Falling down: The descent of the Dodgers

In the movie Falling Down, Michael Douglas’ character D-FENS has a very bad day that seems to get worse and worse as it goes on. That pretty much sums up the last two decades-plus of the Dodgers.

Both D-FENS and the Dodgers have their breakdowns in Los Angeles, and while D-FENS goes on a spree of violence, the Dodgers have gone on a spree of slowly but surely alienating their loyal fan base, saving the violence for some unlucky fans of rival teams.

And while you can say that society and surrounding circumstances played a role in both of their demises, the fault is ultimately their own, and many of the mistakes that have been made have compounded each other. While D-FENS ends up in the ocean off Venice pier, it is still not certain whether the Dodgers have hit bottom yet.

The Dodgers, D-FENS and his former employers were lured out to the Los Angeles area by the postwar boom in the Los Angeles area. Walter O’Malley saw a huge opportunity in LA and took advantage of it, both contributing to and being a part of the huge growth the area underwent in the 1950s and 1960s.

D-FENS’ former bosses, the aerospace industry, came out at about the same time, creating tons of great jobs and huge economic growth in the area.

The Dodgers made it into nine World Series from 1957-1988 and won five of them. The team was regularly at or near the top of the league in attendance, and Dodger Stadium was an amazing and safe place to see a ballgame. The explosion of the defense industry created a huge number of jobs and a big middle class, which made Los Angeles both a great place to live and a great place to catch a ballgame.

For all the characters in our story, the late 1980s and early 1990s were the beginning of the end. The cold war was winding down, and the Air Force didn’t need as many long-range bombers, and the aerospace industry, due to a combination of modernization and the availability of cheap labor elsewhere, began to slowly but definitely surely pull out.

As a result, many middle-aged guys (like D-FENS) who came out in the 1950s and 1960s lost their jobs. The Dodgers won their last World Series in 1988, and little did anyone know at the time, it would be the last time they would be in one.

D-FENS didn’t handle his decline well, going on a one-day violent rampage that saw him end up dead in the Pacific Ocean right off Venice Beach. The Dodgers’ decline has been slow and painful and probably will get worse before it gets better.

Little did anyone know that Kirk Gibson’s homer was the beginning of a slow, downhill slide whose culmination is the Dodgers filing bankruptcy. O’Malley stayed around until 1997, and the teams were some bad, some good and some in between, and in all cases could not find their way to the postseason. Whether unhappy about not getting an NFL team or unable to keep pace with the increasing salaries of free agents, he sold the team to Fox.

While many Dodgers fans were unhappy at O’Malley’s departure, it was obvious some of the old magic was missing. It’s not that they didn’t try.

The teams—featuring a homegrown, talented nucleus of Mike Piazza, Eric Karros, Orel Hershiser and Ramon Martinez and supplemented by free agents like Darryl Strawberry and Brett Butler—seemed to underachieve every year. While fans would bemoan the loss of the “family vibe” around Dodger Stadium, they were also hoping that the corporate Godzilla would create a west coast version of the Yankees that would steamroll the rest of the league.

They got the lost “family vibe” thing right. Fox’s first major move was to ship off the disgruntled Piazza. When O’Malley guys Fred Claire and Bill Russell expressed displeasure at being left out of the thought process of that move, they were shown the door, also.

It was a purge Josef Stalin would’ve admired. They brought in big names, including Davey Johnson, Kevin Malone and the notorious Kevin Brown, but the result was ultimately pretty much the same: Four third-place finishes, two second-place finishes and no playoffs.

Perhaps bored with baseball and hungry to conquer other empires, Rupert Murdoch moved on. The team played at roughly the same level as it did during the post-1988 O’Malley years, but the folksy atmosphere the O’Malleys carried around the ballpark was gone. Long gone.

Enter Frank McCourt. How he even got an MLB team, much less the Dodgers, is a mystery. Allegedly, the funds he used to buy the team were completely leveraged, much of it Fox’s money. It is hard to believe there were not more suitable candidates interested in buying the team. Bud Selig playing the Man on the White Horse in 2011 is perhaps his way of over-compensating for some of the poor decisions or non-decisions he made when he allowed McCourt to buy the team.

In McCourt’s defense, and it is not inconsiderable, the team has won more than it did under the post-1988 O’Malleys or Fox. In 2004, the Dodgers won 93 games, made the playoffs and even won their first playoff game since 1988. Of course, it was largely a team built up by Fox man Dan Evans and managed by holdover Jim Tracy, but even the harshest cynics had to give McCourt a breather on that one.

They’ve had three other playoff appearances since then, including two trips to the NLCS. Not exactly George Steinbrenner, but still much more successful than Fox or late-period O’Malley. He also did get Joe Torre as a manager and did what he had to do to get Manny Ramirez, whose hot hitting nearly single-handedly fired up the Dodgers playoff run in 2008.

