Rhapsody in Blue

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Weighing the joy of the Dodgers' first championship in 32 years with Covid scares and the original sins of Chavez Ravine.
Art By Evan Solano

A few years ago, I found myself sitting in the top deck at Dodger Stadium, watching a seagull. Fluttering in the air directly in front of me, it dived down into the night, gliding over the infield. There must have been a baseball game going on, but I don’t remember it. I remember the seagull. 

It spiraled. First down toward the dirt and grass, and then up — a speck in the great nothingness between the action on the field and the sky above. I got the feeling that I wasn’t the only one watching this bird. The bird was magnetic. It was like the Mookie Betts of birds: somehow compelling even doing ordinary bird things. Soon, everybody around me was watching it, in communion with it, feeding off its great struggle against the vast sky and the tricks of air.

The gull seemed to believe that the only way it could escape was to fly up above the highest reaches of the ballpark. Circling higher and higher, it appeared to be on the verge of escaping out over the grandstand when its wings, which had been flapping with a slow steady sense of duty, gave out and collapsed in on themselves. The bird fell into a glide and the little group of people in my section who were watching it sighed a collective sigh of disappointment. 

A moment later, the bird straightened and gathered its strength to begin anew. On the field, something happened: a walk, a pitching change, a ground ball. I don’t remember. I remember the bird beginning its slow ascent, spiraling up again toward the expanse. 

The thing about baseball is that if you love it, you love it for all the meaningless little moments like watching a bird flutter in the sky above an unremarkable game on a summer night. At least that’s the myth of the sport. You love baseball for its tradition, for its aesthetic beauty, for the vibes that the long season can impart if you are open to receiving them. 

That’s all real. The bird was real. But that’s only half of what being a baseball fan really is.

The Dodgers won the World Series. Due to Covid, they won it inside a quarantine playoff bubble in Arlington, Texas, in a ballpark that looks like a big box chain store. The sights and sounds were all wrong. The aforementioned vibes were weird. There were even more commercials crammed into the broadcast somehow.

But they won it. 

The feeling that millions of people got watching the victory on television is the other half of being a baseball fan. Watching the team you love win the World Series is like tasting every food you’ve ever eaten all at once. It’s amazing and visceral but also kind of gross. The bad stuff is in there too. And that’s before we even get to Justin Turner testing positive for a deadly virus and then running back onto the field after the game. 

The thing about loving baseball, and in particular loving a baseball team is that you are powerless against that love. Hell, you don’t even know these people. You stare into your television at, say, the Houston Astros with hate in your eyes. You watch Dustin May warming up in the late innings of a playoff game with the fear of a parent watching their toddler climb up a jungle gym that is just a little too tall. 

The thing about loving baseball, and in particular loving a baseball team is that you are powerless against that love.  

Here are two short paragraphs that I wrote hours before Game 4 of this 2020 World Series — the game in which the Dodgers managed to make two miscues on a single play in the bottom of the ninth inning and lose in one of the most absurd and exciting fashions in recent memory: 

The Dodgers are at it again. They got Mookie Betts and the front office keeps coming up with increasingly perfect rosters, refining and refining and somehow packing more power and speed and wisdom and defense into the same narrowly defined space. And yet somehow it all feels that much more precarious. Can a team be too good? Stupid question, of course they can. 

No matter how wonderful and talented the Dodgers roster is, the player representing the World Series-clinching run will inevitably step on an unfortunately placed rake and knock himself unconscious before he actually crosses home plate. 

I wasn’t technically right. After all, this Dodger team was exactly perfect enough to win the World Series. But the tension between their apparent invincibility and the sense of impending doom that surrounded them and never really dissipated until the moment of the last out was perhaps the most normal thing about this postseason. 

This is a team that has been finding creative and heartbreaking ways to collapse in the playoffs for nearly a decade. Choking was their identity. But Clayton Kershaw finally delivered the heroic performance his whole life had been building toward. Corey Seager transformed into a mythical old timey baseball figure. Julio Urías and Walker Buehler delivered one dominant performance after another. 

