Sports views: Different Dodgers are good Dodgers, as long as they win

Posted: Sunday, May 01, 2005

Fleece Blanket Night at Dodger Stadium sure seemed like a good idea. Some 54,387 fans turned out earlier this week, lured by a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks and the promise of a Dodger blue blanket celebrating past World Series championships.

Sure, the blankets celebrated titles in 1962 and 1966, years the Dodgers didn't win. But at least they were warm.

The Dodgers passed them out anyway, along with a voucher for a new blanket with the corrected years of 1963 and 1965. Some of the originals, meanwhile, are already on sale on eBay.

The blankets aren't the only thing Frank McCourt has been accused of botching since buying the Dodgers in a highly leveraged deal before last season.

The new owner upset holders of once prime seats by cramming new rows onto the field in front of them, letting go a popular radio announcer (no, not Vin Scully) and replacing images of Dodger icons such as Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale on the outfield walls with ads.

Much of last year's feel-good team is no longer around, it's hard to recognize the new guys without programs because names have been taken off their uniforms, and some of the beautiful people in the pricey new seats next to the field can't see home plate.

Even the new selection of food was trashed in the Los Angeles Times this week by a writer who pointed out — correctly, of course — that Chinese food and baseball aren't exactly a proper mix.

True Dodger fans should be aghast by now. They should, but something else is happening in Chavez Ravine that has their attention.

Amazingly, amid the changes and chaos, the Dodgers are winning.

Though the team has slumped in the past week, the Dodgers surprised even themselves by getting off to the best start in the majors this year, winning 12 of their first 14 games. That they did it with closer Eric Gagne on the disabled list and by coming back with late-inning rallies made it even sweeter.

Fans who began the season upset by the trade of Shawn Green to Arizona and the way Adrian Beltre was allowed to leave didn't take long to warm to this new collection of talent, even if they had trouble figuring out who the players were.

Always a good draw, the Dodgers are doing even better this year. Going into the weekend, the team is averaging nearly 50,000 fans a home game, up about 20 percent from a year earlier.

McCourt might be the owner, but the architect of this team is a baby-faced general manager schooled in the ways of baseball first in Cleveland and then with ''Money Ball'' in Oakland.

Paul DePodesta could be excused for smugly saying, ''I told you so'' to those who protested his dismantling of the first Dodger team to win a playoff game in 16 years. He's not, though, even as some of his seemingly questionable moves seem to be paying off.

''Everyone wants to get out of the gate well, so that certainly puts a sense of importance on the games early on,'' DePodesta said. ''But I don't necessarily feel anything above and beyond that. I had a lot of confidence in these guys. It's been easy to be proud of them.''

Indeed, Jeff Kent has been everything the Dodgers thought he would be and more, while fellow free agent J.D. Drew has come to life after beginning the season hitless in his first 25 at bats. Derek Lowe has pitched well at times, Brad Penny may become the ace of the staff and catcher Jason Phillips has beefed up a position at which the Dodgers were sorely weak.

Only three players from the nine that started last year's lone playoff game win over the Cardinals remain, but one of them, Cesar Izturis, may be blossoming into the best shortstop in the league.

Still, the wholesale changes were hard to swallow for a team that only had one manager its first 19 years in Los Angeles.

For decades, the Dodgers won enough to keep things interesting, the upper deck seats behind home plate were some of the best deals in baseball and the sound of the stadium's organ always announced the arrival of another season.

In the stands, people munched on cold Dodger Dogs, listened to Scully on portable radios and left by the eighth inning to beat traffic.

Scully is 77 now, and still seems as fresh as the day he began broadcasting for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950, though the team made a mistake by letting fellow announcer Ross Porter go after last season. Fans are still leaving early, but the early season comebacks are now making them think twice about staying.

It's too early to declare these Dodgers a playoff contender, but the signs are encouraging. DePodesta has assembled a team he feels can be competitive, and says he isn't averse to adding more salary to a payroll in the low $90 million range during the season if need be.

In a time of flux not seen by the Dodger organization since Walter O'Malley uprooted the team from Brooklyn nearly a half-century ago, simply winning again might be the best change yet for these Dodgers.

That, and perhaps warming up the Dodger Dogs.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org



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