Commentary

Is it 'next year' for Dodgers fans?

Frustrations in L.A. lift with team in first, new owners, good young players

Updated: May 18, 2012, 11:03 AM ET
By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar | ESPN.com

As a lifelong Dodgers fan, I am accustomed to disappointment and extremely delayed gratification.

The history of the franchise in Brooklyn certainly was one of frustration. Despite heroic efforts and dogged determination, the Dodgers struggled to win the World Series. Championship trophies were the property of the Yankees, the superior presence in New York who ruled baseball from their regal home in the Bronx. In seven head-to-head tries between 1941 and 1956, Brooklyn was able to beat the Yanks in only one World Series, 1955.

The Dodgers' move to Los Angeles in 1958 put them in an environment where they were the big show, not a team overshadowed by a crosstown rival. They bolstered that status by winning the World Series in 1959, 1963 and 1965, and again in 1981 and 1988.

[+] EnlargeDodgers Fan
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesDodgers fans, after a couple of dark years, have something to cheer again.

Unfortunately, the team has been less successful under two ownership groups -- first Fox, then Frank McCourt -- since the O'Malley family sold in 1998. Despite four playoff appearances in McCourt's first six seasons, Dodgers fans did not enjoy increased prices at the stadium or how he ran the team, especially when his divorce and bankruptcy threatened the team's ability to sign players. After record numbers from 2004-09, attendance dropped in 2010 and fell below 3 million in 2011 for the first time in a decade. Commissioner Bud Selig finally stepped in to force the sale of the team.

The change in ownership has energized the team in ways that were totally unanticipated. Start with the price tag: a staggering $2 billion paid by the group led by former Laker Magic Johnson, baseball man Stan Kasten and Mark Walter (CEO of Guggenheim Partners, the money behind the deal). The new owners still have to get to a point where fans feel that nothing crazy is being done on the sly with regard to their team. There has been an undercurrent of suspicion about the role of the former owner, who fans grew to detest, that needs to be put the rest.

A strong start has certainly eased the transition. A team that hovered around .500 the past two seasons is now in first in the National League West, in part because there's a genuinely talented nucleus of players on the roster. A player like Matt Kemp, who is arguably the best all-around player in baseball (2011: .324 average, 39 HRs, 126 RBIs, 40 SBs; 2012: .359 AVG, 12 HRs, 28 RBIs, 2 SBs through 34 games before being placed on the DL), can be the centerpiece of a contender. Fellow outfielder Andre Ethier is leading the NL in RBIs. Left-hander Clayton Kershaw was a CY Young pitcher last year and he has been joined by Chris Capuano (5-1) and Ted Lilly (5-0) to form a solid rotation for the pitching staff. Rookie shortstop Dee Gordon has continued to improve both offensively and defensively. He is often on base, giving Ethier and Kemp RBI opportunities.

Second-year manager Don Mattingly has done well with his opportunity to run the team. He has been both wise and patient, and the players have responded positively to his leadership. The final quarter of last season was an indication of what the team could do if things went right. The Dodgers, who stood at 52-64 after a 9-8 loss on Aug. 10, finished 82-79, winning twice as many games as they lost in those final weeks.

[+] EnlargeHershiser, Kershaw, Lasorda
Harry How/Getty ImagesCan Clayton Kershaw, center, and his teammates return the Dodgers to glory shared by Tommy Lasorda, left, and Orel Hershiser?

When the Brooklyn team would lose the Series to the Yankees in the 1950s, the rallying cry for Dodgers fans would be "wait until next year!" This year has started out to be just that kind of next year. In addition to the sterling on-field start, the new owners have stated that they will try to make the team competitive in all ways. Many issues that irked fans, such as parking rates and the lack of renovation in certain parts of the stadium, are being addressed.

These efforts could not be more timely. The Los Angeles Angels franchise has become a serious contender for baseball fans in Southern California. The acquisition of Albert Pujols was a big event for Angels fans, and the team's rivalry with the Dodgers will be drawing attention the whole season, especially if Pujols ever starts hitting. The interleague games will be sold out for sure this year and the ultimate dream of Southern California baseball fans, a "freeway series," is not beyond the pale.

If that were to happen, veteran Dodgers fans would be transported back to their former crosstown rivalry and the glory of 1955. That year the Dodgers took the Series in seven games, winning the final game on a 2-0 shutout thrown by young left-hander Johnny Podres. Roy Campanella was the regular-season MVP that year, and Podres credited him for his series-clinching win. Campanella called the game pitch by pitch in a way that took all the pressure off Podres.

The Dodger faithful are hoping that today's boys in blue -- Ethier, Kemp, Kershaw, Gordon and Capuano -- will lead the team to its first title since 1988. The bad old days when the McCourts were in charge have gone away.

Now that the new owners are in charge, they can do what is necessary to win back the fans. The O'Malleys were very good at relating to the fan base, and I'm sure the new owners will see what they can do to build the same warm relationship with the fans that was the standard in the old days. A title would be a great start.

Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA's all-time leading scorer and the author of several New York Times best-selling books.

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