Thursday, December 19, 2013

It's Time For Dodger Baseball

Being a sports fan living in Los Angeles definitely has its perks. This is especially true if, like myself, you grew up rooting for the LA teams, and dreamt of spending every day going to Lakers, Dodgers, and, Kings games, and somehow getting paid to do it (is there such a thing as a professional fan?). My apartment is quite literally right down the street from Staples Center, and a mere seven miles away from Dodger Stadium. Life doesn't get much sweeter than that.

Being an LA sports fan also has its perks. Los Angeles is the 2nd largest media market behind New York, and the team ownerships have the money and power to reflect that significant sphere of influence. Generally, LA fields respectable teams at the very least, and these squads are always seen as marquee opponents. In 2011, however, the LA Dodgers were trapped in a great deal of financial uncertainty that just did not make any sense. Amazingly, the Dodgers filed for bankruptcy on June 27, 2011, and sought numerous huge loans to continue its daily operations. More on this strange turn of events can be found here and here. The Sparknotes version:
  • January 29, 2004 - Frank McCourt buys the Los Angeles Dodgers. Most of the money is borrowed as debt, and McCourt uses very little of his actual money.
  • October 14, 2009 - The McCourts announce their separation
  • April 5, 2011 - Fox provides the Dodgers with a $30 million loan to cover the payroll
  • June 20, 2011 - The MLB declined to approve a $3 billion Fox Sports Net TV deal for the Dodgers
  • June 27, 2011 - The Dodgers file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and seek a $150 million hedge fund loan
  • October 17, 2011 - Frank McCourt is ordered to pay $130 million to Jamie McCourt as part of the divorce settlement
  • Long story short, McCourt bought the Dodgers with mostly borrowed money. McCourt and his wife began to exorbitantly spend money on homes, luxury items, vacations, etc. once the Dodgers were his. Once the divorce proceedings began, the Dodgers began to spend conservatively and were mired in mediocrity. The team was in a state of turmoil, and the divorce settlement was thought to be the largest in California history. McCourt refused to sell the team throughout this ordeal.

During this time, the Dodgers made virtually no player transactions, something that does not generally (read: never) sit well with a fan base that knows how profitable a sports team in LA should be. McCourt stopped signing off on free agent signings (bye, Hiroki Kuroda). If it weren't for his incredible regular season and runner-up finish to admitted cheater Ryan Braun in the NL MVP voting, Matt Kemp probably would not have received the contract extension he so desperately deserved. 

And then, something wonderful happened. On May 1, 2012, the Dodgers were officially sold to the Guggenheim Baseball Management Group, a collective that included LA demigod Earvin Magic Johnson. Finally, the Dodgers were released from the torturous grasp of sleazeball Frank McCourt, and a huge sense of relief and optimism replaced the anger and frustration that Dodger fans had been suffering from. 

Hands in to save Dodger baseball, woo!

From the outset, the Guggenheim Group wasted no time cleaning up the mess that McCourt had made. They have spent nine-figures (and counting) on stadium renovations, improved parking, revamped concessions, and more. They shelled out top dollar on contract extensions (Andre Ethier, Clayton Kershaw upcoming), took on large salary from trades (Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Hanley Ramirez), and signed free agents/internationals (Zack Greinke, Brian Wilson, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Yasiel Puig). The Guggenheim Group showed a commitment to winning since Day 1, and the culture of the Dodgers has shifted tremendously.

In 2013, the Dodgers got off to a horrible start. A loss to the San Diego Padres on June 21st dropped the Dodgers to 30-42, 12 games below .500 and seemingly dead in the water. There was not much to be hopeful for, and it seemed as if the season was going to be a high-priced bust. The MLB-record $239 million opening-day payroll was not enough to field a team that won more games than it lost. Injuries and inconsistency plagued the team. 