I like to think that one day I will be able to appreciate this postseason both as a fan who can get lost on the slow scenic byways of baseball history and also as a person who has invested more emotional toil into the Dodgers than I can even comprehend. But for a moment I want to linger on what was absent, as Rays manager Kevin Cash inexplicably pulled his dominant starting pitcher Blake Snell, opening a door for the Dodgers to stroll through; as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts made one perfect bullpen decision after another; as Urías cut through the Rays lineup in the final innings and the tension built, and the impossible began to feel inevitable. 

Absent was Los Angeles itself. Absent was the most L.A. building of them all: Dodger Stadium. 

I’ve spent years writing a book about the history of Dodger Stadium and the history of L.A. In that time, I’ve also excavated my own Dodger fandom, my relationship to the city, my feelings about pro sports and whether all this trouble going back to the first Spanish missionaries who wandered up what were once called the Stone Quarry Hills and looked out at a beautiful pink sunset, has been worth it. 

Before we even attempt to answer that question, it’s worth remembering what Dodger Stadium really is. It’s not just a place where people play baseball. Dodger Stadium is a monument to the once and future potential of Los Angeles. It is a nexus of everything in the city’s history. A building whose power is derived not just from its enduring architectural beauty or the important cultural events that have taken place there (concerts, pope visits, political rallies), or even from the people who fill it up night after night year after year. The power of Dodger Stadium is derived from the messy history that preceded its construction. 

The quick version goes like this: in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the largely Mexican-American neighborhoods then known as Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop were destroyed by well-intentioned but misguided would-be saviors to make way for a utopian public housing project. The public housing project was then sabotaged before it could even be built by a conspiracy of red-baiting political leaders and real estate developers, chief among them Norman Chandler who owned the Los Angeles Times. It was progressive naivete followed by reactionary cynicism. The communities lost to the housing advocates. The housing advocates lost to the builders. Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley swooped in from New York. To complete the transfer of land, move the team to the other coast, and allow O’Malley to build the stadium he had been dreaming of for a decade, L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies violently removed families who had spent a decade resisting these events from their homes. The evictions were carried out on live television

Since 1962, Dodger Stadium welcomed baseball fans every March through September (and sometimes October). Southern California — until this year. Dodger Stadium hasn’t gone anywhere, obviously. But the tens of thousands of seats remain empty; the modern updates initially set to be unveiled back in March remain unseen, and the new grand entryway behind the outfield pavilion is still waiting to swell with fans. On the very first day the stadium opened in 1962, there was a slight delay for ticket holders excited to come inside because the ushers had to literally unwrap the packaging that was still on the brand new turnstiles. The 2020 season was a little like that, just much longer. 

My last trip to the park was for a 10 a.m. Covid-19 test last summer. There was something familiar and also disorienting about it. I’ve made the drive a thousand times, freeway to freeway. Muscle memory. You swing past the Barlow Respiratory Hospital. You pull into the Stadium Way entrance on Scott Avenue and if you close your eyes (figuratively because you are driving) it can almost feel like you’re going to a ballgame. The line of cars in front of you. The parking lot attendants in their green vests. The traffic cones. The kiosks and the signs that say CASH or CREDIT. But instead of listening to the pre-game show or the first inning on the radio you put on 1620 AM and hear Eric Garcetti giving you instructions about how to stick the Q-tip in your nose. 

The test site at Dodger Stadium looks like something out of science fiction. It looks like a scene in a movie that ends with L.A. burning. I looked out across the repurposed shipping containers and trailers and PPE-clad volunteers. I thought about the pavement under my tires. 

The parking lots are as much a part of the experience of Dodger Stadium as anything else. They were dreamed up by Walter O’Malley right along with the sweeping vistas and wavy roofs and the seats painted to look like a muted Pacific sunset. There were communities here once: Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop. I thought about what the landscape looked like before the hills here were flattened by a fleet of bulldozers. My mind drifted to the elementary school that was buried whole beyond center field. They ripped off the Spanish-style roof and filled the classrooms up with dirt. 

They did that. But who are they? As always, it’s the unanswerable question at the heart of everything. It’s easy to say that the crime was institutional: a failure of government and business and the inherently rigged systems that dictate how cities and countries grow. But it’s also a cop out. To merely say that the crime of Dodger Stadium was institutional absolves the people who built those rigged systems and then benefitted from them. It absolves all of us who try to put it out of our minds. 

