For now, at least, L.A. is truly the city of Angels
Forget about the Dodgers' ongoing bankruptcy sale, contrasted so clearly by the Angels' Albert Pujols signing.Los Angeles, Don Mattingly insists, is a Dodgers town. "I don't mean this as a negative," Mattingly told reporters on Tuesday, "because [the Angels] have done a tremendous job down there. But at the end of the day, the Dodgers are still the Dodgers." My first thought at this conversation-stirring assertion, naturally, revolves around the movie "The Naked Gun." As you'll recall, the Angels are in it. They're playing a game at which lieutenant Frank Drebin must thwart a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth II by going undercover -- first as opera singer Enrico Pallazzo, then as the home-plate umpire. What does this have to do with the Angels vs. Dodgers debate?
Well, although the scene is purported to be an Angels home game, it was filmed at Dodger Stadium, because no other venue could better convey the experience of L.A. baseball -- especially when the Angels play their actual home games in Anaheim, 25 miles to the southeast.Case closed. Mattingly, shockingly, did not use this "Naked Gun" evidence in presenting his case. Instead he pointed eastward, back toward his Bronx roots. "It's kind of like Mets-Yankees," he said. "The Yankees are the team, no matter what the Mets do. [The Mets] are going to have their years when they play well, but the Yankees are still the team." This was a curious comparison on Mattingly's part, considering that in Mattingly's own playing days, the Yankees reached the playoffs just once (losing the Division Series to the Mariners in 1995, his 13th and final season), whereas the Mets reached two National League Championship Series and a World Series, winning it all in 1986. In fact, in those 13 years, the Mets outdrew the Yankees nine times. Maybe, despite those disparate success and attendance rates, it wasn't truly a Mets town back then, just as it's not truly a Mets town now. But how much clout does this perceived ownership carry when it's not accompanied by on-field success? The short answer is none, of course. So although Mattingly's assertion is accurate in sentiment, the question is whether it will be accurate in the standings and stats. "I know what he's trying to say," Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick said, "because there's a lot of history there. The Dodgers have been there forever. ... But at the same time, with all we've done this year, I'd say there are a lot of Angels fans, too." Kendrick's right. In fact, last year the Angels outdrew the Dodgers for the first time in their existence, with 3.17 million fans going to Angel Stadium and 2.94 million turning up at Dodger Stadium. Could this be the start of a new trend? The answer, as you might have guessed, will likely come down to wins and losses. As we embark upon the 2012 season, you would be hard pressed to find a single person -- be it a sabermetrical stat geek or a casual consumer -- who honestly believes that the Dodgers' current contention hopes in the NL West are better than those of the Angels in the American League West. The Angels have landed the best player in baseball, and they've augmented an already robust rotation. They appear poised to try to reclaim the AL West banner that once routinely belonged to them. "On paper our team is built to win right now," Angels starter Dan Haren said. "We still have to go out and get it done, but the product that [owner] Arte [Moreno] has put together and put on the field, you know there's a reason why we draw three million fans a year. One, the atmosphere in the ballpark. Two, the product that we put on the field is pretty good." The Dodgers? Well, their most important transaction is that ongoing ownership sale. In the meantime, they've done little to realistically improve what was an 82-win team in 2011 -- a team that managed to finish above .500 only because Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw were forces of nature in the middle of the lineup and atop the rotation. To repeat the feat, the Dodgers will need both guys to carry the load and play out of their minds again in 2012 (Kemp making good on his 50-50 proclamation would help), because the Dodgers did not spend aggressively enough to significantly upgrade their supporting cast. That tide, though, is about to turn. Possibly in a big way. Whoever takes over Dodgers' ownership this year is expected to pay more than a billion dollars for the privilege. And it is not anticipated that the new ownership team will suddenly get frugal in free agency after forking over that chunk of change. Quite the contrary. There's a reason why the Dodgers, quietly, were a finalist for Prince Fielder. The parties in play in the Dodgers' bidding would not have balked at a blockbuster contract, especially not on a club that is on the verge of an immense injection of television revenue and on which Kemp -- who signed an eight-year, $160 million extension this winter -- is the only player with a guaranteed contract beyond 2014. Given the Dodgers' expected financial wherewithal and flexibility, there won't be a single prominent free agent that they won't be able to pursue. That's when the Dodgers will really be L.A.'s team again -- when the new owners arrive at Chavez Ravine and start ripping down the remnants of Frank McCourt's reign. In the meantime, you have a Dodgers team that revolves around pluck more than buck. A team that played hard for Mattingly in his rookie season as a skipper and posted 34 wins in August and September, but one that will need to capitalize on every last bit of upside in order to contend this season. L.A.-area fans on the fence, then, can be forgiven if they've been swayed toward the Angels' side of things, at least for the time being. After all, the Angels have been to and won a World Series in this millennium. And with Pujols in play, they've never been more marketable. "I don't want to badmouth the Angels at all," Mattingly said. "Mr. Moreno and [manager] Mike [Scioscia] do a great job and have had a great run. But we're the Dodgers, and that's not going to change." No, it's not. But big, big changes are afoot for one of the game's most storied franchises. In the meantime, L.A. is a Dodgers town only in the sentimental sense.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. MLB.com beat reporter Alden Gonzalez contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.