From the promontory of Chavez Ravine, the City of Angels sprawls at night beneath Dodger Stadium in all directions like an encircling diadem of quilted colored lights.
The rubies and emeralds of traffic blinkers, the neon diamonds of a thousand midnight burger joints creat a twinkling crown around the Dodgers' blue fortress.
Like sparkling moonlit surf, the great prosaic city laps at the foot of this royal baseball palace on a hill. Only the Dodgers have a city of millions as a blackdrop prop for their ballpark.
Here, the mundane daily ritual of baseball has been made to seem, because of setting and ceremony, a glamorous and almost exotic event.
Chavez Ravine is not a ballpark, nor the Dodgers simply a ball team. If they were, this franchise could not have drawn more than 9 million fans in the last three years -- nearly 38,000 a game -- for the three highest season attendance marks in the history of the sport.
You don't sell 22,000 season tickets, as the Dodgers have this year, nor net $20 million a season after expenses , just by hitting the cutoff man. There must be much, much more.
With its light towers blazing, Dodger Stadium seems to say to the city below it, "Shouldn't you be here?"
For years, the Dodgers have worked on the homely, brush-splotched gullies and gulches of the Ravine as profitably as if home plate were located above an oil shelf. Each year, the folks in this frugal, zero-base budgeted Taj Mahal learned to squeeze ever more nickels from the marketing of a mass-appeal myth.
Since men seldom tire of counting money, even after their pockets are full, the Dodger front-office family developed a pleasant obsession with trying to discover the absolute limits of fan fanaticism and fiscal profit in the never-never land of Southern California.
For them, the 22 years of Dodger history A.B. (after Brooklyn) is divided into four eras.
From 1958 through '61, before Chavez was built, Dodger attendance averaged just under 2 million. In the first five years of Dodger Stadium from '62 to '66, with three world champion teams, L.A. averaged just over 2.5 million a season. Baseball never had seen anything like it. In nearly a century, only one team in one season (Cleveland in '48) had ever drawn more than 2.4 million.
If the first era was a sort of norm, and the second period was the best of all worlds, then the third era -- '67 to '73 -- was thought to be the pits, with attendance falling to a seven-year average of 1.8 million as the club won nothing.
Baseball assumed that the Dodgers, rich as they were and always would be, had peaked.
No one had foreseen baseball's boom -- both nationwide in general, and in Los Angeles in particular.
Over the last six years, thanks to three World Series teams, the Dodgers have drawn 2.8 million fans a year -- a jump of almost a million a year from the previous era.
In fact, the '78 season was almost enough to make the Dodger Blue brass hallucinate on its milk and apple pie as attendance hit an all-time record of 3,347,845.
This was enough to make a millionaire break out in hives. What might the absolute limit be?
If marketing, promoting, mediablitzing, advertising, novelty and souvenir-selling, and community-relations-stroking could make it so, the Dodgers would be darned if they wouldn't shoot for 81 sellouts.
And that's how matters stood one year ago, when, suddenly, the foundations of this unprecedented sports empire began to shake, sending tremors of worry throughout The Organization.
The Dodgers had provided for every off-field eventuality with a bulging front office that not only included the normal vice presidents but was awash in novel executives with such titles as director of Dodgertown, director of the Dodger network, director of speakers bureau, director of novelties and souvenirs, and the executive pilot of the Dodger 720-B fanjet.
Manager Tommy Lasorda was not an aberration -- with his talk of bleeding Dodger Blue, having the Dodger schedule carved on his tombstone so passers-by can see when they're at home and even calling on The Big Dodger in the Sky.
Within the Dodger offices, such Corporation Think had long been approved.
Lasorda, in his friendly, guileless way, was just the first to take the company-man cocktail-party chatter to its logical conclusion and thereby reduce it to absurdity. It was a natural mistake since the Dodgers have done everything in their power to encourage a generation of trend-gobbling Southern Californians to mistake their team uniform for a world view.
No matter how slick the come-on, no matter how beautiful the ballpark, no matter how advanced the selling techniques, no matter how mellifluous the glib yet insightful announcing of ubiquitous Vin Scully, the whole shebang begins to totter if the team with the blue script on its chest begins to lose.
And last year, after being National League champions two years in a row, the Dodgers lost -- often, early and abjectly.
After struggling with injuries and complacency for two months (26-26), the Dodgers picked the first day of June to start the worst swoon in their Los Angeles history, losing 31 of their next 41 games. By the All-Star break they were certifiably dead (36-57).
"I've never seen such a rash of injuries," says Lasorda, telling the truth, but also doing his job by puting the best face on an ugly scene.
"We had our heart cut out early," says Steve Garvey.
"We were not a team that reacted well to losing," says a Dodger executive. "Perhaps we were a little spoiled, a little complacent, a bit prone to pointing fingers and placing blame."
An example was then-captain Dave Lopes who was miffed at what he thought was a double standard when shortstop Bill Russell signed a renegotiated contract in midseason, a deal Lopes didn't have. So, for a month, the two-time stolen base champ stopped trying to steal bases.
"A lot of people inside the organization noticed and a lot of people were annoyed," said the Dodger official. "It was typical of the sort of problems that had to be aired out."
And, around the All-Star break, that airing, hosing down and old-fashioned butt-kicking took place as the word was passed from on high that anybody and everybody was replaceable. The Dodger gravy train stops when it gets to last place. And that's where the Dodgers were.
"Everything changes when you lose," recalls third baseman Ron Cey. "The same steak that tasted so good when you were winning now looks a little bit too well done and you start complaining, forgetting that what you're eating is still steak.
"Everything finally got aired out and after the All-Star break we had the second best record in the league (.623).
