- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
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As a life-long Los Angeles Dodgers fan, I have been in a foul mood lately due to the fact that the team I love has been nothing short of a basket case for the past few seasons. The probability that the Dodgers' front office might not be able to meet its payroll obligations is the primary focus of a recent avalanche of media coverage, and the team has not been in contention to win its division since Manny Ramirez was playing left field. Team owner Frank McCourt, whom everyone sees as the root of the problems, is involved in a divorce proceeding that may require him to sell the franchise as a result of a settlement. The baseball commissioner has taken control of my favorite team.
We Dodgers fans deserve better.
Recent revelations have exposed the fact that players such as Ramirez and Andruw Jones are owed millions of dollars. (Manny alone is reportedly owed $20 million.) The Dodgers will have to cover all of these lingering debts in addition to meeting the payroll of the team currently on the field. This will be hard to do in the wake of commissioner Bud Selig nixing a bailout deal that Mr. McCourt had worked out with Fox Sports. The commissioner feels that the deal is not in the best long-term interest of the team, and so it was a no-go proposition as far as he is concerned.
I often wonder how this would have played out if the Dodgers were still in the borough of Brooklyn. My guess is Brooklynites would have thrown the perpetrators of this type of farce out on their ears. I wondered the same thing, actually, when the Steve Bartman incident happened in Wrigley Field a few years back. You'll recall that he interfered with a foul ball that the Cubs' left fielder was trying to catch for a crucial out, an incident that very well might have changed the outcome of that 2003 playoff game. Would Bartman have made it out of the stands alive if that had happened in Ebbets Field?
Brooklyn fans could be tough.
The O'Malleys were smart enough to leave town with the team quickly and without fanfare in 1957. I remember my reaction to the departure of the Bums. My mom had to console me about the fact that my team was no longer part of my world. I cried for a while, but I stayed loyal to Dodger blue. I was 10 years old when this happened. Eight years after their exit, I followed them to Los Angeles to attend UCLA. I took in my first live World Series game with my UCLA teammate Lynn Shackleford in 1965. The score was Dodgers 4, Twins 0, and Claude Osteen got the victory.
I have been a Dodgers fan since I was a boy living in the far northern tip of Manhattan. My dad was born and raised in Brooklyn and I would listen with him to Red Barber and Vin Scully broadcast games on the radio. I went to Ebbets Field on two occasions to see my heroes in the flesh. My love of the game was the result of time spent with one of my mom's best friends, Mrs. Mary Mitchell. Mary lived on St. Nicholas Place in the Sugar Hill district of Harlem. The Polo Grounds, home of our arch-enemies the New York Giants, was within walking distance of her apartment. Yankee Stadium was a short bus ride away. It never took us more than 15 minutes to get to either stadium; and as a result, I got to see Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio play in the 1951 season, which was Joe's last year and Willie's rookie campaign.
As I grew up, baseball was the game that entertained and inspired me. My parents would point out aspects of Jackie Robinson's personal qualities that made him a role model for me. In addition to being an All-Star infielder, he was articulate and poised. The media attention he received would have been a tremendous challenge for anyone, but Jackie handled it with a grace and dignity that made him a role model for many kids my age. He has been a hero of mine ever since.
The Brooklyn fans affectionately called the Dodgers the "Bums" because they could never win the World Series. It seemed that fate had made it impossible for them to go all the way, while the Yankees would win the Series regularly. The Dodgers were special in a way that meant a lot to America. By being the first team to sign a black player, they showed the nation that equal opportunity was something that benefited the game as well as the minority communities of our country. Brooklyn embraced the team and enjoyed the fact that the various ethnic backgrounds of the players reflected the same variety in Brooklyn's neighborhoods.
When the team moved to L.A., the same warm relationship with its fans continued to thrive; and the team continued to be a diverse group of guys who could bring home the bacon. The Dodgers won the World Series in 1959, '63 and '65 featuring stars such as Southern Californians Duke Snider and Don Drysdale, and Brooklynites Tommy Davis and Sandy Koufax.
But those days are long gone now, and the new owner doesn't seem to understand what the team means to its fans. When people became aware of how Mr. McCourt pays his sons hundreds of thousands of dollars for do-nothing jobs instead of trying to improve the team, the reaction was very predictable. The stands are mainly empty now, and the focus of coverage of the team shuttles back and forth between the McCourts' divorce proceedings and various comments coming from the commissioner's office.
I can't help rooting for Mr. McCourt's wife to force a situation that will result in the team being sold. I am honestly thrilled by the possibility that the franchise might soon be in the hands of owners who want to win the World Series and have that as their singular focus. Mark Cuban is often mentioned as being that person, but I wonder if someone from out of town like Mr. Cuban would be the right fit for L.A. I must commend Mr. Cuban for his handling of the reins of the Dallas Mavericks and opening his wallet to improve the team. Getting the right players enabled them to finally win the world championship, when the Mavericks could have gone another way and ended up like the Clippers.
Mr. McCourt's response to all this has been to threaten to withhold ownership of the stadium, TV, parking and concession rights, making any sale of the team an ugly scenario for any prospective buyers. We Dodgers fans see these events changing L.A. into Mudville, with no relief in sight. (See this special version of "Casey at the Bat," by Ernest Thayer.)
As one of the Flatbush Faithful, I have resorted to feeling that the bums (not the Dodgers) should be thrown out, and who can blame me? All this chaos will probably get worse before it gets better, but that will not deter a fan like me. The Dodgers' motto, after all, has always been, "Wait until next year."
P.S. -- The baseball I am holding in the photo at the top of this column is signed by the entire 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers. It's my most prized possession. I want to thank the late Bill Gallo for sending me the Daily News headlines of the Dodgers' victory in 1955. I will always cherish it and think of him fondly, as he covered me as a high school athlete.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA's all-time leading scorer and the author of several New York Times best-selling books.