Today we mark the passing of time, as well as the latest edition of the Ironic Jersey Omnibus, where we examine the jersey as the highest and most subtle form of personal expression. For our latest installment we head west along I-10 on a musty Greyhound bus to the sunny climes of Los Angeles.
I admit: I’ve dragged my feet in moving on to the erstwhile Brooklyn Superbas. This is, I assure you, an entirely personal failing. After all, baseball writers, much like substitute teachers, survive by wielding an essential and almost entirely fictional sense of authority. It’s in this spirit, then, that I am forced to confess that I don’t really know the Los Angeles Dodgers, in the biblical or even the cramming-for-midterm sense.
I know of them, of course. I know that they play in the National League, where the pitching is easy, the fish are jumping, and the cotton, if cotton in this case represents the likelihood of an announcer overpraising the double switch, is high. And I’m not the only writer to lose their way amongst the palms; Roger Angell once complained that the fans needed Vin Scully’s voice broadcast throughout the stadium to tell the fans what they were looking at. It’s a place where the fans are said to arrive in the sixth inning and leave in the fourth. It’s all too easy, I think, to confuse the languid weather of L.A. with the temperament of its paying audience.
You may or may not know how we do things: usually I extract some half-forgotten names of yore, mine the pathos of the franchise’s most recent struggles, make a few pithy comments, hit publish, and go off to bathe in handwashed one-dollar bills. This is still possible! Between 1972 and 2012, with the exception of 2005 and 2006 (when Frank McCourt, in an attempt at nostalgia, stripped the names from the backs of his players), Dodgers lore is filled with the busted prospects and transient former heroes we’ve all come to love.
There’s the hallowed number 25 worn by quadragenarian Rickey Henderson in his final season (so far), or the beginning of Frank Robinson’s exile in the desert. For the bitter thirtysomething, there’s the three-headed hydra of Jose Offerman, Karim Garcia and Billy Ashley. It’s a shame for the progressive fan that James Loney is gone, but all is not lost: there’s still Juan Uribe, and Brandon League is establishing himself as symbol for the team’s new Jazz Age. For the sophomoric at heart, there’s always Tim Belcher, Kevin Gross, and Don Aase. And no matter what else happens, there will always, always be a place for Pedro Guerrero. Somewhere.
But in order to wear one’s colors with pride, or in a manner that gently mocks the pride of the people around you, you have to understand what it means to be a local fan, to distill that spirit and draw out its unique essence through some kind of painfully metaphorical centrifuge. To do this, I consulted friend, colleague, and aspiring novella-ist Eric Nusbaum, who once summed up the nadir of the Dodgers experience through his inability to buy a Dodgers hat in Dodger Stadium. His conclusion: there are tensions with Anaheim, disappointment since 1988, and perhaps most of all, a decade of malsise during the McCourt era that perhaps proved more psychological than physiological.
The Dodgers are a strange team. They are, by any measure, a great franchise. They have fifty years of history on the West Coast, almost enough to heal the scars of separation from Brooklyn. They’ve had success on the field, with first or second place finishes in their division an amazing 26 of the past 41 seasons. They have championships, although it has been twenty-five years since their last. What jersey encapsulates this kind of fandom, the spirit of the fortunate, yet appreciative?
I think, in the end, there are a few. They’re names like Jerry Reuss and Burt Hooton and Tommy John, players who, like their team, lacked the spark of brilliance but who delievered consistent quality. Even Hershiser himself, apart from the 59.1 and the ring, falls into this same category. But among his peers, no other player encapsulates this feeling of pure comfort more than Don Sutton, that curly-haired demigod who promised only a pleasant afternoon and a close game. And how can any of us, Californian or no, ask for more than that?