Surprised but not annoyed to discover I couldn't remember his name, I call the sports department of a local newspaper to help me.
"Hello, sports department?"
"Yes. What can I do for you?"
"I was wondering if you happened to know the name of the owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. I'm doing a story about him and I need to know his name."
December 28, 1981
"Uh, I don't think I understand," says the sports department. "You're doing a story about somebody and you don't even know his name?"
"It's not that I don't know his name," I answer, "it's just that I've forgotten it, which is a good sign, actually."
"I don't think I...."
"What I mean is I love the way this guy owned the Dodgers in 1981. He did a terrific job of owning a ball club. For me he was the single most refreshing sports figure of the year. Also, he helps me explain why I'm not such a red-hot baseball fan anymore. So can you give me his name?"
"Yeah, sure. It's, uh.... Can you hold a sec?"
There are muffled noises on the line. The sports department has its hand over the receiver and is talking among itself. It finally comes back on.
"Peter O'Malley is the owner of the Dodgers."
"Right. O'Malley. Thank you."
"Wait a minute," says the sports department. "You got your answer, now I want one. What reason do you have for calling Peter O'Malley a hero? Peter O'Malley is a colorless, non-controversial guy. As big league owners go, he's a plate of boiled cabbage. We never use his name. When the Dodgers won the Series, we didn't even quote him."
"Precisely. He's exactly what owners ought to be."
"Now I get it," says the sports department. "Another anti-Steinbrenner piece. Believe me, it's been done."
"No, you don't get it at all," I tell the sports department. "I have nothing against Mr. Steinbrenner. I think he's a great act. And a man's man. If he says he beat up those two guys on the elevator, I believe him. If he said he beat Rosie Ruiz in the New York Marathon after beating up those two guys in the elevator, I'd believe that, too. I think he makes a very good beer commercial. It's 'owning' as a force in sport that I don't like."
"I don't get it."
"Last season, and especially during the World Series, I finally became convinced that 'owning' is ruining big league sport. Not just because it exposes owners as greedy and overbearing and sometimes even disgusting, but bad for sport."
"You mean Steinbrenner?"
"I mean the Finleys and the Turners and the Davises and the Steinbrenners and all the others whose owning tactics have wiped out every illusion of belonging that sports fans must have."
"Illusions? What illusions?"
"See what I mean? People forget illusions ever existed. The illusions of allegiance. Of loyalty to team and place."
I clear my throat and continue on.
"Owners used to be guys who willed sport to the people, like philanthropists. They didn't do it for the money; they usually had enough of that already. They did it for the joy of it. The involvement. To be beloved in their hometown or in towns they made their homes. They were the players' patrons and friends, not their adversaries. I'm talking about the Rooneys and the Wrigleys and Tom Yawkey and people like that. They'd have been in it even if they couldn't make a dime. Sometimes they lost their shirts. But they were 'sportsmen.' And the fans believed that the team they rooted for and bought tickets to see play really was their team. Boston's team. Cleveland's team. It was very important."
"So what's so different?"
"The illusion is gone. The losing team in the World Series clearly wasn't the New York Yankees, it was the George Steinbrenner Yankees. As long as Charlie Finley owned the Athletics, they were the Finley A's. Refuse to build 'em a new stadium and they'll go to Memphis."
"I take it you have a solution."
"Not one that I've refined."
"Try it on me," says the sports department. "I'm all ears."
"I think municipalities should own professional sports franchises. I think the cities that bear their names and put up with their flops and failures shouldn't only run those teams but benefit from them when they win, fiscally as well as socially and spiritually. I think with all that television money floating around, it's time the fans got a return on their investment, which is quite considerable when they have to tax themselves to build fancy new stadiums."
"How would they get control?"
"Legal confiscation, for a fair-market price. Or negotiated sales. Then let the municipalities appoint boards of directors to run the teams, with the same general managers that run them now—making deals, hiring and firing, trading and so forth. But in the end, the Yankees would truly belong to New York, not to George Steinbrenner."
"But you'd let your 1981 man of the year, O'Malley, continue to own the Dodgers?"
"As long as he kept out of sight."
"How about what Peter O'Malley's father did to Brooklyn?"
"Oh, that. Well, that was a long time ago. A sin of the father. Maybe Peter'll move the Dodgers back someday. Until then he has my qualified support."
I hear the sports department sigh. "Listen," it says, finally. "How did you get this number?"