But by some divine miracle, the Dodgers began to turn the season around. Yasiel Puig turned into a rookie sensation who brought a Hollywood flair to the Dodgers that had been nonexistent for quite some time. Hanley Ramirez came back from injury and played like a man possessed for the last three months of the season. Clayton Kershaw continued his reign as the best pitcher in baseball, while Zack Greinke began to pitch like the $147 million man the Dodgers management had envisioned when they signed him in the offseason. The bullpen, spearheaded by Kenley Jansen, became virtually unhittable. Steadily consistent contributions from veterans Adrian Gonzalez, Juan Uribe, and Nick Punto helped to right the ship, as well.

In the blink of an eye, the Dodgers went from 30-42 to a season-ending record of 92-70, finishing a remarkable 62-28. It was a season turnaround of epic proportions, an unprecedented, record-breaking comeback. After a tidy four-game NLDS victory over the Atlanta Braves (capped off by a ridiculous go-ahead, two-run home run by Juan Uribe that screamed Team of Destiny), the Dodgers found themselves in an NLCS dogfight with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Thank goodness Juan Uribe can't lay down a sac bunt.
(3). Dodgers v. Cardinals, Game 5 NLCS

When I woke up on October 16th, I didn't think that I would be going to the Dodgers playoff game. It was an afternoon game, and even the nosebleed seats were being resold at ridiculous prices. The Dodgers were trailing the series 1-3, and, as much as I didn't want to believe it, this was potentially the final home game of the Dodgers' magical (or Magic-al) season.

However, when the right opportunity presented itself, I had to take it. Somehow, two tickets behind the Cardinals dugout fell into my lap, and I snatched them up immediately. These seats normally would probably go for a couple thousand dollars, especially in the postseason, and even more especially in the potential final game at Dodger Stadium in 2013. Luckily, I got ahold of them and decided to take full advantage. My roommate Yifan and I excitedly headed out to Chavez Ravine. 

Once there, we navigated a secret pathway underneath the stadium and found ourselves in the Lexus Dugout Club. Basically, this otherworldly area was a luxurious paradise with a buffet fit for a king. The prime rib roast was carved out continuously, the Dodger Dogs were infinitely replenished, and the dessert bar would make Willy Wonka himself blush. We stacked our plates high and took the food to our seats, which weren't too bad either.

Un. Real.
It was such an impeccably lovely afternoon for baseball. The clouds had vanished, the sun was shining, and the Dodgers were playing their hearts out. Zack Greinke was pitching out of his mind, and I had counted only two mistakes from him the entire game, which led to two Cardinals runs. The crowd was understandably anxious after St. Louis tied it up at 2-2 in the third inning. The Cardinals' pitching had been outstanding all series, and the Dodgers bats had gone missing.

With one swing, that anxiety vanished, and Dodger Stadium erupted in hysterical excitement.

On a 2-1 pitch, Adrian Gonzalez blasted the Dodgers' first home run of the series, and the stadium roared louder than I had ever heard. Gonzalez was the steadying force for the Dodgers the entire season, so it was only fitting that he provided the much-needed spark in this game. Behind the performances of Puig, Ramirez, Kershaw, and Greinke, Gonzalez was left overlooked and underappreciated by the Dodger faithful for much of the year. Who knows where the Dodgers would have been without him.

Once Gonzo uncorked the pressure-filled bottle in Dodger Stadium, the bats came alive. Carl Crawford and AJ Ellis unloaded solo home runs of their own, before Gonzalez topped the game off with another solo shot. Each home run was met with delirious jubilation.

The Dodgers won the game 6-4, forcing a Game 6 and leaving Dodger fans with a grand victory. A chance to be in the NLCS was virtually unthinkable in June, but it was reality. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something even the most die-hard of Dodgers fans dreams about. I even got to celebrate this win with physician and actor Ken Jeong, and was lucky enough to have a conversation with the legendary reporter and fashionista Craig Sager, who shared so much insightful advice on sports journalism and what it takes to break into this business. To quote fellow Dodgers fan Ice Cube, it was a good day. 

It is an exciting time for Dodger fans. With a new ownership committed to winning and taking care of its fans, there is plenty to be hopeful for. The Dodgers have not won the World Series since 1988, a drought that has spanned my entire time on Earth. However, it is not difficult to believe that this could change very soon. 

The time is now for Dodger baseball.

No comments:

Post a Comment