Long before the opening of the National League playoffs Wednesday night, six lines of cars will stretch, as usual, far down the hill from the main gate of Dodger Stadium waiting to enter the palm-dotted parking lot and be ushered into the presence of what may be the most financially successful team in the history of human amusements.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, once more champions of the NL West, this year again have passed the 3 million home attendance mark. Their regular season total of 3,264,593 marks the sixth time they have reached that milestone, a record no other U.S. team in any sport has achieved.
The Dodgers have beaten every other major league team in attendance eight years straight. In 1982, they set the major league record, 3,608,881, an average of 44,554 a game. Their gross income last year was more than $42 million, the highest in baseball. They have their own Spanish-language broadcasting network and their own training camp that doubles as a resort. They reportedly have the highest paid (and longest tenured) manager, highest paid general manager and highest paid broadcaster in the game.
A generation ago, the Dodgers were the lovable street kids of baseball, the Brooklyn Bums who played with infectious abandon, even if they had only one World Series title (1955) to their name. Since coming to Los Angeles in 1959, they have metamorphosed into something quite different, an enormous success both at the turnstile and on the field.
Roger G. Noll, the Stanford economist retained to examine the financial status of all the major league teams during the player contract negotiations, kept searching in his report for the most vivid way to sum up the Dodgers: "Baseball's answer to the Denver mint"; "probably the most successful sports franchise that has ever been fielded"; "a few teams make a lot of money in any given year -- usually the Dodgers plus whoever wins a pennant."
Outside Los Angeles, they no longer seem to inspire the fondness that surrounded the Brooklyn team. In part, that may be because they have won many more titles since they came here -- eight pennants and four World Series in 25 years. That also may be because Dodgers officialdom has turned a scornful ear on those who ragged them during their low points, ignored those who suggested that all this fame and wealth might be because of luck rather than the ballyhooed "Dodger Way to Play Baseball."
"Last year, when we were struggling, there were a lot of people talking about 'The Boys of Slumber,' 'The Dodgers falling apart,' " said Fred Claire, the team's executive vice president. "Yet, we recognized that our system was a proven system. We had confidence in our people and our judgment."
The key to it all, Claire and others acknowledge, was the late Walter O'Malley's historic move to southern California. Los Angeles' good weather and enormous population turned what might otherwise have been a tidy little success into a financial juggernaut.
Huge markets provide the dollars that help build and sustain excellence on the field, resulting in bigger crowds and even more dollars. Even a baseball team with more modest on-field success than the Dodgers can reap some of the same rewards. The California Angels, enjoying the same weather and much of the same population base in Anaheim 35 miles away, drew 2.8 million fans in 1982 and more than 2.5 million in 1983, leading all other American League teams both years.
But there is something more happening here than sunshine and endless subdivisions. As Noll notes in his report, the Dodgers have turned themselves into a modern-day money machine while preserving a corporate structure that has become nearly as old-fashioned and rare as a 50-cent hot dog.
Under the modern tax code, baseball teams have become treasure troves of write-offs, depreciation and other accountants' delights. The businessmen best equipped to use such devices are those who already own other substantial businesses and need cheap advertising and some place to hide their money.
Purists might lament the demise of the team owned by one or a few people as their principal business activity, Noll said, yet "the world has changed in ways that make it economically unviable except in rare circumstances," like the Dodgers.
The Dodgers' old-fashioned corporate structure produces one more throwback, an item of much discussion among ballplayers and in the letters column of the Los Angeles Times sports section. If you are among the small group of Dodgers employes privileged to wear the bright white and Dodger blue uniform, you probably are not being paid as much as your counterpart on the visiting team.
According to Noll's figures, the Dodgers paid more than $4.4 million in salaries and benefits to front-office staff, "about four times the average for baseball, and more than double that of the second-place team." Yet figures compiled by the Major League Players Association show that in player salaries, the Dodgers rank 14th, just below the middle of the list of 26 teams.
That average Dodger makes $316,530, effectively blunting any urge to pass the hat, but some outspoken local fans occasionally have blamed the loss of stars such as Ron Cey and Steve Garvey on a short-sighted, pinch-penny management mentality.
The Dodgers even had the gall to refuse star pitcher Fernando Valenzuela his request for $1 million a year, a startling figure unless you realize that Valenzuela pulls in thousands of extra fans to every game he pitches. An arbitrator took one look at the attendance figures offered by Valenzuela's representatives and ruled in his favor, the first million-dollar arbitration victory in baseball.
"We make what we feel are proper business decisions," said Clair, noting the team has since negotiated million-plus contracts with Valenzuela and the team's batting star, Pedro Guerrero.
The Dodgers players' salaries do appear to be floating upward with the major league tide. The team's money managers may be frugal, but they are not stupid, and what they may not be spending on free-agent superstars is going to scouts and minor league managers who have had remarkable success developing young players.
The good pay and the long, stable reign of the O'Malley family, now headed by Walter's son, Peter, have spared the Dodgers the wasted motion and distracting squabbles that afflict teams going off and on the sales block. "We are not reinventing the wheel every year," said Claire, a 16-year veteran of the organization.
A management so sure of itself makes sure it has control over all its tools. The Dodgers own their own training camp in Vero Beach, Fla., a nicely landscaped "Dodgertown" complex that doubles as a resort when the team isn't there. The Dodgers, not the city of Los Angeles, own Dodger Stadium, considered one of the best-designed and best-maintained parks in baseball. "We retain control of how and when it is cared for," said Claire. "That is a great factor."
As Noll noted throughout his report, baseball team executives have found ways to wrest the best in life from the complicated financial structures of their companies, and the Dodgers are no exception. Noll estimates that the Dodgers' $6.4 million net income would be at least $3 million higher than that if it were not for the expensive travel, fringe benefits and other bonuses the team provides its top staff.
The Los Angeles Times recently compiled a list of top Dodgers salaries and income sources that left the impression of money pouring out of several spigots at once:
*Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully reportedly earns close to $1 million a year.
*Owner Peter O'Malley's listed salary is $1 million.
*Manager Tom Lasorda made $335,000 in 1984.
*Home-game receipts, $18.053 million, 98 percent above baseball's average; away-game receipts, $2.235 million, 85 percent above average, including $1.215 million in exhibition-game receipts, nearly 411 percent above average.
*Local radio-TV receipts, more than $6 million, 83 percent above average.
*Cable TV, $2.297 million, 193 percent above average.
*Parking, $2.5 million, 760 percent above average.
A team spokesman acknowledged that top executive salaries are far above average, but noted that this would be expected in any organization in which officials have accumulated as much tenure and shown as much success as the Dodgers staff. "Tommy (Lasorda) has been with the organization 35, 36 years," the spokesman said. "Scully has been with us since 1950; Bill Schweppe, vice president for minor league operations, since 1946; (General Manager) Al Campanis since 1940; Ben Wade, director of scouting, 27 years."
"Our last eight or nine years have been the greatest eight or nine years in major league history," said Claire, referring to the box-office receipts. The team was in the pennant race nearly every one of those years, and once again has reached the playoffs.
"If you are not competitive," he said, "you're not going to draw any of these crowds."