Commentary

Lost in America's ghost franchises

The pending sales of the Dodgers and the Jaguars, and the dislocation damage done

Originally Published: December 6, 2011
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Brooklyn's Ebbets Field AP Photo/John RooneyThe start of the baseball season at Ebbets Field … the year after the Dodgers left.

I visited a grave the other day. It's where the Brooklyn Dodgers are buried.

This is out in Crown Heights, at the intersections of Sullivan Place and Bedford Avenue, McKeever Place and Montgomery Street. It's also the intersection of "The Boys of Summer" and "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." Of Roger Kahn and Jane Jacobs. Of the 19th and 20th centuries. Of memory and money and history and fantasy.

This is where Ebbets Field was.

[+] EnlargeWayne Weaver
AP Photo/Rick WilsonWayne Weaver is selling the Jaguars. Is he selling out Jacksonville?

With the sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers now upon us -- and that of an unloved football franchise down in Jacksonville, Fla. -- we note this week the staying power of impermanence, the fickle nature of devotion, the business of business, and the unbridgeable distance between "change" and "progress."

The Dodgers won't leave Los Angeles. Ever. The team will be sold, but it won't be shanghaied or held ransom or taken away and used to boost another city into the actual or metaphorical Big Leagues. It's already done that. So the team won't have to pack up and leave in the middle of the night. The Dodgers are home, no matter who buys them. (Although it's worth noting here that one of the bidders, a Mr. Earvin "Magic" Johnson, made his fortune playing basketball in the 1980s for a team founded in the 1940s that had long since left its native lakes behind.)

The same guarantees can't be made for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Once sold, the team might go anywhere. And probably should.

In fact, maybe it winds up in Los Angeles, too.

I lived in Southern California for a long time a long time ago, including that weird dozen years it had not just one, but two lackluster NFL teams. The Raiders and the Rams overlapped in the LA/OC metroplex -- if not in the hearts of its residents -- from 1982 to 1994. When both teams left, the public silence as the moving vans pulled away from the curb was telling. There were no tears that I recall, nor was there a lasting uproar in the local papers. L.A. didn't much care about pro football, had many other professional franchises in many other sports, and had long since won regard not just as a big city, but as a city of the world sufficiently filled with other signifiers that pro football was unnecessary as a defining characteristic.

[+] EnlargeDuke Snider
AP PhotoThe Dodgers (including Duke Snider) were greeted royally in L.A. in 1958. They're still welcome there.

One of the reasons cities like Jacksonville (and Charlotte and Memphis and Nashville and Phoenix, etc.) fuss and fret over the status and stature of their pro franchises is that residents there understand these teams to be not only quality of life indicators, but absolute identifiers of community standing and ambition. And worth. And a major part of their civic pitch to business, and thus prosperity.

The Big Leagues.

It is easier, after all, to install a professional sports franchise in your sunbelt town than it is to build from scratch a world-class museum or ballet company. That's why we see so many of the one, and so few of the other.

At the opposite end of things, places like Detroit and Buffalo and Cleveland, the bust-out northern economies of the Rust Belt, remain relevant in the national discussion in part because of the relative health and continuity of their sports teams.

But things change. From the New York Black Yankees to the Seattle Supersonics, teams and leagues fail and change and return and change again. And this has happened in every professional sport from the beginning of professional sports.

[+] EnlargeSeattle Supersonics fan
AP Photo/Don RyanCollateral damage? It might've been worse than that when Clay Bennett took the Supersonics out of Seattle.

Think of all those fans. All those broken hearts and promises. Think of the owners, and all those good and bad intentions. The bankrupts and derelicts and runaways, the collapses and drunken elopements, the honest failures and straight-up cons. Cities and towns and whole provinces, gone. Fort Wayne and Pottsville and Decatur, Hartford and Quebec, Akron and Canton and Rock Island, all come and gone. Beaneaters, Americans and Superbas gone, cast out, sold out, failed and remade. Colts to Browns to Ravens -- an absolute chain of betrayals.

Does ownership of a pro sports franchise constitute a public trust? Or is it just another hustle? Or does that calculus change according to our cynicism and the needs and wants of the leagues and the owners?

I'm not sure it matters. It didn't seem to matter to Walter O'Malley the year I was born. He took the Dodgers west to find his fortune and broke Brooklyn's heart. A year from now, the borough takes the Nets from New Jersey, and their new home will be Atlantic Yards (see this or this) -- just across the park from the fossil footprint of Ebbets Field.

It is an odd condition of sports writing that we so often miss what's present in our search for what isn't. We seek some higher (or lower) meaning, some metaphor, at the price of the obvious and the actual. Writers often conjure ghosts, for instance, as a way of talking about the past. I've done it myself. I won't do it here.

[+] EnlargeEbbets Field Apts
AP Photo/Bebeto MatthewsThe site of the old Ebbets Field. Pretty distinctive, eh?

It is enough to know that losing your team to money or progress is no small thing.

That sense of dislocation -- not just of childish loss or grief or of having something taken from you, but of losing some deep bearing on your own place in things -- can be profound. The horizon goes flat. And without landmarks and affiliations in time or in space, how do you map yourself into the rush of things? Where are you?

The streets and blocks around what used to be Ebbets Field feel that way. Featureless. Cut loose from both the past and the future. Just streets in what is just a city. And despite what sportswriters like me will tell you, there is nothing hopeless or grim or dark with romance here, nothing threatening or heroic or radiant with old glories. Nothing special.

It is just a neighborhood in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on a sunny day, and where that stadium was more than half a century ago is just an apartment building.

There is a modest remembrance chiseled into the cornerstone. "This is the former site of Ebbets Field," it reads. It says nothing of who once played here or how well or why. Or how it made anyone feel. Standing here, you could be anywhere. Because you are anywhere. And I suppose that's the sadness.

There are no ghosts here. Only life, and change.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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