HOW I BECAME A DODGERS FAN

HAPPY FANS ARE all alike; every unhappy fan is unhappy in his own way. A 19th century Russian novelist might have said this were he alive today, but he also might have said, “What’s with the bobblehead dolls?” And “What happens if you get relocated or move away?” When my son, Devin, heads off to American University in Washington, D.C. this August, he might or might not be taking his bobblehead collection from Chavez Ravine with him, but he will surely be taking his allegiance to the Dodgers, one nurtured by the geographical fact of growing up in Southern California. He is the main reason I am a Dodgers fan, not that I want to saddle him with that onerous responsibility, given the unpleasant final years of the McCourt ownership.

When I moved to Los Angeles from Dallas in 1983, I was still under fan contract to the Texas Rangers, an affiliation I found it hard to shed for the longest time. Being the fan of a team, especially when you are young, is an emotional attachment that is not readily transferable, yet given the peregrination of so many modern American lives, I have to assume that others, like me, have come to reckon with the limits of such devotion, weighing the meaning of the past against the benefits of the here and now.

The Rangers, less conspicuous than the Chicago Cubs, were, like the Cubs, fitfully promising and often disappointing, albeit with their share of dazzling, media-ignored stars like Buddy Bell, Oscar Gamble, Jim Sundberg, Julio Franco, Jim Kern, Danny Darwin, and, later, the bona fide headliners Nolan Ryan and Rafael Palmeiro. But, as with the Cubs, I suspect, the Rangers annual mediocrity and blind hopes instilled a perverse loyalty over time. Long before they even thought about getting to the World Series, the Rangers were an interest I shared with my dad, Gene, who was not a native Texan and did not like football or Landry’s Cowboys but embraced the Rangers the minute they showed up in 1972 after migrating from the nation’s capital.

My dad and I went to many, many Rangers games in the 1970s and `80s at the old Arlington Stadium where there were no luxury boxes and it was easy to walk-up almost any night and buy a good seat. (This now qualifies as ancient history.) Once I left town, the Rangers and their seasonal fate provided a ready fall-back topic for our phone conversations, and before the internet, dad would send me clippings from the Dallas papers containing news of trades and clubhouse rumors. I continued to monitor their occasional bursts of competence from afar and sometimes trek down to Anaheim to see them play the Angels.

I didn’t dislike the Dodgers, I just didn’t care. I wanted to love L.A. like Randy Newman, but I had grown up an American League fan (despite the designated hitter rule). In Game 6 of the 1985 National League playoffs, when St. Louis slugger Jack Clark homered off Tom Niedenfuer to give the Cardinals the pennant, I watched my officemates at the LA Herald Examiner shout with pain and disbelief, but I just thought, well, the Rangers aren’t even in the playoffs. In 1988, when Gibson hit the home run off Eckersley to win Game 1 of the World Series against the favored Oakland A’s, I was watching in a West Side bar with some friends, and I did my best to join in the celebration, but I had no goosebumps on my arm. As far as baseball was concerned, I was still not yet an Angeleno.

It was the birth of my son that changed that. Not immediately, but his mother and I took him to Dodgers games as soon as he could walk, and at the point that he stopped staring at the row behind us and began looking at the field, I realized he was probably not going to grow up to be a Texas Rangers fan. By the time he was ready for T-ball he was wearing Dodger Blue, and me, too. I had undergone a conversion. It wasn’t like when my dad had to study with the priest to convince the Catholic Church he was worthy to marry my mother. This conversion happened naturally, as we bonded in familial support for the home team during the years of Eric Karros, Paul LoDuca, Shawn Green and Eric Gagne while Devin learned the game. By the time he was old enough to understand the infield fly rule and invest some part of his sense of well-being in the fortunes of a professional baseball team, there was no room in the house for my previous affiliation. It had been exorcised, with an assist from the future President George W. Bush.

Now, I still have friends in Dallas who roll their eyes when I bring this up, but I believe the character and quality of ownership can add or subtract from the untidy sum of emotional logic that goes into being a fan. And W was bad news rising as far as I was concerned. Installed as the figurehead owner by an “investment group” that purchased the Rangers from oilman Eddie Chiles in 1989, Bush the Younger made his mark first by foregoing the possibility of building a new stadium in Dallas and escaping the dismal exurbs of Arlington, preferring to let the citizens of Arlington pay for a new stadium next door, enhancing his equity before moving on to run for governor. Talk about your public-private partnership! Next, he inexplicably showed the door to the greatest hitter ever to wear a Ranger uniform, first-baseman Rafael Palmeiro, replacing him with the good but not-nearly-as-good–and equally expensive–Will Clark.

