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Free to Dream They got mad in 1957. Now, many in Brooklyn, N.Y., hope to get even by buying the baseball team. The Dodgers say forget about it. An L.A. boy turned New Yorker isn't sure whom to root for.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- The sign is taped to the window of the Brooklyn Public Library. At first, it casts doubt on everything ever said about New York. The sign's notion is warm, fuzzy, dreamy even, in the face of the odds. "Bring the Dodgers home to Brooklyn," it says. In January, the Los Angeles Dodgers were put up for sale by owner Peter O'Malley. He is the son of Walter O'Malley, who in 1957 committed the sort of atrocity, folks in Brooklyn say, for which the United Nations convenes War Crimes Tribunals: He moved the beloved Dodgers from Ebbets Field to sunny Southern California.

The day the Dodgers went up for sale, Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden held a press conference to say he was going to arrange to buy the team back. It was treated by the media as a joke, a funny one-day story ("Bring Them Back!" screamed the New York Post). The idea seemed crazy; the Dodgers draw 3 million fans a year these days, and the O'Malleys are committed to keeping the team in L.A. "On the day that Camelot appears in England," Roger Kahn, author of "The Boys of Summer," inveighed, "the Dodgers will return to Brooklyn."

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Get ready for King Arthur.

Once again, the media has missed the story. In Brooklyn, you see, the Dodgers coming back is no joke, no lark. It is as serious a civic project as the new Brooklyn-Queens Third Water Tunnel, only more urgent. Elementary school students are knocking on doors, collecting signatures on petitions. The owner of Gage & Tollner, the borough's oldest restaurant, has offered up his eatery as a meeting place for Brooklynites to plan their purchase. Business leaders and ministers are debating whether a limited partnership or a public trust should own the team.

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And oh, yes, this is New York, so there is a commission, appointed by Golden, Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph (( Giuliani (the least enthusiastic of the three; he grew up in Brooklyn as the only Yankees fan on his block). The commission's aim? "To end the Dodgers' temporary stay on the West Coast," Pataki declares. To suggest this idea is the least bit fanciful, that Brooklyn's 40-year-old claim stretches the limits of ownership, is dangerous.

"What do you mean crazy? What do you mean unrealistic?" Golden barks like the World War II Navy man he was. "Stop laughing. Brooklyn is the Dodgers' home. Wouldn't you love to see them back here?"

That's my quandary. For the past five weeks, Brooklyn has been my home, the place I've moved to follow my wife's career. But for me, home will always be Southern California, where I was raised, played shortstop for the Pasadena Southwest Little League Giants, and, at age 8, watched Fernando Valenzuela, a Mexican rookie, pitch the Dodgers to the 1981 world championship. To translate to Baltimorese: I am the equivalent of a young, diehard Indianapolis Colts fan who moves to Charm City and buys a 33rd Street rowhouse with a view of Memorial Stadium. I'd love to be able to watch my hometown team play, but here?

Golden kindly offers to "explain our point of view," and I wander over to his office in downtown Brooklyn. Flying high above Borough Hall is the Dodgers flag -- which Golden has ordered to remain until the Dodgers return.

On the third floor of the building is the nerve center of the Dodgers campaign. Answering the phones are two young women whose desks have been pushed together. They both say they'd like to see the Dodgers return home, but seem just as interested in kibbitzing about obnoxious men or the latest TV movie. "It was totally scary how Dallas just became one big hole in the ground," says one.

She is interrupted by the phone. "Bring the Dodgers home to Brooklyn? The best thing is to write a letter to the borough president expressing your support," she says. "Where are you calling from? Colorado? Wow."

'Love of a team'

After five, four-year terms as borough president, Golden has amassed several bookshelves of Brooklyn lore; Dodgers memorabilia sits in one corner. He points to a picture of Ebbets Field, to the spot in the bleachers where he sat when he was just a boy from Flatbush. His favorite player was Gil Hodges, whom everyone knew because he lived on Bedford Avenue, just like anybody else.

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Golden says he welcomes doubters for his Dodgers project; the doubters said Brooklyn could never attract a major hotel, but now the Marriott is going in, the first new hotel in 50 years. He says there is no hidden agenda for the Dodgers campaign, only the "love of a team, no revenge, no grudge." Still, he concedes that when he was in Los Angeles once and drove by Dodger

Stadium, "I had to look the other way."

