For the love of the game
On the "benign cult" of the Dodgers, ancient fandom, and the end of waiting
It’s October, so it’s high time to talk about baseball. For most of my life I was waiting for the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the World Series. Then, a couple of years ago, they did. This is the story of my relationship as a fan to that team, and searching for meaning in sports fandom.
I was born in Southern California. Even when I was very young, my parents took me often to Chavez Ravine to see the Los Angeles Dodgers play. There are a lot of stories about that time—like, even before I was speaking much at all, I managed to blurt out, “it’s HUGE” upon seeing the stadium for the first time, that spectacular monument built into the side of a mountain overlooking downtown Los Angeles. Or the time my dad against all odds bought scalped tickets behind home plate and I, maybe five years old, kept asking to leave.
That initial exposure deepened when I’d read in grade school textbooks about Jackie Robinson, and I’d feel proud that it was my favorite team that had supported such a grand cause as the integration of baseball (without the awareness that it was also the favorite team of like 11 million people, and many more forever-heartbroken people in Brooklyn).
Maybe Dodger fandom goes back into my DNA. My great grandfather allegedly stayed alive long enough to see the Dodgers win the World Series in 1981, and died shortly thereafter. My mom’s grandparents also reportedly aired every Vin Scully (RIP) radio broadcast in their house—Scully’s voice effectively the narrative soundtrack to a city for generations.
Sports are weird. They instill strong passions in us, help us express tribal affiliations that are usually less toxic than those of political stripes. (A friend once characterized Dodgers fans as “a benign cult.”)
For me, I think my fandom of LA helped me define myself growing up in a different place. When I was ten, in 2004, my parents relocated our family to the Washington, D.C. area. We moved at about the same time the Montreal Expos came to Washington to become the Nationals.
So, I mean, we supported the Nats, even though they were awful. Even when the Nats got good, they were always choking, seemingly never able to meet the moment. We’d go to their games, particularly if LA was visiting, and we’d wear a blend of gear from both teams. But I wouldn’t wear a Nats shirt on my birthday. Many birthdays in a row, I wore a blue Dodgers shirt to middle and high school, deeply proud of this team that no one else cared about in my Maryland community. I’d watch the few broadcasts that were available on the east coast—I usually had to wait for the playoffs, when LA would usually collapse in short order.
In 2017, when the Dodgers made it to the World Series and played the Astros, suddenly it seemed like this might be the time that they could win the championship—the moment I’d been waiting for my whole life. I’d seen Lakers teams win, but that was different. The Lakers were like the Yankees. Winning the MLB title seemed impossible, despite the incredible then-recent recurrent playoff runs of teams like the San Francisco Giants. But as I watched the Dodgers lose Game 7 on my laptop, it somehow felt like the time wasn’t right. Later, we learned the Astros were cheating, in a scandal of historic proportions, adding to the mystique of the Dodgers as the forever runners-up, their legend in Brooklyn formed mostly by the number of times they came close but didn’t win the World Series.
In 2018, I was living in Nevada, and finally in the right time zone to watch LA go on a tear in the final weeks of the season and eke a return to the World Series, only to be summarily crushed by the Red Sox. I watched that series in a bar in San Francisco, where my every cheer was met with the deep-seated scorn of the Northern Californian.
A year later, and I finally made my return to the stadium I hadn’t visited for the better part of a decade, and I was awed, to the bemusement of my non-fan friend who attended the game with me. That fall, I remember being absolutely stunned when the Nats—the team I had grown tired of waiting for, the team that never had the “it” factor, the team that always lost—defeated an historically-good LA team in five games, and then went on to beat the dreaded Astros. The Nats’ achievement was amazing, but man, it was a gut-punch to see the rug pulled so swiftly from LA’s feet.
Then 2020 rolled around, and it seemed like it might be one of the last chances for this LA team to get its act together—this time, with the help of Mookie Betts, their one-time nemesis on the Red Sox. The pandemic forestalled the season and reduced it to a tournament. With not much else to do that fall, I watched almost every game—easier in a teeny season. But then the unthinkable happened—LA won the whole thing.
Some might call it an “asterisk” championship, but it felt like a championship to me. It felt like I maybe I’d been waiting my whole life for it, but it had happened, and what did that mean?
My fandom took on less urgency after that. The goal had been met. It was all for fun, after all. But there’s a dislocation when the ultimate summit has been reached—the lack of an idea of where to go from there. With that comes maturity and a more relaxed fan-dial setting. There are cycles and cycles. A game is just a way to pass the time.
But even last year, when I lived in Cyprus, I saw people wearing Dodgers shirts on the jogging path in October during the postseason, Cypriot baristas who professed themselves Chicago Cubs fans. Fandom, even in a less-popular worldwide sport like baseball, remained global.
This year, the Dodgers have won a ludicrous 111 games, a franchise record since their foundation in 1883. That means they are almost certainly doomed in the postseason, but you could say it’s more about the journey than the destination.
Speaking of destinations—this spring, I got to visit Rome for the first time, and with that visit came the Colosseum. Despite its name, the ancient stadium was way bigger than I expected—far closer to the size of a modern major league ballpark than I had imagined. As I wandered the cavernous ancient “concourse” and walked to the reconstructed “field,” I realized that this fandom thing had been going on for a very long time—though, the sports the Romans were playing were pretty grisly. But all our stadium designs are based on this stadium, a vertigo-inducing fact.
Rooting for a team is a universal, ancient phenomenon. And we are just at the top layer, looking down, still waiting for the thrill of long-sought victory, and not knowing what to do when that victory is finally attained.
Ancient meditations aside, I’m glad October baseball endures, and look forward to the next duel between pitcher and batter, the elemental sprint around the bases. Hey, it’s certainly an improvement over watching a desperate guy fight off a lion.
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