Dodger Blue California

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

It’s fall, not spring, so a young man’s fancy turns to postseason baseball. And this being California, the dream would be an intrastate World Series featuring the Dodgers and the Oakland Athletics, both of whom begin their divisional series Thursday and Friday.

It last happened 25 years ago. And, at the time, it said much about what lay ahead for California. The green-and-gold A’s, like the Golden State, were eye-catching, chest puffing and secretly hooked on performance enhancers (steroids for Jose Canseco and friends;aerospace contracts for California’s economy). Five years later, Oakland at the bottom of its division; California was last among the 50 states in job-creation.

Let’s suppose there is another all-California World Series three weeks from now, the last one being in 2002 when the Angels bested the Giants in seven games (the Dodgers and the A’s also met back in 1974, NorCal beating SoCal). What would it say about the state of our nation-state?

If you’re Gov. Jerry Brown, by all means stay away from the A’s, even if Oakland is your home away from Sacramento. Yes, a merry band of overachievers like the Athletics – American League’s second-best record; major-league’s fifth-lowest payroll – is a tempting metaphor for a governor trying to sell the concept of a recovering California.

But here’s the rub.

The A’s are the Bay Area’s poorer relation, baseball-wise. The Oakland stadium is outdated; the team is stymied in its attempts to relocate to greener pastures in San Jose. Basically, the baseball gods kick around the Oakland franchise much like Texas Gov. Rick Perrykicks around California’s jobs climate.

And, as anyone who saw Moneyball knows, the A’s have a limited postseason ceiling. Rooting for a team that’s destined to break your heart in October is a lot like cheerleading for an 800-mile high-speed rail system for all of California that only goes 29 miles through the Central Valley.

Ok, cheap shot . . .

Twenty-five years after the Oakland-LA showdown, it’s the Dodgers who better exemplify the current state of the Golden State. For these reasons:

Banking on Star Power – For Now. A year ago, the Dodgers’ faithful put their baseball trust in an ownership syndicate whose public face is basketball legend Magic Johnson – just as, a decade ago next Monday, Californians put their political faith in the hands of another celebrity icon: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Magic’s group has worked wonders in a year’s time, just as Arnold had his way during his first year in Sacramento. After that, the political road got rocky for Arnold. Time will tell if Magic’s baseball luck holds up. A side thought: if California ends up tapping Magic as its next celebrity-governor, let’s hope he applies the Dodger model to state government – and takes along Stan Kasten and Ned Colletti to make the right moves in Sacramento.

Throwing Money at the Problem. How did the Dodgers achieve their first playoff appearance since 2009? Some homegrown talent, yes, like the great Clayton Kershaw. But also a major cash infusion  – a $239 million opening-day payroll that was more double the previous year’s sum. How did Governor Brown turn back the tide of budget red ink in Sacramento? A major cash infusion in the form of last fall’s tax-raising Proposition 30. With one difference: Prop 30 goes off the books in 2019; thanks to their new television contract, the Dodgers will have more than $6 billion to continue to throw at free agents, thus making Chavez Ravine Yankee Stadium West.

Team and a State of Rich and Poor. Ten Dodgers earn ten-figure salaries, while seven of their teammates have salaries one-fifth or less that total (here’s the full roster). Income disparity, yes, though no one’s going hungry. California, per the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, trails only Arizona and New Mexico in income disparity, with the richest 5% of Golden State households (average income of $315,000) earning five times more than the middle 20% of households and sixteen times more than the bottom 20% of households. Disparity, by the way, is at the heart of California’s MLB experience: the Dodgers and A’s meeting or exceeding expectations in 2013; the Angels and Giants, both entering the season with playoff hopes, badly underperforming. The Padres? Not even San Diegans care.

Confidence That Isn’t True Blue. A Hoover Golden State poll released last week had more Californians saying they were worse off than better off financially versus a year ago; a majority isn’t confident it can make a lateral job move. It suggests that, amidst a shallow economic recovery, there’s good money to be had in Xanax sales. The baseball crossover? While Dodger Nation is giddy with its return to glory, it’s still nervous time in the Southland. How far can the team go without an injured Matt Kemp and a gimpy Andre Either? What if Kershaw unexpectedly drops a game, or the team finds itself on the brink of elimination courtesy that embodiment of red-state political incorrectness, the tomahawk-chopping Atlanta Braves?

In which case, sunny L.A. would find itself feeling – well, sorta blue.


Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen