Can the Dodgers be the Dodgers again?

LOS ANGELES -- Back in 2004, when I was in my first season on the Los Angeles Dodgers beat, whenever I would leave Dodger Stadium around 6 or 7 in the evening after covering a day game I would often stop at Top of the Park and just stare at the view for a few minutes.

If you have never been up there, even in an arguably outdated ballpark, it is still the most breathtaking vista in all of baseball, one that stretches for dozens of miles and includes, depending which way you turn, the San Gabriel Mountains to the North, the Hollywood sign to the West and even the control tower at LAX rising from the southern horizon.

I had been there many times over the years while covering the Colorado Rockies and Cincinnati Reds, but this was different. There was a sense of having arrived professionally, given that I was finally working in the market I had set my sights on way back in journalism school because I wanted to cover the Dodgers.
And so, I would stand there, soaking up as much of that view as I could, possibly out of fear that I would suddenly awaken from this dream and find that it was never real.

It was on Sunday of last week that the rude awakening I had always dreaded finally came.
After chronicling the Dodgers' dramatic win over the Los Angeles Angels that day, their having scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth and possibly benefited from a blown call by the plate umpire, I decided to stop and check out that view again, for old times' sake, for the first time in years. I saw the same mountains silhouetted against the early-evening sky, the same hills glowing orange in the sunset, the same distant freeways, the same transmitter towers. But in the aggregate, I didn't see the same view. Not even close.

It seems nothing up at Chavez Ravine has the same luster anymore.

I don't intend this to be a Frank McCourt-bashing column. It's more just a wistful consideration of what became of the Dodgers we once knew, the one major league team I could sense stood out from all the others even while growing up 1,500 miles away in Northwest Arkansas. They didn't win the World Series, or even the National League West, every year, but you could usually count on them to contend. And even when they didn't, you could count on them to do whatever they did with that certain class, that certain air about them that told you this was the best organization not just in baseball but in professional sports.

Last Sunday, when I stood there trying to admire that view, they had become a national joke. Within 12 hours, they would become a bankrupt one.

As beat reporters, we aren't supposed to root for the team we cover. And while, for the most part, we generally honor that code -- we aren't jumping up and down if they win, it doesn't ruin our day if they lose -- most of us realize that our jobs are easier and the storylines more compelling if the team is winning and competing for a playoff spot. To that end, I would imagine covering these Dodgers in the glory days of the 1970s and '80s would have been an incredible experience, and there is a part of me that really wants to believe that experience can be recreated in the near future.

But I wonder, and I would imagine most Dodgers fans wonder, whether it can. It isn't simply a matter of replacing McCourt, just as it wasn't simply a matter of replacing NewsCorp back in 2004. When that inevitable day comes, the day when McCourt finally steps aside, that will be only the first hurdle. The next one will be finding the right owner, an owner who can give the second-largest market in the country the well-funded, well-equipped, perennially contending team it deserves.

Spending a lot of money on players isn't a guarantee of anything, as we learned during the Fox years. But not spending enough to compete does guarantee you something, as we are learning right now. McCourt did bump up the budget slightly last winter, enough to allow general manager Ned Colletti to fill the holes he needed to fill, but not enough to make a serious run at any of the marquee free agents who were available, guys like Cliff Lee, Jayson Werth, Carl Crawford, etc. The Dodgers don't figure to be in the market for Albert Pujols this year, either, assuming he makes it to free agency. Players of that caliber go to places like New York or Boston or Philadelphia or, yes, Anaheim.

They used to occasionally come to the Dodgers. But now, even before bankruptcy, the Dodgers had about as much chance of landing players like those as the Kansas City Royals or the Pittsburgh Pirates. Now, the Dodgers have about the same chance of making the playoffs as those clubs, too.

One of the neat things about covering the Dodgers, even now, is that so many of the old players still come around a lot, affording me the opportunity to meet a lot of the guys I watched from afar while growing up. Sadly, Fernando and Garv and Sweet Lou and Newk and the Penguin are about the only reminders left of the days when the Dodgers were the Dodgers.

And that is the worst part of this whole, never-ending McCourt saga. Just like that view from Top of the Park, the uniform hasn't changed much. The home whites are still as white, the blue script still as blue and the red numbers still as red. But they don't look the same anymore because they don't command the respect they once did. Even going into those notoriously hostile environs of San Francisco and San Diego, you get the sense that fans there don't so much hate the Dodgers now as they pity them.

We have no idea how long this whole McCourt thing is going to last, how long it is going to take for him to put the team up for sale or for it to be put up for sale for him, how long it will take to find a new owner or ownership group. Until that happens, and until that ownership has a chance to settle in and demonstrate how it plans to do business, we also will have no idea if the vintage Dodgers, the storied Dodgers, the feared and hated Dodgers, will ever be seen around here again, or if they will remain some boring story of bygone days for us to annoy our grandchildren with.

All we can really do at this point is hope. Because that view from Top of the Park is in desperate need of some touch-up paint.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.