MARCH 31, 2011
Louis Santillan was born in a two-bedroom house on a dirt road at the bottom of the ravine. His neighborhood was an urban oasis, more than 300 unspoiled acres laid out less than two miles from downtown Los Angeles, dotted with eucalyptus and palm trees. Children slid down dirt hillsides on cardboard slabs. Women picked avocados in vegetable gardens. Chickens wandered door to door. Goats grazed in front yards. When families threw parties, they did not bother to send invitations. Neighbors simply listened for the squeal of a pig in the morning, the signal that carnitas would be grilled for the entire village that night.
Santillan was born in February 1935, and in keeping with Mexican tradition, his parents buried his umbilical cord in their backyard. Fifteen years later the Santillans were among roughly 1,000 residents of Chavez Ravine bought out of their land to make room for a low-income housing project. The city paid poorly but promised first dibs on the new homes. The project, however, never broke ground. The property was used instead to lure Walter O'Malley from Brooklyn and create another urban oasis: Dodger Stadium. "Now my umbilical cord is buried under third base," Santillan says. "Every time somebody hits a triple, I feel a pain right here."
He grabs his stomach and winces in his wheelchair. His sons, Louie and Eddie, chuckle. Santillan tells this story every year, on the third Saturday in July. He is the founder of a group of former Chavez Ravine residents called Los Desterrados—the Uprooted—which gathers for an annual picnic in Elysian Park, the greenbelt bordering Dodger Stadium. Santillan has never been inside the stadium, still fuming that his parents received only $7,500 for their two houses on Gabriel Avenue, but his children let go of the grudge. The stadium became the cord that connected them to their past. When they wanted to see where their dad grew up, they just bought tickets along third.
Despite the salsa music and grilled chicken, the mood at this year's picnic was a little glum. Some of Los Desterrados had died. Others were sick. Most, however, were angry. As the sun pierced the morning clouds, Louie and Eddie gazed over the ravine, through the eucalyptus trees, toward the stadium on the hill where they had spent so many happy nights. They too felt a pain in their stomachs. "When I think about what happened up there," says Louie, who unlike his father regularly attends Dodgers games, "I'm ashamed for all of us."
Chavez Ravine has again been spoiled. The Dodgers are more than $500 million in debt. Attendance is down nearly 18% from last season. Television ratings are down more than 25%. Fans wear jerseys with the name CHAPTER stitched over 11. Team employees wonder if their paychecks will bounce. Latin American talent brokers, who used to funnel the Dodgers their best players, don't even invite the club to tryouts because they assume the organization can't afford to sign anybody. Meanwhile, owner Frank McCourt wages legal battles in three states against his ex-wife, Jamie, his former law firm and Major League Baseball. "You go to games there and everyone is so mad at the owner they won't show up," says Padres closer and Southern California native Heath Bell. "It's heartbreaking."
Some ballparks transcend the teams that play within their walls—Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium. Dodger Stadium used to be that way, full whether the club was in first place or fifth. You didn't go for the party, as at Wrigley, or the history, like Fenway. You went for the San Gabriel Mountains at sunset, the palm trees standing sentry behind the outfield fence, the beach balls floating in the dusk; ushers in straw hats, Nancy Bea Hefley on the organ, Vin Scully on the call. The building itself, as mid-century as Mad Men, was never an architectural wonder. But for almost 50 years Chavez Ravine offered the residents of Los Angeles something that is not easy to find in the middle of a teeming city, the same idyll that once lured the Santillan family: peace.
The rivalry between the Dodgers and the Giants traces back to New York in the 19th century and has a feral intensity even at its most tranquil. When the two teams met at Dodger Stadium on March 31, it was Opening Day. San Francisco was coming off a World Series championship. The Dodgers were coming off a fourth-place finish and an off-season in which their biggest acquisition was journeyman infielder Juan Uribe. As the date approached, the Dodgers learned that some San Francisco fans planned to hire private planes to fly near the stadium with taunting messages, and the hosts braced for a charged atmosphere. They had no full-time security director in place—Ray Maytorena, a former Secret Service agent, had been dismissed from the post in December—but had hired former director Shahram Ariane on an interim basis. According to records provided by Jerry Jackson, the Dodgers' lawyer, the club deployed 457 security personnel on Opening Day, including 195 uniformed LAPD officers. Jackson called it the largest show of force for a regular- or postseason game in his 23 years representing the organization. Major League Baseball also dispatched two of its own security officials to the stadium.
Bryan Stow, a 42-year-old paramedic from Santa Cruz, drove the 350 miles to Los Angeles for the game. A divorced father of two, Stow has several passions besides his children and his work: the Giants, the beach, mixed martial arts, hard rock and his hair. "His hair was his signature," says Patrick Bostic, who worked with Stow at American Medical Response in San Jose. "It had its own personality. It was super spiky, and he used so much product that it never really moved. He was not happy when it got messed up."
Stow went to the game with three friends—Corey Maciel, Matt Lee and Jeff Bradford. They all wore hats, but not Stow: He opted for a black Giants batting practice jersey over khaki shorts. According to LAPD sources, Stow and his friends left their car at a hotel and took a taxi to Dodger Stadium. They posed in the parking lot for a picture with two other fans. Stow stood in front, arms outstretched, sunglasses tilted toward the sky.