It seems like only yesterday.
Actually, it was July 17, 1955 -- 56 years ago this week. A Sunday daytime doubleheader at Ebbets Field pitting my Brooklyn Dodgers against the Cincinnati Redlegs. For a bug-eyed, eight-year-old with a complete set of Topps Dodgers baseball cards, this was Baseball Heaven.
We sat in the center field grandstands. Dodgers' center fielder Duke Snider tossed me a baseball which years later was autographed by the Hall of Famer. Legendary circus tramp clown Emmett Kelly, Jr. (aka Weary Willie), with his trademark sad face paint, hilariously dusted off home plate and mocked the umpire to the amusement of the capacity crowd of 32,000.
The Dodgers swept the doubleheader on their way to winning their first World Series championship later that season. The roster featured the Immortals: The Duke of Flatbush, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Junior Gilliam, Don Newcombe, Carl Furillo, Don Zimmer, and even Tommy Lasorda. They were the famed Boys of Summer, the perennial losers forever sulking in the shadow of the immortal New York Yankees for whom all my friends rooted but I hated.
But this was my Dodgers time, their season, to win 98 games, a National League title, and the World Series crown beating the powerhouse Bronx Bombers in seven memorable games. Only years later, when I read Roger Kahn's account of the 1955 Boys of Summer, did I comprehend the reason for my lifetime affection for Dem Bums. "You may glory in a team triumphant," he famously wrote, "but you fall in love with a team in defeat." If you were a Dodgers fan, you congenitally rooted for underdogs.
As my summer boyhood passed into high school, college and law school, and parenthood, I religiously followed the Dodgers. They broke our hearts in 1957 when owner Walter O'Malley succumbed to the siren song of Los Angeles, but I remained loyal. Indeed, in 1978, I followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles where I had the thrill of watching my team win their fifth and sixth World Series in the 1980s.
Then the drought set in. The Dodgers have not won, or appeared in, another World Series for the last 22 seasons. Seven managers and three owners have tested the fans' loyalty, but we have remained true blue.
Frank McCourt, the latest Dodger owner, has run the team into the ground. Starving the team for quality pitchers and a 21st century stadium, the Boston parking lot mogul, and his wife have siphoned off over $100 million to sustain their lavish lifestyle. The net result of this insouciant contempt for the fans of this storied franchise is the most dangerous ballpark in baseball, a solid contender for last place in the standings, and imposition of an overseer by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig followed by a mortifying bankruptcy precipitated by gross mismanagement, massive debt, and inability to meet the payroll.
We fans have expressed our outrage by staying home and tuning out. I gave up my season tickets years ago, and my kids and I have attended only one game compared to at least five by the mid-season in the past. We are not alone. This year's attendance has declined an average of 7,161 empty seats per game -- the worst decline in baseball -- and Fox Sports Prime Ticket has suffered a 10% drop in television ratings.
Unless you are one of McCourt's legions of lawyers, accountants, and publicists, you know that the only way to turn around this death spiral is new ownership. New ownership, however, is no panacea. The last thing the Dodgers need is another Rupert Murdoch, Frank McCourt, or some other purely bottom-line-oriented corporate owners or leveraged-to-the hilt speculators who know nothing, and care little, about baseball. What the Dodgers deserve is public ownership.
Former MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth has aptly observed that "baseball is a public trust," and a team like the Dodgers "belongs to the fans." Well, in that case, let's sell them to the public in a stock offering to millions of fans. The allotment would sell out in a nanosecond, raising more than enough capital to buy out McCourt and resuscitate a moribund franchise. With public ownership, the team would be managed by experienced baseball professionals and guided by a board of directors of impeccable integrity with community representatives and pillars of the sports and financial sectors.
The sole precedent for public ownership of American professional sports teams boasts of an impressive tradition of excellence superior to the rest of its competitors owned by a single family or small group of owners. The Green Bay Packers are the most winning NFL franchise with 13 league champions. With transparent public financial reporting to its shareholders and a massive cash reserve of $127.5 million, the "non-profit" Packers have a track record of sustained earnings that is the envy of other debt-ridden, overly leveraged NFL teams.
Fan ownership will not guarantee success on the diamond. But capacity crowds wearing Dodger blue in a new stadium is a virtual certainty. Then, once again, the Los Angels Dodgers, like their Brooklyn forebears, will enthrall a new generation of eight-year-old boys (and girls) of summer.
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