"Some things about how negotiations were handled bothered me last year. A 'stop' sign for one guy and 'go' for another." says Lopes. "But you have to forget those things and play. With me, they're forgotten . . .
"I don't care to leave the Dodgers."
When a giant taps his foot, it feels like an earthquake to the ants. So, when Dodger President Peter O'Malley, who is on the board of directors of the Bank of America and Union Oil, scowled, the message spread quickly to the troops: the Dodger organization will go on, but some individuals may not go on with it.
"We have had a lot of face changes," says Cey, looking around the clubhouse.
"We are definitely a different club this year," says Lopes. "We are young, anxious, impatient and aggressive."
Lasorda, who had begun to suffer from the paunch of contentment, still celebrates a victory with a helping of linguini with clams, but he now also pitches batting practice and has lost the medicine ball that he was smuggling around under his shirt last season.
"I don't care what business you're in, when things start going wrong, people start picking and looking for things to blame it on," says Lasorda. "A smart man eliminates those things that make easy targets, even if he doesn't think they are the real reasons."
The swiftness with which the Dodgers have gone from a losing team (79-83 in '79) back to first place (21-13), is a testament to both their financial and organizational clout.
This weekend, they swept a three-game series from the world champion Pittsburgh Pirates, the most recent sign that, as Cey says, "We plan to make a lot of noise again."
Some teams rebound from hard times by building a powerful and deep farm system whose harvest they reap when needed. Other teams bounce back by spending $5 million on free agents in a week.
The Dodgers do both.
Superficially, the Dodgers look the same in the box score. One of the longest-running infields in major league history -- Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey, now in its eighth year -- still is intact. Steve Yeager still catches, and Reggie Smith and Dusty Baker still roam the outfield.
It's an illusion. The Dodgers have 10 new players -- seven kids and three free agents -- who either weren't with the club last year, or only became visible in the late rush to respectability.
Instead of 15 stars and 10 bit-players -- the Lasorda formula that worked so well in '77-'78 -- the Dodgers are now a bit older, less intimidating in their front line (especially in pitching) but much more a total team.
One rookie, Rudy Law, already has booted a Dodger fixture -- injured Rick Monday -- onto the bench, perhaps -- permanently. The Law Man, who has spread disorder with his 15 steals in 16 attempts, is a center fielder in the Willie Davis mold.
Another rook, Mike Scioscia (Sohshuh) appears to be the catcher of the future.He looked so good, before bouncing back to the minors, that even Lopes said, "It was very debatable sending him back down."
"If I was as slow as people give me credit for, I couldn't walk," says the sly Scioscia. "They've got a stopwatch on everything nowadays. One of my strengths is that I get the gear on in 3.8 seconds."
Cey also gets to look over his shoulder and see strapping young Mickey Hatcher, who hit .371 in AAA last year and is batting .417 now as a part-timer.
The Dodgers thought that publicized free agents Dave Goltz and Don Stanhouse would correct their poor pitching of '79 (seventh in ERA). Instead, they have been helped more by a trio of baby-faced relievers -- Joe Beckwith, Steve Howe and Babo Castillo -- who have pitched in 32 games already with an ERA of 2.96.
Los Angeles knows that it is a team that could get old in a hurry, since 15 current Dodgers are over 30. Also, 16 Dodgers have contracts that run through '81, at the least, which means the franchise could be burdened eventually with considerably dead weight.
However, the elegant blueclads have had almost as much good luck this year as they had misfortune last spring.
Last fall, three losing Dodger hurlers had "Culprit" hung around their necks: Jerry Reuss (7-14), Don Sutton (12-15) and now reformed alcoholic Bob Welch (5-6). All were eminently tradeable, had anybody wanted them. Sutton, for instance, would have become a Yankee, but New York wouldn't give up a rookie who had never won a big league game for him. Last weekend, that damaged goods trio got the three starting assignments against the mighty Pirates. All three won, running their combined record for 1980 to 11-1. Once again, the best trades were those that were left unmade.
Like a gorilla with a machine gun, the Dodger franchise doesn't really need good luck. All it requires for victory is the absence of catastrophe.
For this reason, the Dodgers are surrounded by considerable jealousy and ill-will.
As L.A. was beating the Chicago Cubs by two runs last week, many in the Dodger crowd of 32,000 left early, assuming their heroes could never lose such a "huge" lead to such a poor, humble bunch.
As the throng dwindled, until perhaps only 10,000 were left for the last batter, a Cub front-office official became more and more annoyed, muttering imprecations against everything blue or associated with the Dodgers.
"This franchise has so much money it can't figure out what to do with it," muttered the Cub man who operates on the shoestring. "Look at these dumb fans leaving to beat the traffic. I'd love to come back and beat these phoneys in an empty park."
That will be the day.
In the true tradition of "them-that-has-gets," the Dodgers know the answer to the question that those without money continually ask of those who have a great deal of it: "What can you buy with another $100 million that you can't buy with what you already have?"
The answer in baseball, as elsewhere, is: "The future."
Dodger Stadium is a blue palace on a hill, a place of clean colors, sharply defined heroes. It stands outlined against the night sky, just as it has for 18 years, beckoning to the city below with muffled roars that roll down the gorges like thunder.
Only one thing is different. Above the left field bleachers, a huge lattice-work of scaffolding creates a terrible eyesore. How can the Dodgers allow such a thing.?
Never fear, it is just baseball's best organization buying a bit of the future on the installment plan. The Dodgers have discovered that the Japanese have invented a new high-resolution, infinite-flexibilty, TV-quality color scoreboard that makes everything before it look like a chalk blackboard.
The Dodgers, for a few million dollars have bought what amounts to an 825-square-foot television set to place atop Chavez Ravine.
It is situated so that you will have to buy a ticket to see it.