To demonstrate the childlike innocence of his mission, Golden ,, unlocks a drawer of his desk, and removes an accordion file full of letters. One is from a 10-year-old Connecticut girl, a Little League third baseman whose father grew up in Brooklyn. "My dad said the Dodgers were for sale," she writes. "I think it would be great if the Dodgers could play in Brooklyn again. Carl Furillo, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Roy Campanella were the greatest! Please buy them back again. Here is $10 to buy back the team."

The team's price tag is estimated at $300 million; Brooklyn would have to outbid the likes of Rupert Murdoch, O. J. lawyer Robert Shapiro, and former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth. But Golden has an idea. If Brooklyn could get half that money for the purchase, the borough could take Chavez Ravine -- the 300-acre site just east of downtown L.A. where the Dodgers play -- and sell it to finance the balance of the deal.

"That real estate would be very valuable," says Golden. "People all over Brooklyn love this idea. Check it out."

So I do. At the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn Heights, Rev. W.F. Wooden is preaching about the need for bake sales and business donations to create a private corporation that would own the team. Of course, there are costs to this plan: The Mets would have to go.

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"I wish Queens no evil," Wooden wrote in a neighborhood newspaper, "but they have Belmont Park and Flushing Meadow (site of the U.S. Open tennis championship). Our new corporation may well make good by condemning the Mets, taking the team by eminent domain, and selling it to the O'Malleys as part of a swap."

At this point, I call the Los Angeles Dodgers, and read Wooden's and Golden's statements to team spokesman Derrick Hall. "You're kidding," he says.

I'm serious.

"I just don't believe they're serious," he says.

But at the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, Jennifer Adolph, director of government relations and communications, insists that the Dodgers campaign "is a serious effort; you can tell by the players." But soon she offers the first crack in the borough's united front of optimism. "Yes, it's a pie-in-the-sky idea," she says, "but it will have benefits even though we probably won't get the team."

Such as?

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"Well, it will bring younger people together around the Dodgers, and create energy for new improvement projects."

But how?

Adolph won't explain much further. It's only at the Brooklyn Historical Society that I begin to understand what she might mean.

The society, now closed for renovations, keeps a book in which people can share their memories of the Dodgers. The book holds odes to the old players, but also a fair amount of complaining about the 1957 move. Most telling is this entry: "My father was taken by his pa the year Ebbets Field opened. He took me plenty until I could go with my friends. When the Dodgers left, I was 19. I've since become a priest and God, forgive me, I didn't pray for Walter O'Malley when he went to Our Maker."

Moment of truth

A few hours later, I'm driving past the old Ebbets Field site, now a public housing project with only a small plaque to commemorate the old ballpark, when it hits me: Is this what the Dodgers campaign is all about? A grudge?

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"I wouldn't put it exactly that way," says Adolph, from the chamber of commerce.

"Actually, I'd put it exactly that way," says the man on the bar stool next to mine. We're at the Brooklyn Dodger, a tavern on Third Avenue in the working-class neighborhood of Bay Ridge. Barmaid Kim Novak, 29, is talking about how "there wasn't anything more exciting than this past World Series. To tell you the truth, most of us here are Yankee fans."

Yankee fans? "Yeah, don't believe what the politicians and business owners are telling you," the man next to me says again.

Is that so?

"Yeah, it's smart what they're doing," he continues. "They're trying to get the children excited, to get everyone excited, because they know the Dodgers will stay in L.A. Then everyone can become angry and bitter again when they don't return to Brooklyn. It renews the grudge, and brings people together. It's a beautiful thing, really. You need to bring people together to get things done.

"If you don't believe me," he concludes, "why don't you do a survey or something?"

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The next day, I take his advice. For a half-hour during lunchtime, I walk around downtown Brooklyn wearing a huge "Bring the Dodgers Home to Brooklyn" pin. Few people notice. I get two compliments, both from older gentlemen, and return home.

A few minutes later, I retrace the same path, wearing my Los Angeles Dodgers cap, with the white letters "LA" against a blue background. And something amazing happens. In a city where people seem to stare straight ahead and ignore each other, the citizens suddenly have a feeling of unity. That is, they all hate me.

I get hard stares from at least three dozen people. A few catcalls. And then on Court Street, a voice from behind me says: "Take that cap off now or I'll take your head off."

I hide the hat under my jacket, and stop at the library to return a book. A librarian notices me staring at the Dodgers sign. "It'd be great to stick it to L.A.," he says, "don't you think?"

"You bet," I say. Los Angeles has a special team, and Brooklyn has a special grudge. Let's hope both remain well-nurtured.

Pub Date: 3/13/97



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