LOS ANGELES -- Welcome to the final days of the Dodgers' banana republic. You can hear the choppers whirring just over the hills. Soon, they'll have the place fully surrounded. It won't be long until Frank McCourt will be forced down from his coconut tree, frisked and exiled.
Time was, the Hollywood Stars game was one of the most anticipated dates on the schedule in Los Angeles.
|Signs are that Frank McCourt will wage a lawyer-filled, guerilla war to keep the Dodgers. (Getty Images)|
"What have you heard?" players ask in the clubhouse.
It is on June 30 that the next payroll comes due. McCourt's money supply is expected to be exhausted by then. You can't pay the players in bananas.
"It's not doing us any favors as far as positive energy around here," third baseman Casey Blake says.
McCourt defaults, that's when the helicopters land and MLB swoops in, seizing possession of his island nation. Indications are, he will wage a lawyer-filled, guerilla war. Regime change appears inevitable.
Compared to what once was, the place is deserted. The villagers mostly have disappeared, either furious or frightened. And there hasn't even been a parking lot beating for nearly three months.
Yet they announce 36,000, maybe 37,000, and the number of no-shows is breathtaking. Maybe there's half that in the stands. Think Twins-Indians, mid-April, in Cleveland.
Surely, the screeching monkeys will storm in from the jungle and overrun this place any day. Oh, for Eric Gagne and "Welcome to the Jungle."
The Dodgers are on pace to draw fewer than three million fans in a non-strike shortened season for the first time in 19 years, and only the second since 1989.
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"I think anybody who was here before and sees what's happening now ... it's a lot different," says first-base coach Davey Lopes, a four-time All-Star while playing for the Dodgers from 1972-1981.
"I have to pinch myself sometimes, to be honest with you. Is this Los Angeles?"
McCourt is described as "being in denial," holding meetings around the offices, convinced he's going to pull this thing off, keep the team. Nine games into a season-long 12-game homestand, McCourt is said to have been around Dodger Stadium a few times, but few have seen him.
There is keeping a low profile, and then there is ducking in case someone's shooting at you.
Probably, he's walking the halls at night, Nixon-like, muttering to the framed photos of past Dodgers owners as his rule dissolves.
Peter O'Malley! You! You were lucky. You sold the team to Fox and skated. Nobody ever blamed you for anything. Damn you, your family always WAS Teflon. And you, Robert Daly! It wasn't like the Dodgers you handed me were pristine. ...
The general manager is wandering around on the field looking for someone, anyone, to talk baseball with. Baseball! That's all. How about this interleague schedule? What about Jonathan Broxton's latest rehab outing? Poor Ned Colletti goes so long between baseball questions, what with everyone mostly asking him whom he reports to and what his budget is and are his handcuffs properly fitted, or one size too small?
Off in the distance, Mark Cuban, the eccentric and flamboyant owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, is prattling on about the Dodgers to TMZ.
"If they're fixable, and the deal is right, then yes, I'm very interested," Cuban says.
Except, this doesn't stay in the distance for very long. Because with the Dodgers buried in fourth place in the NL West, the drama is vastly more interesting than the team.
So someone asks Mattingly how he'd like to work for Cuban.
OK, then, how about the job Cuban has done with the Mavericks?
"I'll talk about the Mavericks," Mattingly says. "The Mavs over the years have become kind of cool, because it seems like there are high expectations around the Mavs, and a lot of excitement about the franchise."
Unlike, well, you know.
Amid the socio-economic meltdown of McCourt's banana republic, there are moments.
Clayton Kershaw right now is channeling Sandy Koufax, blossoming into a true ace at 23.
Matt Kemp is an Indy race car at full throttle on an open road.
And flea-sized shortstop Dee Gordon, listed at 5-11 and 150 but probably exaggerated on both counts, has six multi-hit games in 13 starts.
"He's going to be a hell of a player," Detroit manager Jim Leyland raves. "He's not any bigger than a half-minute. ..."
But so much else is patched with bubble gum by a franchise that has seen millions upon millions of its profits ciphered off into Frank and Jamie McCourt's obscenely lavish lifestyle. Mansions, haircuts, lap pools = Jay Gibbons and Xavier Paul left field.
Vin Scully's trademark "It's time for Dodgers baseball" sure doesn't mean what it once did.
"Let's just say it's not the L.A. I grew up with," Lopes says.
On the scoreboard, Tommy Lasorda is listing the stadium's "Code of Conduct" for fans in the middle of the third inning, a welcome (and recent) change from Ozzie Osbourne and Snoop Dogg.
In the press box, two yahoos have moved into the seats next to me, literally picking up my laptop and media guides and shoving them over to make room while I was downstairs. They're eating dinner, and I can't set notes down to my left because one of them has slopped the tomatoes from his salad onto the counter. Then, starting in about the second inning, they spent the next 45 minutes filling out their All-Star ballots.
I'm telling you, the screeching monkeys can't be far behind.
"It is very sad to see what's happened to an elite franchise in sports, not just baseball," Lopes says. "The Los Angeles Dodgers of the '60s and '70s were the envy of everyone else in major-league baseball, and I'll just leave it at that.
"Something definitive needs to be done here, and the quicker the better for everybody."
Vultures circle, smelling a carcass.