Los Angeles, please welcome Mark Walter, Stan Kasten and Magic Johnson as the new owners of the Dodgers…
Wait, Magic Johnson? Yes, Showtime has definitely gone Big Time.
After the trio paid more than $2 billion dollars for the historic franchise, the man synonymous with the Lakers proudly paraded around Dodger Stadium today in a blue and white jersey, not his usual purple and gold. Don’t worry though, stitched on the back was #12, as around Dodger Stadium his usual ’32′ has been permanently reserved for Sandy Koufax.
After an hour long press conference – filled with the expected questions about former owner Frank McCourt, do they still have money left over to make trades at the deadline this season (yes), what will they do to fix up the stadium, etc. – Magic proclaimed “I know this game, I love this game.”
And as much as any one man can prove his love of baseball during brief conversations with the media, he did just that. Magic eloquently wove the names of past Dodger greats – like Orel Hershiser, Dusty Baker, Fernando Valenzuela, Steve Garvey and Ron Cey – into his answers at will. He also used history as a common theme, “When I first got here, this was a Dodger town. We (the Lakers) couldn’t even get on the front page of the paper,” he recalled.
Vin Scully, who most Angeleno’s feel they have a relationship with, even if they’ve never met the golden-voiced and ginger-haired face of the franchise, oversaw the press conference. Not so surprisingly, he shared wonderful stories and even made a few jokes – with the best being, “They were going to set up a basketball court over there so Magic and I could play a game of one-on-one, shirts vs. skins.”
While that never materialized, a recurring theme did continuously pop up throughout the day - Dodger pride. When the O’Malley’s owned the team, it was omnipresent and it seems the new ownership group is insistent on using that time period as its benchmark. They didn’t speak about this being the dawn of a new day or about writing a new chapter. Today was about looking to the past and making the necessary steps to return to a level of play and decorum that’s been inconsistent for parts of the last decade.
“When you think about Dodger pride and the Dodger organization, it’s been first class for a long time. They’ve brought many World Series rings to this city and we want to get back to that,” said Magic. “This town wants the Dodgers to come back and be a successful franchise…We can get back to that. And trust me, when this team is successful, we’ll be a Dodger-town all over again.”
His love for baseball started as a kid, growing up a Tigers fan and watching players like Bill Freehan, Mickey Stanley, Norm Cash, Willie Horton and Aurelio Rodriguez. However, his personal days on the diamond were extremely limited.
“I played one day,” Magic shared through a deep chuckle. “When the curve ball came at me and it broke inside, I said ‘Nope. My playing days are over’ and I begged out of the batters box.”
Yet, during the presser, Johnson revealed that Matt Kemp wants to play him on a surface much more in Magic’s comfort zone, the basketball court. Could that ever spill over into a friendly little rivalry during batting practice too?
“No batting practice for me,” said Magic with one of his famous laughs. “I wouldn’t come out here and try to hit a fast ball, curve ball or slider. I love just staying in my seat. But, he and Dee Gordon challenged me and I can’t back away from that challenge. I’ll wait until after we have a successful season though. Then, we’ll play some basketball.”
Part of his reluctance to try and mash with Kemp may be his gushing love for what the centerfielder has been doing of late.
“He’s really playing some incredible baseball. I tell people all the time, even without me being an owner, he’s the best player in baseball.” Magic proclaimed. “Plus, (Clayton) Kershaw is the best pitcher, he’s dominating. We’re also getting some great play from other guys right now. That’s why we’re in first place – and because Ethier is playing outstanding, swinging the bat very, very well. Look at Dee Gordon, hitting a home run yesterday. Our relievers are also doing their job and we’re playing solid defense.”
Even though he was only on the job officially for a few hours, Magic was already talking like an owner who wants more from his club - “Everything can be better. We can’t relax. We can’t think that we’ve arrived. We have to keep grinding it out. We have to keep working hard. And Don (Mattingly) has been doing a wonderful job of managing our team. So, our job now – Mark and I – is to support Stan and Ned (Colletti), and that’s what we’re going to do.”
One of the many areas the new owners didn’t shy away from talking about was the need to improve certain aspects of Dodger Stadium. Perhaps Magic even picked up some ideas from AEG over the last year or so, while exploring the concept of bringing a football team to LA. The purposed Farmers Field would be a state-of-the-art stadium, but what can be done to improve Dodger Stadium?
“The social media part, getting fans in and out quicker, those type of things we can improve on. Plus, our restaurants and things like that,” explained Magic during our one-on-one conversation. “We’re already going to surprise the players and improve the family lounge. Things that we can do, we’ll do and we’ve started that process already. Some of the other things we want to do will take a bit longer – like the locker rooms. That’s going to take longer because of engineering and things out of our control. But, we will improve on everything we can. We’ll look at things first, then we’ll need a strategy. What can we do? Let’s work on that. What will take a month or two or even after the season? Then, we’ll work on those things.”
Even without upgrades, Magic shared what any true baseball fan already knows – and Tommy Lasorda has preached for years – “Dodger Stadium is still one of the greatest places to watch a game. It might be outdated in some areas. But, to physically sit and watch a game, it’s still a beautiful ballpark.”
Like so many of the other topics Magic waxed on about throughout the morning, he was right again. From its luscious green grass, to the beautiful blue walls in the outfield; from the multi-colored seating, to the retired numbers above the pavilions; she may be old, but she’s still Blue Heaven on Earth.
“We want to bring back that Dodger pride – not only on the field, but to our fans,” said Magic, in one last rally cry. “The fans deserve to have a great organization and great owners who care about them and want them to have the best fan experience that they’ve ever had. And we’re going to deliver that to them!”
Of course, the true test of his promise will come with time. Yet, if day one was even a small glimpse into the future, Dodger fans have a lot to look forward to.