LOS ANGELES – They pushed open the doors and the people came, dutifully.
Side-view mirror to side-view mirror they parked. Shoulder to shoulder they strode. Wallet to wallet they shopped.
On a spring afternoon as cool as the diction in a marital separation agreement, they filled Dodger Stadium for the opening of another baseball season, the 49th for the old, blue girl on top of the hill.
They came to get their first live look at the twice-defending National League West champions, both of those teams playing through to the postseason semis. They took their places in Mannywood. They waved at Matt Kemp(notes). They swooned over Clayton Kershaw(notes), the 22-year-old lefty they swear reminds them of the great Koufax.
A day after Target Field debuted in Minneapolis, a year to the day since Citi Field, 362 days since Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium, on a sunny afternoon, palm fronds swaying 50 feet in the air, Vin Scully’s play-by-play echoing in slender concourses, stood in against any of them.
Even as they cheapen her with new and gaudy revenue adornments, along with a section named for a man suspended a year ago for a league drug violation, Dodger Stadium remains stubbornly proud, iconic and timeless.
And, yet, even as the organization regained traction after two decades of baseball puff, it sometimes seems one of the few sturdy elements of the Los Angeles Dodgers anymore is their ballpark.
Blessed with high-end talent borne of previous regimes, willful fans borne of previous generations and a creative general manager who might soon start running out of ideas, the Dodgers may continue to win in the short term, but also find themselves at a moment as critical to their long-term well-being as any since the O’Malleys got out, and perhaps since patriarch Walter chose to abandon Brooklyn.
Operating in the sport’s second-largest market, their payroll – unlike their attendance – is in steady decline. Having posted the NL’s best ERA for two years running, so is their pitching staff. Based on an admittedly small sample size – and yet seven games is the only sample that exists – the Dodgers, waiting on relievers Ronald Belisario(notes) and Hong-Chih Kuo(notes), have less in the rotation and the bullpen than they did in either of their NLCS seasons.
In 2010, the question is not if they will need more pitching and more offensive punch, but when? And the follow-up: How does the ongoing and unsightly divorce of Frank and Jamie McCourt play? The Dodgers will believe in Vicente Padilla(notes) somewhere near the top of their rotation – he started Game 1 of the NLCS and the season opener – and Charlie Haeger(notes) somewhere near the back. They’ll give the ball to the well-worn Ortiz boys – Ramon and Russ – and try to trust that, too.
Meantime, out of disinterest or bottom line, they'll pass on the big free agents (John Lackey(notes)), pass on their own free agents (Randy Wolf(notes)), pass on the middle-of-the-road free agents (Joel Pineiro(notes)), and pass on the continuing free agents (Jarrod Washburn(notes)). And if even a small part of the cause is budget driven (and there’s a growing suspicion it’s a large part), they couldn’t be a player when Roy Halladay(notes) is traded to Philadelphia, or when Cliff Lee(notes) is traded to Seattle, because if there isn’t money this season or next or the next after that, then prospects is all they have. It’ll be a concern in July, too, when the contenders separate themselves and begin the process of picking over the early casualties. The Dodgers will choose their place in it, or the season will choose it for them.
It is one thing to risk depth and gamble on unproven talent and plan for tomorrow in Cleveland. It’s another to pull it off in L.A., where the payroll ranks 11th among the 30 teams and second in a five-team division. Fortunately for Frank McCourt, there might be enough here to carry the club for a few months, maybe longer. And the people will show up to watch what happens, whatever happens. But, there is uneasiness among the customers. A headline in Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times announced that Jamie McCourt, according to one of her lawyers, would not be attending that afternoon’s game. That news walked into the first pitch of the home opener, not the fact that the Dodgers will play to become the first team in their history to go to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. And then Frank McCourt took his seat in the owner’s box, not far from his own lawyer.
That’s life in L.A. some days, measuring a division-winning core against its flawed parts and the folks who run the joint. The Dodgers outslugged the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday, 9-5. They outslugged Kershaw’s control entanglements, and a bullpen that gave the Diamondbacks hope, and perhaps their own fears there might never be enough runs.
Afterward, manager Joe Torre, who has no misconceptions that his hitters might carry them all out of the division, had few answers.
“The thing we need to get straightened out is how to get to [closer Jonathan] Broxton,” he said. “It’s a concern at this point in time.”
As far as whether the nastiness between his owner and his former team president might have an influence on that, Torre said, “That’s not our business. The only thing I’ve said to this club is you do what you can control. That’s to win ballgames.”
At the end of the day, maybe the season, it might be all they have. That and the ballpark.