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About Jon
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Til Death Do Us Part
2003-05-16 08:24
by Jon Weisman
Note: The Dodger Thoughts blog has moved to the Los Angeles Times.

In their 46th year of marriage, Los Angeles Dodger fans are like the guy slouched in the living room La-Z-Boy, waiting for the Dodgers to bring them a beer.

Do they love their team? Sure. You don't come this far on physical attraction alone. And when the team puts on something seductive, like tonight's T-shirt night at Dodger Stadium against those bellwether Florida Marlins, well ... Dodger fans won't need Rafael Palmeiro's Viagra to get out of their chairs for that one. For the baseball-attending community, giveaways are pure sex. (First use of that word on the site - let's see how many readers I draw from Google searches.)

But some of the old charms don't work the way they used to. A matchup between two of the greatest pitchers of this generation, Greg Maddux and Kevin Brown - both pitching for contending teams, on an off-night for the Lakers - only drew a half-full Dodger Stadium on Wednesday.

Love has as many nuances as there are colors; it's a complicated thing. Love for a baseball team is no different. A new book released this year,
The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together
by Michael Shapiro, explains this most effectively.

Shapiro articulates that while no one in Brooklyn was actively kicking the Dodgers out of the house, few were out buying roses to romance them into staying. On Opening Day 1956, mere months after the Dodgers' long-awaited World Series title - the kiss at the end of the rainbow - Brooklyn fans slid back in their a rut:

In his box overlooking his stadium, the team's owner, Walter O'Malley, saw a sight far more disturbing (than a loss to the Phillies). All through the winter and on into the spring, the team had been pushing tickets for Opening Day. The ticket people worked the phones, calling likely buyers. But only twenty-four thousand people had come to Ebbets Field to see the championship banner raised. And while losing to the Phillies was the stuff of sighs and rolled eyes - Philadelphia had finished fourth in 1955, 21 1/2 games out - the empty seats were, for O'Malley, further evidence that he had not been hasty when he had announced nine months earlier, in August of 1955, that the team would play only two more seasons at Ebbets Field.

The strength in the approach of Shapiro, who was born in Brooklyn in 1952, is that he does not attempt to demonize O'Malley or the fans for their role in the breakup of the Brooklyn Dodger marriage. Instead, Shapiro focuses carefully on the human frailties in the story, convincing us that a team and its city may love each other without ever completely understanding each other.

A marriage can break apart without husband and wife really knowing why it did. Honestly, the Dodgers and their city needed marriage counseling, but no one was there to provide it.

As you read the book, you are struck by the total absence of alarm in Brooklyn as O'Malley pursued a new stadium to replace Ebbets Field. Shapiro laces several vignettes of the lives of individual Dodger fans throughout the book, and while the evidence is anecdotal, the people cross the cultural and generational spectrum of the city. The constant: these people had bigger worries in their lives than the fate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. It's clear that the life of the 1950s, that may seem so simple to us now (particularly to those of us who weren't born until the 1960s or later) was in fact plenty complicated.

Certainly, many will accuse O'Malley of greed, of putting his own concerns ahead of the people of Brooklyn, and of lying to the people to service those concerns. Shapiro writes:

But mendacity is a character flaw, not a crime. Walter O'Malley, however, was also a limited man. And it is in that limitation, not in his avarice or deceit, that his sin resides. O'Malley should have never owned a baseball team because he could not see what he had. He could not see that a baseball team is more than a business, that it is a topic of conversation. People pay to go to baseball games, and if they do not go in sufficient numbers the person who owns that team will not make money. But people also talk about the games and about the team. They think about the team and wonder about the team and share these thoughts with each other. Walter O'Malley, who sat apart from the "little people" in his private box, did not understand this. This did not make him unique among team owners. He was just the first to be so obvious about it.

What's obvious to me now from Shapiro's book is that O'Malley was just as insecure about his life and work as "the little people." In his mind, he was fighting for survival as much as the average working Joe in Brooklyn. And you can understand it. I'm a hell of a lot better off than millions of people in the world financially, but worse off than a lot of others, and there isn't a day that goes by right now that I don't question my financial well-being.

As the leader of an industry and a cultural treasure, perhaps O'Malley had more responsibility to think beyond his own concerns. But he was human. It may not be a consolation in Brooklyn today, but it is an explanation.

Robert Moses was human too. Moses had many titles in the New York political world - all of them appointed, none that he was elected to - but the best characterization of his position is that to him, New York City was his own SimCity game. The metropolis was his to redesign as he saw fit. And in this story, Shapiro tells us, Robert Moses is the force acting on the Brooklyn Dodger marriage beyond anyone's control.

Significant portions of Shapiro's book tend to the poker game between O'Malley and Moses over where in New York a new Dodger stadium could be built. The final revelation is that Moses had kept a card up his sleeve for nearly 20 years - a site in Flushing Meadows for an all-purpose stadium and sports center. Moses wanted to build there, and held such power that O'Malley's Dodgers and their fans would almost have needed a love that transcended all others to overcome his will.

Looking back, the people of New York would have probably have rather had the Dodgers in Flushing Meadows than in Los Angeles. But Moses was not inclined to help find a solution for O'Malley - again for reasons that may be nothing more than human, albeit the dark side of human. Shapiro saves his harshest writing in the book for his conclusions on Moses:

Robert Moses is the bad guy in this story. He was arrogant, imperious and cruel.

It was more than O'Malley could bear. As 1957 turned into 1958, O'Malley and the Dodgers left their fans in the living room, and moved on to their second marriage.

Shapiro makes no attempt to adapt his tale to the fan-team relationships of today, but I feel that there is a relevant connection. There are so many seen and unseen factors in any bond, whether it's the slightly over-comfortable love of the Dodgers and Los Angeles or the tattered remains of the passion that was once the Montreal Expos. Dodger fans have had plenty to complain about in recent years, but lest we forget, even without a World Series in 15 years, plenty to celebrate as well. Expo fans, well, cops should be hauling their spouse to the police station for domestic abuse - which is a shame, because the Expos are a great team to watch.

Like I said, some good marriage counseling would have done wonders in Brooklyn, and it could do wonders just about anywhere. Consider me a big believer in preventative or maintentance therapy for baseball teams and their fans.

Unfortunately, there's no one around today to provide it.

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