August 30, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL West
Absence Makes the Kemp Grow Stronger
A team cannot survive without the support of its fans. And although the Dodgers are not in imminent danger of going the way of the Montreal Expos, the glue that held the franchise together for so long—the people of first Brooklyn, then Los Angeles—has lost some of its adhesive qualities. To say that 2011 has been a difficult year for the Dodgers and their fans is to grossly understate things. In Los Angeles, a town not given to understatement, a host of on- and off-field issues have conspired to shake the faith of its baseball-loving citizens.
The severe beating of a fan in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, the ongoing ownership fiasco, and the generally poor play of a proud franchise with a rich history are just a few of the factors that have made this season such a disappointment. A team known for strong community support—the Dodgers have broken the 3 million mark in attendance in 14 of the past 15 seasons and perennially rank among the National League's top draws—has seen that support erode.
The Dodgers first became a dominant ticket-seller in 1939, when they still called Ebbets Field home. Since then, attendance has usually been outstanding—usually, but not always. In 1944, the Dodgers finished third out of eight teams; they went 63-91 that year and were realistically out of the race by the end of May, making their disastrous 5-25 showing in July a mere formality.
The Dodgers finished fourth in attendance in 1948 despite an 84-70 showing on the heels of an NL pennant the previous year. They placed fourth again in 1954 while going 92-62 (this was the only year between 1952 and 1956 they failed to reach the World Series, so perhaps expectations had been raised). After a fifth-place showing in 1957, their final in Brooklyn, the Dodgers came west and returned to their position at (or near) the top of attendance records, where they remained for a very long time.
Since the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles (54 seasons, including 2011), here is a quick breakdown of their attendance relative to other NL teams:
*This is their rank through August 28, 2011. With 13 home dates remaining, it is subject to change.
Between 1958 and 1997 (inclusive), the Dodgers never finished lower than third in attendance in the National League. In 2011, they are on pace to slip below fifth place for the second time since 1918. That year, they were called the Robins, went 57-69, and ranked seventh out of eight teams.
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract reminds us that attendance toward the end of the 1910s was lousy for everyone “due to distractions of the war, national and international chaos, and corruption in baseball.” In Baseball: The Golden Age, Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills discuss the difficulties all teams faced in 1918. They note that owners, already reeling from a huge drop in attendance across both leagues from 1916 to 1917, raised ticket prices to cover a newly-introduced 10 percent tax on “entertainment admissions.” (Indeed, 1918 was a strange season. World War I limited the Dodgers to 126 games, down from 156 a year earlier. And as a reminder that current ownership isn't the first to muck things up, first baseman Jake Daubert sued Charles Ebbets for the remainder of his salary after the season. Daubert eventually got his money and then got shipped to Cincinnati.)
Then again, we are all products of our environment. The Dodgers weren't the only team dealing with such issues, and therefore do not deserve a free pass for their struggles. The other year the Dodgers slipped out of the top five in attendance was 2000, when they went 86-76 and finished second in the NL West, 11 games back of the Giants. No war, no chaos, no corruption... just no fans.
It might be tempting to blame fan exodus on the poor economy, but the latter phenomenon isn't unique to Los Angeles. If we won't absolve the 1918 squad of responsibility due to external circumstances, then neither can we do so for this year's team.
The fact is that, with an unsympathetic and divided McCourt family at the helm, the team has played bad baseball for much of the year (their recent five-game winning streak notwithstanding). The Dodgers appear to be headed for their second consecutive losing season, something they haven't done since posting identical 73-89 records in 1986 and 1987. That came during the O'Malley/Lasorda years, when forgiving Angelinos still had a love affair with the Dodgers, who led the league in attendance in '86 and placed third the following year despite their on-field futility.
On the bright side, this year's Dodgers are well-positioned to finish among the top 100 teams in franchise history in terms of winning percentage. As of this writing, their .470 puts them just ahead of the 1968 Dodgers' .469 for 92nd place all-time. No, this is not the 1953 squad (.682), but neither is it 1905 (.316). If they win 75 games (they'll need to go a modest 13-17 the rest of the way), the 2011 Dodgers will maintain their status as one of the 100 best (or, if you prefer, not one of the 28 worst) clubs in franchise history.
On an even brighter note, the Dodgers still have Matt Kemp. Thanks in part to a tighter strike zone, Kemp's 2009 “breakthrough” season, which looked like the Spelling Mansion at the time, has been reduced to mere Le Belvedere status. His walk-off homer on Saturday against Colorado pulled the Dodgers even with the Rockies for third place in the division. This might not mean much to you or me, but nobody wants to lose, and it's always encouraging to see a player rise above his environment and excel. It's particularly encouraging from Kemp, a young player whose desire and focus have been called into question in the past.
When Clayton Kershaw isn't pitching, Kemp might be the only reason to watch this team. And even if fewer Angelinos are watching than would be if the organization had its act together, it's a lot more people watching than those who saw Brooklyn outfielders Dixie Walker and Augie Galan destroy the NL back in '44. Not to disparage Walker and Galan, who were fantastic players—The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract ranks Walker 30th among right fielders in history and Galan 42nd among left fielders—but they were in their 30s by 1944.
The pitching staff was a disaster that year. The closest thing the '44 Dodgers had to Kershaw—in the sense that he was young and took a regular turn in the rotation—was Hal Gregg, which is another way of saying they had nothing close to Kershaw. (Gregg had his moments, like the time he carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning against Philadelphia. He would also mix in the occasional 11-walk game, which tends to undermine one's efforts.)
While enduring a dismal season and an even more dismal ownership group, Dodgers fans can take comfort in knowing that this isn't 1905 (it is mathematically impossible for this year's team to finish with a .316 winning percentage), 1918 (Kemp isn't suing the McCourts for money owed him), or 1944 (Kemp isn't nearing the end of his prime, as Walker and Galan were; Kershaw isn't unwilling or unable to throw strikes, as Gregg was). The current situation may not be pleasant, but neither is it permanent.