Dark Days in La-La Land

Will the last team to leave Los Angeles please turn out the lights
May 08, 1994

It is well known that Los Angeles was a formidable frontier until it was civilized by Walter O'Malley. O'Malley was one of those rare pioneers. Where others saw semiarid desert populated by Chumash Indians—Los Angeles was then little more than a bedroom suburb of the Mojave—he saw season attendance of three million and the elimination of rainouts. He planted groves of orange trees, dropped hints among all of his friends about the possibility of a film business, suggested the birth of an aerospace industry (Mr. Northrup to O'Malley in their now-famous meeting: "Aerospace? Explain!") and relocated thousands of pesky, non-revenue bearing natives so that he could build a baseball park. And thus was Los Angeles colonized.

Other like-minded visionaries followed—indomitable spirits like Barron Hilton, Gene Autry, Al Davis, Carroll Rosenbloom and Jerry Buss. And for decades Los Angeles prospered. There were many, many sports championships, which fueled economic growth, which in turn was responsible for tremendous increases in the price of real estate. L.A. was a world player, poised on the Pacific Rim and ready to rule in every direction—its franchises among the most powerful in the universe. In time, there was even an all-sports radio station.

So what went wrong? It wasn't necessarily all-sports radio, although historians may look back and point to the lower bandwidth as the equivalent of Nero and his fiddle. Maybe it was the arrogance of moguls who grounded their sports and real estate empires on such ephemera as mild weather and the continued employment of their season-ticket holders. Who knows. Should O'Malley have predicted earthquake, fire, Rodney King and plant closings? Should he have just left Chavez Ravine to those pesky natives? Could he have guessed that by 1994 it would be virtually impossible for an Angeleno to sell his house and realize phenomenal capital gains?

We know this much for sure: The glory years are past. The Lakers, who won six world championships after migrating from Minneapolis, have finished out of the playoffs for the first time in years. Their coach and symbol of past greatness, the famous Earvin (Magic) Johnson, was so disgusted by their ineptitude that he left the team to start a cineplex in the inner city.

The Dodgers, who won five World Series here, have not only been mediocre in recent seasons but also have now been tainted by scandal and are distinguished across the land only by the weight loss of their skipper. (Their apparent recipe for success: delicious shakes for breakfast and lunch and a sensible meal for dinner.) The Angels bought two division titles in the 1980s but now flounder, dull and colorless.

The collapse of sports in Los Angeles is total. Not only does nobody want in any longer, everybody wants out. The Clippers, who had escaped from San Diego and begun to edge toward respectability, have been bombed back to their traditional nonplayoff status. Most telling, they can no longer keep their first-round draft picks—and they had 10 of them over a seven-year stretch in the 1980s. Owner Donald Sterling keeps losing them to places like Atlanta and Milwaukee, the kinds of places L.A. teams and players used to move from.

But it gets worse. Entire organizations are bargaining to get out. The Raiders, who have been reluctant tenants in the mostly empty Coliseum ever since they arrived from Oakland, have examined the ruins following January's earthquake and have gone looking for a site far from the San Andreas Fault and the dangerous parking in South Central Los Angeles. Davis, their leader, was said to be considering Orlando, where his team could attract the spillover from the region's theme parks, people who might mistake the Raiders for family entertainment. But Orlando officials said on Monday that his wish list was too expensive.

And now the Rams have invoked their escape clause at Anaheim Stadium—at last look the Big A was tilting dangerously—and could begin negotiating a move to St. Louis, where the Gateway Arch, at least, is still upright and the ticket-buying citizens are likely to forgive an outfit that passes over a glamour quarterback so it can draft a defensive lineman.

What can you say of Los Angeles, so stripped of its civic pride? It is divided by the kind of social unrest that leads newscasts in every town. The demise of the defense industry has the L.A. population anxious, if not downright jobless, and has pricked the speculative real estate bubble that the sporting magnates rested on—Bruce McNall, the owner of the Kings, whose empire was built on rare coins and, of course, real estate, is being hounded for $92 million. What can you say of a town that traded on sunshine and the scent of orange blossoms for its influence, but whose teams now leave for St. Louis and whose citizens depart for Boise and Denver? Can you say it was unlucky? Can you say it got what it deserved?

Who knows. This much is for sure: On Monday, radio station KM PC dropped its sports-talk format. The end, by any measure, is nigh. One wonders if the Chumash, waiting on the sidelines all these seasons, stand ready to reclaim the dusty basin.