A few hours after I got my Covid test, Dodgers players and staff began to pull into the parking lot for that evening’s game against the San Diego Padres in front of a thousand cardboard cutouts of the team’s wealthiest and most frivolous fans. It’s jarring and even a little bit insulting to think that big league baseball — which predates both radio and television — can happen without the actual flesh and blood of spectators. On one hand, sports really is mostly a T.V. show, which the economics bear out. MLB just limped its way through a season played almost completely devoid of in-person audiences. This Dodger team owes its massive payroll and its World Series title at least in part to a lucrative cable deal that for years excluded large swaths of its fanbase from actually watching the games. The T.V. money is everything. 

On the other hand, sports are one of the best examples we have going for the irreplaceable power of live, in-person entertainment. It’s corny but true. Dodger Stadium really is a place where people come together across class, race, geographic lines. Watching your favorite baseball team win or lose the World Series on TV is nice. Watching it along with thousands of like minded people is transcendent. We feed off one another. Our angst, our excitement, our energy is multiplied and it rises to become something that is impossible to replicate in group texts or over Twitter or whatever. 

To merely say that the crime of Dodger Stadium was institutional absolves the people who built those rigged systems and then benefitted from them. It absolves all of us who try to put it out of our minds. 

As I creeped forward through the parking lot waiting for a volunteer to hand me the baggie containing my covid test kit with one of those long grabber sticks, my mind went to a Joan Didion quote that I hate. It claims the “freeway system…is the only secular communion Los Angeles has.” But this could only possibly be true for a person who prefers to see the world and the people in it through a window. The streets and sidewalks of L.A. are full of holiness. There are sacred moments of human connection every day. Joan Didion obviously didn’t go to many Dodger games. 

Then again, when I stared off at the stadium light towers and the palm trees and the American flags that line the top deck waving over the empty concourses, I thought that maybe this isn’t for us anymore. The Dodgers would lose a meaningless game to the Padres that night 2-1. The stadium would be empty. These were extreme circumstances, sure, but does baseball really even need people anymore? Then I looked around at all the other cars waiting in line for their tests and thought about this disease and the way it was ripping through the city. Everyone was suffering through it alone. 

We’re still suffering through it alone, even in this glorious moment and its aftermath. So much of my fandom is tied into the people I love, the people I experience baseball with, the people I have spent hours with driving to and from ballgames. My family. My friends. The millions of strangers who give this whole thing meaning. All these people were sitting in their respective homes when Clayton Kershaw, standing in the bullpen at Globe Life Park, raised his hands in the air and exhaled. All these people were watching alone as the Dodgers rushed the mound in a foreign stadium in a distant city beamed in on their television sets.

It was impossible not to think that this was weird. It was impossible to not think that maybe sitting in traffic in the Dodger Stadium parking lot to get a Covid test really did resemble some kind of secular communion.

The backdrop of the pandemic couldn’t be ignored in Justin Turner’s striking actions after the game. It bears noting: Justin Turner, son of Long Beach, is one of the great dudes in LA sports history. The big red beard and the jolly disposition and the sense, when you are watching him play and watching him interact with fans, that he truly appreciates the ridiculous fact that he is a star player on the team he rooted for as a child. For years, Justin Turner has been everything a fan could ask for: fun to watch, fun to root for, clutch in the postseason when so many of his teammates weren’t. Effective through a litany of nagging injuries. 

Turner is physically tough and had been playing great baseball, which made his quiet disappearance from the game in the late innings striking. After the game, when FOX announced that he had been removed for a positive Covid test, it was a stark reminder for those of us lost in the moment of just how weird this all was. The Dodgers won the World Series in the middle of a pandemic that is worse than it was six months ago (when the MLB season was initially put on hold.) For a moment, it felt like Justin Turner was another victim — not in a truly tragic way, but in a small and personal one. 

It was impossible to not think that sitting in traffic in the Dodger Stadium parking lot to get a Covid test really did resemble some kind of secular communion.

