved figures in sports history ... A fast start, built on momentum from last season’s second half ... A franchise player and franchise pitcher, each in their primes ... A celebration for the 50th anniversary of a baseball basilica ... A brand, reborn.
“Let’s just say,” affirmed a grinning Davey Lopes, “things are looking up.”
Are the Dodgers back, in the sense that they are again the predominant National League franchise and a strong World Series contender? No. At least not yet. The organization has, however, regained its credibility in a matter of weeks. That is more important.
As recently as last August, the Dodgers were a fifth-place team playing before sparse crowds. Today, they will take a 3-1 record into Dodger Stadium, the ballpark brimming with emotion for all the right reasons. The season opener has been sold out since last month — when nostalgic fans snapped up the remaining tickets after a group including LA legend Magic Johnson agreed to purchase the team from the reviled Frank McCourt.
“Because of the change in ownership, there might be some different feeling going around,” said Lopes, a popular Dodgers second baseman in the 1970s and now the first-base coach. “The bottom line is it comes back to us. We have to win. The only way to be like the Dodgers of old is to win.”
Johnson can’t resuscitate the franchise on his own. He has a captivating presence, not a devastating curveball. He is a minority investor in Guggenheim Baseball Management, a group headed by Mark Walter that won’t formally take control of the team until later this month.
Magic has a world-famous smile — “He might smile in his sleep,” Lopes said — but we won’t see it if the team stinks. And that’s the point: For the new face of the Dodgers to be a happy one, the players must perform. So far, they have. In that sense, the pending sale is a stabilizing element for the franchise but not the only encouraging sign. Even the schedule is favorable, providing the team with a potential springboard in the standings.
“This ain’t the last of the Dodgers, man,” said Padres second baseman Orlando Hudson, a former Dodger. “They’ve got some money to spend now. They’ve got a bona fide owner who knows what it takes to win, in Magic. So far, so good. They’re a good-looking team. Good defense. Good pitching. Great manager. Good pitching coach. They’ll be good.”
The Dodgers have two of the hardest-to-find commodities in baseball: an ace left-handed pitcher (Clayton Kershaw) and 40-40 threat who plays elite defense at an up-the-middle position (Matt Kemp). Kershaw, last year’s Cy Young Award winner, is scheduled to face the Pirates today after leaving his last start because of the stomach flu. Kemp went 7-for-17 with two home runs during the season-opening series in San Diego and received NL Player of the Week honors.
Kemp, the best all-around player in baseball, heard chants of M-V-P! throughout the weekend from the thousands of Dodgers fans who traveled to Petco Park. “They’re definitely more excited this year,” Kemp said. “They feel something special is going to happen — just like we feel it. We’re excited, man. It’s going to be a good season.”
While Kershaw and Kemp provide star power, the team’s trademark (since last year’s All-Star break) has been its professionalism. The Dodgers execute fundamental plays and have absorbed the easygoing confidence of their second-year manager, Don Mattingly. “I’ve been here a year-plus,” Lopes said, “and I’ve never heard him raise his voice to the players.”
Consider the opening sequence of Saturday’s 6-5 win over the Padres: Speedster Dee Gordon led off with a single to center. Two pitches later, Gordon stole second. Mark Ellis moved Gordon to third with a groundout and was met with high-fives in the dugout. Kemp followed with a sacrifice fly. That quickly, the Dodgers had a 1-0 lead. “If you look at it,” Kemp said, “we’re doing a lot of the little things right.”
Cleanup man Andre Ethier seemed discontented with his contractual status at this time last year. He went public with his concerns right before Opening Day. Later, he was hampered by a right knee injury that required surgery. But he’s off to an encouraging start in 2012, collecting four extra-base hits in as many games.
In character, work ethic and self-belief, Dodgers outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. said his teammates remind him of the 2010 Padres, who stunned baseball by spending much of the season in first place. (“Except,” Gwynn added, “this team has a lot more talent.”) A pregame visitor to the Dodgers clubhouse over the weekend couldn’t help but notice that every television set was tuned to baseball — not soccer matches or a movie, as one might find elsewhere in the majors. Veteran players like Ellis and Jerry Hairston Jr. sat on couches and studied the monitors intently.
“We love baseball in this locker room,” Gwynn said. “We enjoy the game. In here, the TVs are on one of two things — baseball or basketball.”
One assumes the new ownership will be OK with that.
SI.com reported several days ago that Major League Baseball officials have become concerned about the lack of details submitted by the Guggenheim group in connection with its $2.15 billion purchase. At this point, though, it doesn’t appear the deal is in great peril. Johnson isn’t expected to attend the home opener; he’s in New York this week for the opening of the Broadway play MAGIC/BIRD.
Even without Johnson, the afternoon will hold plenty of historic symbolism. This is the 50th anniversary of the first game at Dodger Stadium. The team will mark the occasion by asking Terry Seidler — daughter of longtime Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley — to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Terry’s mother, Kay, did the honors before the inaugural game at Chavez Ravine a half-century ago.
The moment is sure to elicit a warm response from roughly 56,000 fans, eager to reconnect with the distant past while moving beyond the memory of last year’s opener — tragic because of the attack on Giants fan Bryan Stow. Many Dodgers fans are ready to come back to the ballpark and relearn a lost ritual — the one that involves family, decency and winning.