Yeah, it’s hard to like Palmeiro now that we know he used steroids and lied to Congress, but at the time Bush let him go, in 1993 (before McGuire, Sosa and Bonds were even under suspicion) the move was so disturbing, it allowed a fan like me to step back and begin to disengage.

It was fitting that on Bush’s watch the team colors changed from blue to red, the same color as the state of Florida on CNN’s electoral map after the U.S. Supreme Court handed W the the White House a few years later. When I saw Rangers highlights on Sports Center during this period, the team was unrecognizable. Just as well.

Bush’s undistinguished tenure as the Rangers’ owner went unnoticed by the national press corps covering the 2000 presidential campaign, but then they missed a lot. Looking back now, I really should thank W for buying the Rangers because my antipathy to all he stood for helped ease my transition to becoming a Dodgers fan. I didn’t have any particular feelings for the Dodgers’ owners, the O’Malley family that had brought the team west from Brooklyn in 1958. In Los Angeles (as opposed to Brooklyn) the O’Malleys seemed to walk on water, even after Walter’s son, Peter, sold the team to Australian media monopolist and non baseball fan Rupert Murdoch in 1998.

The Dodgers did not prosper in the National League West under Murdoch’s stewardship, but they did reach the playoffs three times under the next owner, Boston parking lot developer Frank McCourt. And despite McCourt’s mismanagement and calamitous divorce, the Dodgers became Devin’s team during these, his formative years. Not only did he have a Jackie Robinson poster on the wall of his room but a framed front page of the LA Times sports section from 2006, with a picture of Normar Garciaparra celebrating a 10th inning walk-off home run to beat the Padres following an historic 9th inning when the Dodgers hit four consecutive home runs to tie the score. We had watched it on TV.

The Rangers eventually made the playoffs, too, in 1996, 1998 and 1999 (going 1-9 in those games) and in 2010, they finally reached the World Series, pitted against the Dodgers’ hated rival, the San Francisco Giants. Under the circumstances you might assume I would have welcomed this opportunity to reconnect with my old team. Indeed, it was tempting. But then before the first game in Arlington, ex-Presidents George W. Bush and his dad, the former Yale first baseman, ersatz Texans and genteel war mongers, were wheeled onto the field and greeted with a deafening roar and standing ovation from the capacity crowd. I thought back to the night of Gibson’s home run against the A’s in 1988 and how I had wanted to be happy the Dodgers won but could only pretend. Now I would be pretending again, given this spectacle that brought to mind the insignificance of sports compared to all the damage W had done to the nation and the world. I could not avoid thinking that if the Rangers won, the Bushes would be pleased, and the notion of being allied with their contentment was a deal-breaker, plain and simple. Such are the vagaries of emotion expended on behalf of strangers in uniforms.

Maybe it was silly to care about any of it, but I realized I was stranded between teams given the situation and would have to check my lately acquired Dodger loyalty at the door, along with my former Rangers cap, as I rooted on this night for the outlander Giants. However temporary this turnabout, I still felt I might need a papal dispensation for what would surely be crossing to the dark side in Devin’s eyes. As it was, I just kept quiet.

Not that he approved of the ex-president, on the contrary, but more importantly to him, the Rangers were all that stood between the Giants and the World Championship. The Giants! Unlike me, he had grown up as an Angeleno detesting the Giants. When he was in fourth grade, he had attended a Giants game in San Francisco bravely wearing his Dodger colors, and a grown-up had barked at him, “You better take that jacket off, son.” The Giants! Possibly even Tolstoy, from the grave, would understand.

Devin is young. Who knows where he will end up living later in his life and if he will have a son or daughter born in some city other than Los Angeles? And what factors of arrogant owner behavior, political symbolism and millionaire player personalities will come to influence his athletic enthusiasms?

He will have to look into his own heart and figure out what it means to be a fan and what team, if any, deserves his time and attention. For now we have the Dodgers. The Giants, as we know, won that World Series and returned to their beautiful and loathsome park by the bay. They are our enemies once again this season. Think Blue.

 

About Sean Mitchell

SEAN MITCHELL is a journalist, critic and former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Dallas Times Herald. His articles and reviews have also appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, USA Today and other publications. He is the recipient of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music and the George Jean Nathan Award for distinguished drama criticism. Born in Bethlehem, Pa., he grew up in Dallas and is a graduate of St. Mark’s School of Texas and Brown University. He lives in Dallas.
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