An hour later, when Turner burst out of the dugout and joined his teammates to celebrate and kissed his wife on the field and removed his mask for a group photo, we were treated to a reminder of why we’re still grappling with the pandemic; why the lines of cars are still filling up for Covid testing at the Dodger Stadium parking lot day after day. Justin Turner didn’t want to miss out on something. Neither did the thousands of people who took to the streets of L.A. to party after the third out. If you squint and you let yourself empathize with what was obviously an irresponsible choice by Turner, you can see how a person gets so overcome with emotion that they lose all sense of what’s right or smart. We need each other, especially when we can’t have each other. 

Our collective need to experience this together is also why the Dodgers were able to sell fans on the idea of driving up to the parking lot in the evening to sit in their cars and watch the World Series on giant movie screens. After the game, I saw clips of fans who had gotten out of their cars dancing and waving flags in the parking lot. 

It is my belief that in the decades since their construction, the parking lots have developed a spirit and identity of their own: connected to, but not dependent on the actual edifice of Dodger Stadium. So it kind of makes sense that this is where the season ended up — after all, this is the only part of the stadium grounds that were accessible to fans all year. But it can also feel like a cosmic joke. First, that a community was destroyed to make way for parking. Then that the world ushered in by the forces that destroyed it in the first place has decayed so badly that now the parking lot is the only accessible part for fans. This week, the parking lots will again transform into a voting site for Angelenos. 

When he was holed up in the Statler Hotel in the late 1950s making plans for what would become Dodger Stadium, O’Malley envisioned a place where people from all walks of life could feel like they belonged. He wanted to create a stage for the national pastime that was expansive and exacting and brilliant. He understood better than any of his contemporaries that a ballpark could be a gathering place of high purpose and even beauty. He wanted magic and magic was what he built. 

The only thing he got wrong was the parking lots: sprawling and confusing and isolated and impossible to get into or out of. For the first time since the O’Malley family sold the team to Fox — which sold the team to Frank McCourt (a man who literally made his fortune developing parking lots), who sold the team to its current ownership, Guggenheim Partners — the Dodgers have won the World Series. And now the parking lots are all we have.

Which brings us back to what is underneath them. In a postgame interview after the clinching game, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts credited his players for speaking up this season about racial issues and the killing of George Floyd. The organization has not been shy in recent years of touting its legacy as the franchise of Jackie Robinson. But before the stadium opens again next spring, the Dodgers and the City of Los Angeles have an obligation to address the ugly aspects of the stadium’s history. 

If there is to be justice for the people who once inhabited Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop, the City of Los Angeles and the Dodgers should sit down with the last surviving people who lived there and their descendents. They’ll be listening to organizations like Buried Under the Blue who have called for the construction of community centers to carry the legacy of those lost places forward. For decades, the surviving residents and their families have met for a community picnic at Elysian Park in the shadow of Dodger Stadium every summer. They call themselves Los Desterrados. The Uprooted. How can even you re-root something like that?

The best thing that the Desterrados have, the best thing that the people of Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop had, was each other. The city spent years starving them of the resources they needed to thrive, but they thrived anyway — together. The Housing Authority took away their homes and they resisted — together. The communities were bulldozed, the houses rolled away on trucks. For decades, the city and the Dodgers have pretended they do not exist, have written them off as slums and worse. And yet here they still are year after year — together. 

At its best, this is also what sports can offer us: community and a sense of who we are and where we come from. The Dodgers are World Series champions. We didn’t get to watch it arm in arm with the people we love. We didn’t get the chance to see the city lights from the eyes of the Goodyear Blimp. We didn’t get the stadium architecture or the sunsets or the shadows cast across the field in the late afternoon. We didn’t get reminders of what happened before. Instead we got an antiseptic sound stage. We got scattered crowds and silence. We got baseball in the era of Coronavirus, right down to the very last moment. 

What makes Dodger Stadium such an impactful place, even in its absence, is not just that it’s a beautiful building where you might lose yourself in the mountain vistas or in the hopeless flight of a lost seagull. What makes Dodger Stadium special is that it’s not just where we are, it’s where we were. The glory and the pain that gives the glory its meaning. 

This has been the weirdest, heaviest, and most precarious baseball season of all time — and for Dodger fans it also marks the end of decades of struggle and stagnation. These two facts will always be connected. You will never remember this World Series without remembering all the bullshit too. There will always be the site of Kershaw with his arms up and the site of Turner with his mask down. The Dodgers won the World Series far from home. But that doesn’t make home any less important.