The changing face of Dodgers fandom, from Brooklyn to Guggenheim
In the wake of the annual Dodgers FanFest, and the launch of a new initiative to reward fans for their use of social media, it is clear that the Dodgers Fan - of course an ever-changing beast - is experiencing a new transformation.
Under the ambitious Guggenheim ownership group, Dodgerdom is daring to dream big once again; brave enough to harbour the highest of hopes for a stellar roster in the forthcoming season. In the changeable drama of Dodgers loyalty, a new episode, enthralling and exciting, is being written.
In a simpler era, the Brooklyn Dodgers were the romantic's choice. Playing in their own ‘lyrical little bandbox’ of Ebbets Field, and tailoring a painful history of near-misses, the early Dodgers pulled at the heart strings. Their fans were loyal and eager to witness the Dodgers compete to the furthest degree against the crosstown Yankees and Giants in a golden epoch for New York baseball. They were imbued with the collective moniker of ‘Dem Bums,’ a twisted term of endearment from the loftier, scornful Manhattan. Those Dodgers, and those Dodgers fans, were considered lovable losers, toiling in anguish as the team came so close only to ultimately fail.
All of that changed in 1955 though, when Brooklyn broke out from the behemoth shadows of New York; the Dodgers of Campy and Jackie and Pee Wee and The Duke outlasting the Yankees in a Bronx game seven to claim the first ever world championship in club history. “WHO’S A BUM!” proclaimed the Daily News headline, and the Dodgers fan was forever changed. No longer was passionate investment born only of lengthy suffering, but also of yearning for reward and glory.
Nonetheless, pain was an intrinsic part of the Brooklyn Dodgers story. Those same fans who had revelled in Brooklyn’s epochal triumph over the Yankees seemed at once less obsessive. Branch Rickey became equally frustrated with plummeting attendances while failing to resist the luxurious lure of Los Angeles. With much anguish and protestation, the Dodgers were transplanted in 1958. Largely, the Brooklyn Dodger fan either became a cynic, a long-distance believer, or a Mets fan filled with a hollow yearning.
Born, however, was the Los Angeles Dodgers fan. The people of Los Angeles, indeed the West, were newly-ambitious, and hungry to be ushered into the baseball fraternity. As ‘baseball people,’ they grew and developed with the Los Angeles Dodgers into savvy, prosperous glory. Smashing all manner of attendance records, firstly at the gargantuan Coliseum, and then at the beautiful Chavez Ravine, the Los Angeles public was as fervent in its advocacy of baseball as any in the United States. Like the millions who flocked West, the Dodgers struck gold, with a hat-trick of further World Series championships arriving within the clubs first Los Angeles decade. Once perpetually tortured, Dodger fans were suddenly exultant.
It was a love affair which, unlike in Brooklyn, unfurled for decades. Three more pennants in the 1970s, cheered vociferously by ever-increasing crowds at the new ballpark, affirmed the growing bond between the club and its new supporters. During this time, a revival in the Dodger-Giants rivalry again helped to shape the competitive identity of Los Angelenos; winning, and winning now, over the Giants, became a top priority for this new sporting fan.
The excitement, determination and love of this newly-expanded Dodgerdom was encapsulated by the 1981 tide of ‘Fernandomania,’ which swooshed throughout vast swathes of the West. When young starlet Fernando Valenzuela, corpulent and fuzzy, was handed the ball on Opening Day, expectations were fairly lukewarm. Over a long, unwinding summer of sun and celebration, Valenzuela, flamboyant in delivery and demeanor, produced some of the most scintillating pitching the Dodger fans had ever seen. The Latino community of Los Angeles was newly-mobilised in support of the Dodgers, as the craze enveloping the magical Mexican grew ever more. Throwing shutouts as matter of routine, and dominating the National League with an apparent ease, this definitive icon won both the Cy Young Award and Rookie of the Year. As the Dodgers won a fourth world championship in Los Angeles, Fernando Valenzuela opened up the fandom to wider expanses than ever before.
By the time Kirk Gibson, hobbled and hamstrung, crawled up to the bat seven years later in Game One of the 1988 World Series, there was a second generation of Los Angeles Dodgers fans. In the Pavillion that night, kids who had only ever known the Dodgers as of Los Angels looked on in awe as the ball, propelled by Gibby’s one-handed lunge, soared toward them. That poignant, mesmeric moment, and the subsequent world championship, was a further landmark in the progression of the Dodgers fan. Now, the fans felt like the team was finally theirs; historical moments, under the enigmatic control of Tommy Lasorda and his workmanlike roster of fighters, serving to legitimise the Dodgers move West, in some sense. The Dodgers felt like they belonged. Dodgers fans felt like they were rightful stewards to this national institution.
Such is the capriciousness of baseball, the Dodgers did not win a further postseason game for 16 years. The 1990s were a relative wilderness for the Dodgers, and the fans struggled with finding the correct reaction. Since the teams arrival, such elongated droughts had been extremely rare, and many fans were yet to meet with the true heartache which so very defined their Brooklyn ancestors.
As an accent was placed on the youthful upbringing of future stars such as Piazza and Karros, the Dodgers struggled in the standings. During this time, the common misconceptions of the modern Dodgers fan were formed; detractors arguing that LA fans arrived late, remained passive during the game, and left early. However, such assertions are only the description of a changing baseball demographic, and a changing scope of modernity. No longer was baseball the central nexus of daily life; it was a pleasure mixed with the daily hyperactive grind of business, family and a growing appetite for technology. In this regard, Dodgers fans were not unlike any in the game.
Attendances waned at Dodger Stadium during the final embers of Frank McCourt's ownership, with many becoming alienated by his routine neglect of the ballclub. The arrival of Manny Ramirez represented a rod of dynamite to the Dodgers' pool of fans, as a mini-renaissance of hysterical excitement was felt. Ultimately, however, even that ended in tears. It was impossible to escape the fact that the Dodgers, and their fans, needed a new vision, a new guide, a new sense of impetus to rekindle the bygone glories so enjoyed.
Magic Johnson, spearheading the Guggenheim group, fulfilled all of the aforementioned criteria. With the planned upgrades to Chavez Ravine, the adventurous spending in assembling a star-studded roster, and a keen sense of uniting fans and ballclub again as one, the Guggenheim group has ushered in yet another new phase in the varied historical life of Dodgers fans.