McCourt always seemed so notoriously cheap. Except for Ramirez, which he surely regrets now, he avoided signing any big-name or high-priced free agents, which irked Dodgers fans. Whatever successes he had were through the still-productive minor league system, i.e., cheap talent like Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, or by GM Ned Colletti’s shrewd moves of signing mid-level free agents to short contracts (Casey Blake, Hiroki Kuroda).

It was good enough to get the Dodgers into the playoffs, but when they’d run into a truly championship-caliber team (i.e., the 2008-09 Philadelphia Phillies), their weaknesses would be revealed.

Dodgers fans, due to the team’s rich history, felt and feel entitled to a championship-caliber team every year. When McCourt would get them to the playoffs, they would be temporarily satiated, but when he didn’t, especially after the implosion of 2010, they turned on him. When he and Jamie filed for divorce and his financial mis-adventures were revealed, it became ugly.

There is reasoning behind McCourt’s or his minions running of the team. That he hired Billy Beane acolyte Paul Di Podesta as his first GM says a lot. Beane’s goal, stated in Moneyball, was to figure out the number of wins needed to make it to the postseason and put together a team—highly based on sabermetrics and with very-limited resources—that would be able to get that many wins. He would accept rolling the dice in the playoffs against better-financed and talent-heavy teams.

While that is a smart strategy for a small-market team, McCourt saw it as a cheap and efficient way to run a big-market team. McCourt figured that 85-90 wins would be enough to win in a mediocre NL West, so he built teams he hoped would achieve that goal, then roll the dice in the playoffs. It worked in 2008 and 2009, although the Dodgers looked way overmatched against the Phillies, and were bounced in five games both times.

It didn’t work in 2010. The team got off to a pretty good first-half start and then completely fell apart. Going into 2011, amid the divorce and surrounding drama, it didn’t look good and is so far playing up to expectations. With MLB taking over operations and the bankruptcy, it looks as bad as it could get, but it’s not over.

McCourt is a junkyard dog who will fight MLB tooth and nail, leaving the team in a legal no-man’s land, unable to make it better. This is far worse than anything the world has ever seen with this franchise, and as of right now there is no redemption, not even the kind that D-FENS got from the barrel of Robert Duvall’s gun.

So there are two roughly parallel stories here. A well-paid, upper-middle-class aerospace worker gets laid off from his company in changing times. Unable to find a job, and with his marriage falling apart, he descends into madness on the streets of Los Angeles, abandoning his car in rush-hour traffic and bashing up gangbangers, neo-Nazis, a convenience store and a fast food restaurant.

You also have a storybook franchise sold amid changing times in the sports world, passed from owner to owner, slowly getting worse and worse, now a bad team playing in a beat-up old stadium in front of a rapidly declining fan base. D-FENS’ descent was ultimately resolved in one day, though we may be lucky he didn’t happen upon the present-day Dodger Stadium, whose conditions may have further fueled his rage. The Dodgers situation, sadly, is a long way off from resolution.

References & Resources
Here’s a link to check out the movie:

http://www.amazon.com/Falling-Down-Michael-Douglas/dp/0790742780/ref=sr_1_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1309374112&sr=1-1

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Comments

  1. James T said...

    I’m a little shocked to see GM Ned Colletti get to skate on trading Carlos Santana for a couple months of Casey Blake and for signing Juan Pierre.  But, otherwise, this was very good.

  2. Steven Booth said...

    James-

    Colletti certainly has a mixed legacy. Jason Schmidt is what always rolls around in my head. Re: Santana, Colletti probably thought he had a long term carcher in Russell Martin. But now, with Barajas and Navarro back there, it hurts.

  3. Señor Spielbergo said...

    “Beane’s goal, stated in Moneyball, was to figure out the number of wins needed to make it to the postseason and put together a team—highly based on sabermetrics and with very-limited resources—that would be able to get that many wins. He would accept rolling the dice in the playoffs against better-financed and talent-heavy teams. While that is a smart strategy for a small-market team, McCourt saw it as a cheap and efficient way to run a big-market team. McCourt figured that 85-90 wins would be enough to win in a mediocre NL West, so he built teams he hoped would achieve that goal, then roll the dice in the playoffs.”

    The Boston Red Sox have used a similar strategy over this time; theirs was more effective, I’m guessing, due to the fact that they shared a division with a perennial contender in the New York Yankees, making the goal of putting together the best team possible more imperative. (Did you realize that the Red Sox have won the AL East only once since 1995?)

    Good point though – if you have all the resources, why not use them? The San Diego Padres should be using this strategy to compete with the Los Angeles Dodgers, not the other way around.

  4. George said...

    This is a good article. Can you write an article on the rise and fall of the Mets since 2005?

  5. CharlieH said...

    I never thought I’d see so few people in the stands at Dodger Stadium as I have the past 2 nights with the Mets in town.

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