Dude, Where’s My City?

The Dodgers lost today. Or was it yesterday?

Last week my wife and I went to see Los Angeles play its second game of the season. We met up with some friends in the parking lot, found our seats, and headed to the snack bars during the top of the first inning. Then a funny thing happened — the game ended as we were ordering our Dodger dogs. That is, Barry Bonds hit a home run, putting the San Francisco Giants ahead 3-0; L.A. had lost the previous day’s opener 9-2, and a déjà vu–spiced suspicion that the game was already over spread throughout our section. Yet this isn’t the remarkable thing about that night, because premonitions and educated guesses are part of baseball-fan voodoo. The difference from other seasons was the mood of the crowd, which began booing the Dodgers during the second inning — much, much earlier than usual.

The reason was simple: No one believed the Dodgers would catch up — this is just not a team of Robert Bruces who are inspired to greatness by watching persistent spiders build webs in the dugout or elsewhere. Los Angeles was bound to lose: This fatalistic mood eventually turned to anger as the Giants kept homering — and the big-screen TV above left field taunted us by cheerfully replaying videos of long-past moments of glory, triumphs that were literally from another century.

Even with the Dodgers playing their historic nemesis in the first week, Wednesday night’s attendance was 36,374 — noticeably down from the sold-out opener’s 53,356; by Friday night’s game with Colorado, it was a paltry, also-ran, late-season 25,091. The fans knew they were watching the continuation of 2001 and all the disappointing summers before, that the well-paid arms of this team were only good for throwing in towels. Once again they were witnessing That Chumpionship Season, but this time they weren’t going to watch it in silence — Boooooo!

I try to leave the metaphor detector at home whenever I go to a game, but, apart from voting, sitting in Dodger Stadium is one of the few times I ever really feel part of this city, probably because it’s the only instance you see so many Angelenos walking. During any game I’ll wonder about the thousands who surround me: Where are they from? How do they vote? Do they vote? Why do they eat so much cotton candy?

For some time now I’ve been getting the distinct impression that not only the Dodgers but Los Angeles itself has been disappearing into the smog, becoming less and less of a city each day. I’d like to say it all began September 11 of last year, but I’d be lying, because L.A. was already deep into its vanishing act by that date. The process had even begun well before the electorate chose the Invisible Man as its mayor, and before secessionist movements threatened to make us the Incredible Shrinking City.

As with the Dodgers, we wonder, Where did the promise all go?

Some of my feeling is simply irrational nostalgia: Just as I might miss the days when the Dodger players could drink beer in their clubhouse and fans smoke in their seats, I’ll also lament the closing of a favorite restaurant or the tearing down of a venerable store. But there is more to it. I seem to remember a more fun Dodger Stadium: the time I ran into Timothy Leary, who was wearing a trench coat on a sweltering evening to watch his namesake, Tim Leary, pitch; the naughty clink of smuggled beer bottles beneath fans’ seats; or the time some of my friends wandered into a utility room to smoke pot, got caught and talked themselves out of trouble.

Today the stadium is ugly with heavy security and electronic advertising, a place inimical to memory and anecdote. Likewise, the city — with the grading of its foothills for tract mansions, construction of a cathedral that looks like a new Nordstrom and the lack of a second major daily newspaper — is becoming a
second-rate nowhere.

Years ago Darryl Strawberry complained that the Dodgers had no heart — they were not a team whose players partied together but instead were simply a group of individuals who went their own separate ways after a game. The same might be said for Los Angeles, the Big Town That Couldn’t, a town whose neighborhoods try to ban strangers through permit parking, whose citizens threaten lawsuits against mass transit and whose every office appointment triggers a verbal race war.

At 9:11 p.m. last Wednesday night, the inevitable September 11 Moment brought the stadium to its feet — thank God Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941 and not 2001, otherwise the country would be too wrapped up in memorials, ribbon pinnings and handholding to have fought back. Later, I read that during the seventh-inning stretch “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” had been replaced by “America the Beautiful” — I wouldn’t have known, because, like many other fans, I left an inning prior, with the Giants holding an unassailable 12-0 lead.

Perhaps some long-ago curse hurled from a displaced resident of Chavez Ravine or from a heartbroken Flatbush fan has doomed the Dodgers to be baseball’s hollow men, but that doesn’t get our city off the hook.

The team won its next four games. Now if only L.A. would stop disappearing on me.

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