Think sport in LA and you instantly think Magic. Magic Johnson, that is: he of the irresistible 1,000-watt smile, the protagonist of some of basketball’s most indelible moments.
They used to call it “showtime,” when Johnson’s Lakers, watched by such luminaries as Jack Nicholson, won championship after championship. But now Johnson and showtime have changed sports. The Lakers these days are just another NBA team. Now Johnson and the attendant Hollywood glitz have taken over baseball – or more exactly the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Just 18 months ago the Guggenheim sports group, of which Johnson was a partner, bought the Dodgers for $2.15bn (£1.35bn), the highest sum ever paid anywhere for a sports franchise. In February 2013, as the team embarked on spring training, Magic set out a goal worthy of that astronomical price. “We want to go to the World Series. If we don’t accomplish that, it is not a good season for us,” he told reporters.
That target is now just one tantalising step away. Last night the Dodgers opened one of the most intriguing National League Championship Series in years against 21st-century baseball’s great red machine, the St Louis Cardinals. Victory in the seven-game series and the Dodgers will be making their first World Series appearance in a quarter of a century, since the 1988 triumph over the Oakland Athletics.
The 2012 change of ownership ended surely the most miserable period in the Dodgers’ long and turbulent history. In 2004 the parking-lot magnate Frank McCourt bought the franchise from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox group. Seven years later it was a national laughing stock, forced into bankruptcy and a pawn in divorce proceedings between McCourt and his wife Jamie. The Dodgers, Magic declared, would enter a new era – and they have.
Freed of financial constraints, the team embarked on a spending spree that led to it entering 2013 with a payroll of $213m, eclipsing even that of baseball’s traditional Croesus, the New York Yankees. Big names arrived, most notably Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford in a mega-trade with the Boston Red Sox, as well as pitcher Zack Greinke in a six-year $147m deal from the Angels of Anaheim.
The biggest star of the team – at the start of the season at least – was however home-grown; ace starter Clayton Kershaw, who in 2008 became the youngest player in the majors at just 20, and three years later won the Cy Young Award for the best pitcher in the National League. In the 2013 regular season, he registered the lowest earned run average in baseball, a miserly 1.83 runs per game, and on the basis of one fancy new metric that covers all aspects of the game was rated perhaps the single most valuable player in the majors.
But even this line-up could not prevent the Dodgers getting off to a lousy start, one that left Johnson’s pre-season call to arms sounding like fatuous boosterism. By mid-June they were 31-42, last in the NL West. Then they went on a 46-10 winning streak and clinched the division 10 days before the end of the season, the earliest they had ever done. The hot streak continued into the post-season as LA dispatched the Atlanta Braves in the NL division series in four games.
In part the turnaround reflected the return of some key players from injury, and the collapse of obvious rivals like the San Francisco Giants, who had won it all in 2012. But there was another factor too: the emergence from nowhere of a rookie right-fielder called Yasiel Puig, who has taken major league baseball by storm.
As Johnson and the consortium were wrapping up their purchase of the Dodgers, the 22-year-old Puig, a star of the Cuban national team, was defecting. From Cuba he made it to Mexico, and became eligible for free agency. Within weeks, the Dodgers had snapped him up on a seven-year $42m contract. Never was money better spent.
Called up from the minor leagues on 3 June, Puig played 26 games that month and racked up 44 hits, the most in a month by a rookie since a certain Joe DiMaggio three-quarters of a century before. He kept up the pace, finishing the regular season with a .319 batting average. Off-field Puig is discretion personified; as a player he is unruly and electrifying – a threat the Cardinals must contain if St Louis is to make its fourth World Series in nine years.
The series could not be more finely poised. The Dodgers may have the glamour and the stars, but when games must be won, no one does it better than St Louis. This week the Cardinals proved it once more, steamrollering the Pittsburgh Pirates in the decisive fifth game of a thrilling National League Division series, having teetered on the brink of elimination just two days before.
But baseball’s bosses privately would love nothing so much as the Dodgers back in their sport’s showcase event. Small franchises like Oakland and Pittsburgh may have rousing stories, but they produce miserable TV ratings. On the road, however, the Dodgers draw more fans than any other team, more even than the Yankees.
In part it’s the old Brooklyn connection, the nostalgic aura that persists even though nigh on 60 years have passed since the universally beloved Bums switched to the opposite coast. For elderly New York baseball fans, the separation still feels like yesterday. But the Johnson effect is responsible too – that gigantic smile and the sense that, for Los Angeles baseball, showtime has arrived again.