Most stadiums have them – those cutout baseball fans, creating the illusion of a large crowd to cheer them on.
Then there’s the artificial noise piped in, lively music and scoreboards lit up indicating who is entering the batters box next.
Baseball is back, yet in the strangest of ways in 2020.
With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping fans away, in-stadium spectator support for, arguably, the best team in Major League Baseball, will be reduced to cardboard life-sized faces in the stands and serve as the norm for the most unusual of all baseball seasons in the game’s 151-year history.
History – Dodger history, that is – just happens to be something Mark Langill knows a lot about, and it’s safe to say the South Pasadena resident hasn’t seen anything close to this in his 26 years with the club.
As the team historian, he called last week’s home opener against the San Francisco Giants a surreal experience “not because of the games on the field, but the public’s reaction to the cardboard cutouts in the stands. It reinforces my belief that sports are a way to share an experience and give us something we can talk about. Who could imagine my neighbor saying at 6:30 in the morning while picking up his newspaper, ‘I like the piped-in crowd noise at Dodger Stadium better than the New York ballparks.’“
Langill hasn’t received much in the way of texts from friends about game strategy or lineups these days, instead noting that people are simply glad to have something traditional return to their lives, at least for a few hours.
The game even took a twist for those listening to the Dodgers’ radio broadcast with Charley Steiner and Rick Monday, Langill pointing out “it sounded like just another ballgame in July.”
It wasn’t. Hardly close. Staying a safe distance, Langill explained that Monday called the action from inside a suite at the stadium and Steiner, working from home due to health precautions, sat in a recliner watching an array of video monitors.
Odd times for the longtime Dodger fan? You bet. “Baseball is a game of traditions that span generations, so it sometimes feels like you’re driving on an unmarked road with no street signs or signals,” explained Langill, who has been working from home since mid-March because of limited office space when the stadium reopened for business.
At this point, he stressed, just to have the game around in these unprecedented time is a bonus. “One of the impactful decisions by the Dodger organization early in this health-care crisis was converting the stadium parking lots into a drive-through testing center for the Southern California community,” Langill explained. “The Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation pivoted from preparing for the 2020 All-Star Game to helping the surrounding areas with meaningful programs and initiatives to serve all age groups.”
He believes two important themes should be embraced during life’s difficult days – gratitude and patience. “Don’t take electricity or clean drinking water for granted,” he noted. “Look around and see the real heroes – the frontline workers in hospitals, nursing facilities, post office, grocery stores, delivery services. Thank those who sanitize the counters at the bank, the carts at the stores and appreciate the safety equipment used in restaurants for takeout orders. We can’t control what happens around us, but we can control our reaction.”
America’s Pastime has been a part of Langill’s life since his early youth. Following a South Pasadena education, launch at Calvary preschool through graduation from the local high school in 1983, he then attended Pasadena City College and Cal State Northridge where he studied journalism. It paid off handsomely as he served as a sports reporter for the Pasadena Star-News from 1988-93. After covering the Dodgers for five seasons as a beat reporter, he joined the organization s as a broadcasting and publications assistant in 1994.
The team historian title, explained Langill, was created in 2002 by Dodgers VP of Communications Derrick Hall, the current president of the Arizona Diamondbacks because “the Dodgers had undergone two ownership changes and he believe it was important to preserve institutional history.”
Hall once told Langill, “We really don’t know what you’re talking about half the time, but you know what you’re talking about.”
And from there, the position was born for a guy who jokes about his own clumsiness on the baseball diamond growing up as a youth in the city. “The history of the Dodgers always remained center stage in my brain since age 7, which is likely why I didn’t learn how to hit or field the ball in Little League. I can remember in third grade someone on the playground making an unassisted triple play in kickball and I excitedly announced that it had only happened once in the World Series by the Cleveland Indians against Brooklyn in 1920. It was the first of many blank stares I would receive. Thanks to my new business title as team historian, I went from a nut to a specialist.”
Langill, 55, says being a team historian means something different every day, saying: “From Brooklyn to Los Angeles and all points around the world, the Dodgers have been members of the National League since 1890. Whatever knowledge and obscure I posses won’t mean anything if I can’t be a resource to others, whether it be former players, fans, media members or colleagues in the front office. The current events haven’t tapered the daily volume of history inquiries.
Among his biggest projects over the past year was working with PBS SoCal on a documentary, “Dodgers Stories: 6 Decades in LA.”
In the current decade, on paper, the Dodgers are loaded with a “starting rotation led by Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw; power in the lineup from MVP Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy; veteran leadership from Justin Turner and newly acquired outfielder Mookie Betts from the Boston Red Sox,” said Langill, before rifling off statistical information, perhaps, only a Dodger historian would know. “Before the current streak of seven N.L. West titles, the previous high-water mark for consecutive playoff appearances was just two, accomplished in 1952-53, 1955-56, 1965-66, 1977-78, 1995-96 and 2008-09.”
He credits the team’s success to General manager Andrew Friedman and the baseball operations department for designing a player development system that begins with scouting and solid drafts. “But the beauty of baseball, or any sport, is you have to play the game,” noted Langill
In search of their first World Series championship since 1988, the Dodgers set a franchise record with 106 regular-season wins in 2019 before losing in the first round of the playoffs. ‘When people want a prediction, I tell them, ‘Just watch the movie and we’ll find out the ending together.’”
As the Dodgers historian, how does he anticipate putting this bizarre season into the history books? “There are now three major chapters in the 130-year history of Dodger baseball: Brooklyn (1890-1957); Los Angeles (1958-2019); Pandemic Baseball in 2020 and Beyond,” he said.”We can assume those cardboard cutouts will be in a museum someday. As for now, we can only take things day by day and hope for the best.”