GLENDALE, Ariz. — Somberness and shock still rule the city of Los Angeles. In downtown LA, a man displayed a T-Shirt with the image of Kobe Bryant on it holding a basketball.
“Ten dollars!” he bellowed.
Outside of the Staples Center, fans and pedestrians stop and stare at the house that Kobe built. Some pull out their phones to snap a photo. Others take mental pictures. Some of the flowers that mourn Bryant’s death have dried but the emotions haven’t. Everything is still raw.
The gateway pillars just outside Los Angeles International Airport still bleed purple and gold. But on one particular night, they are just purple.
That must be for Kobe, too.
“No,” a bus driver quickly interjects while trying to steer her way out of LAX, “those are for Prince.”
The Los Angeles market calls stars to its center stage — some, of course, more than others. If you reach the pinnacle of your profession, you’re immortalized like a Bryant or Prince. It’s part of the reason LeBron James fled Cleveland to join the Lakers and rumors had Tom Brady linked to a possible landing spot out West. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George chose to play here, making it arguably the best sports city in the country.
The additions of Mookie Betts and David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers last week took it to an even greater level. Betts is a former MVP in his prime and Price a former Cy Young winner who should have been World Series MVP a couple of years ago. They are proven winners in arguably the toughest sports market and are looking to capture another World Series for a team that has struggled to make it to the sunny side of championship adulation.
“That’s why I put my uniform on every day,” said Betts, when asked if he likes pressure. “That’s why I come prepared to play. I embrace that. As a unit we have to do that.”
Los Angeles fans are passionate about the Dodgers. Yes, even more than a Clippers team that added a two-time NBA Finals MVP in Leonard and are widely considered the favorites to win a title.
“The Clippers’ [popularity] is like fifth or sixth,” longtime Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke said. “They’re not even on the map. They’re more popular nationally than they are locally.
On the additions of Betts and Price, Plaschke said: “That’s big, but they need to win a championship. Remember, they’ve been in the World Series two times in the last three years. They have to win a championship. The Dodgers had to show their fans they just weren’t content to sit on their hands, so this was a big move for them, because fans were going crazy.”
The baseball part will take care of itself and Betts noted that playing in Boston in front of a sellout crowd each night expecting excellence is something he’s used to. Manager Dave Roberts intimated much of the same, and said adding both Price and Betts takes on an even greater meaning to the overall sports landscape in Los Angeles.
“I think that just the diversity part, African-Americans here in the city of Los Angeles, Greater Los Angeles [is huge],” Roberts said. “This is where Jackie [Robinson] played [in the Dodgers organization]. To have them here, I think that there’s a part of the fanbase that’s really going to identify with them. Just their humility and understanding of the platform and opportunity that they have for younger kids and people in the community, that’s going to add a lot of excitement.”
Last year, for the first time since 1946 — a season before Robinson debuted — an African-American didn’t start the season on the 25-man roster.
The visibility of Betts, a position player, is important and Price thinks it will enhance his marketability.
“Absolutely,” Price said of the significance of having Betts in a large market like Los Angeles and potentially being a face for the Dodgers and baseball. “I don’t know how many everyday African-American players are in our division.
“For the superstar, Mookie is the personality that he has,” Price pauses. “I never saw him on TV [in Boston] outside of baseball games. If I have a company and I’m working in New England, I want Mookie Betts.”
Whether Betts wants that marketability has long been a polarizing topic. MLB said Betts has declined to partake in commercials when asked, while Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB Players Association, said that “Mookie should be a household name,” last July at the All-Star Game.
The Los Angeles market could certainly help Betts’s brand (he’s gained over 40,000 followers on Instagram since joining the Dodgers), but it will be interesting to see how that develops. He’s hinted, at times, of being more reserved.
“I think just being in LA, in general, that opportunity is definitely there,” Betts said. “I have to take care of my business on the field and those opportunities kind of come. My mind is definitely here and let the rest take care of itself.”
Both Betts and Price are family-oriented. That was something they spoke about at length at their introductory media conference with the Dodgers. Price has three more years left in a deal that will pay him $96 million dollars between the Red Sox and Dodgers.
In the case of Betts, he has a chance to cash out a mega-deal at the end of this season. The Dodgers have the money to spend. They could make Betts the next face of their franchise. He could never mean to Los Angeles what Bryant did, but he could certainly write his own script in Dodger blue.