WW II vet Jim Bal­lard, 94, has pledged al­le­giance to Dodgers since 1958, but they risk los­ing him, and so many other fans, as TV black­out drags on

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - BILL PLASCHKE

CARPIN­TE­RIA, Calif. — He was a first sergeant in the 3rd Army in World War II, a Bronze Star medal win­ner, the owner of a con­tract­ing busi­ness, a hus­band of 66 years, a fa­ther of two, and af­ter nearly a cen­tury of living, Jim Bal­lard had de­cided on his re­ward.

A bur­gundy re­cliner, a bot­tle of Ar­row­head spring wa­ter, a can of Planters Cock­tail Peanuts, a 47-inch TV, a sil­ver re­mote con­trol, and the Dodgers. “Watch­ing the Dodgers on tele­vi­sion was my life,” he says. In the mod­est home tucked among oak trees and av­o­cado farms two miles above the Pa­cific Ocean, Bal­lard, 94, would hunch over the sports sec­tion ev­ery morn­ing on the small kitchen ta­ble, pull out a pen, cir­cle the time of the Dodgers tele­vi­sion broad­cast, then sched­ule his day.

“The Dodgers were some­thing to plan around,” he says. “They gave me some­thing to look for­ward to.”

Those plans have changed. The Dodgers changed them. A year ago, his team was stun­ningly pulled from his fam­ily room, his nightly rit­u­als, his life, and he has no idea when they are com­ing back.

“I feel so help­less,” Bal­lard says. “It’s like my team just for­got all about me.”

The Dodgers tele­vi­sion black­out, which af­fects about 70% of South­land ca­ble and satel­lite sub­scribers, has been a qual­ity-of-life black­out for a man fac­ing an­other sum­mer of “Frasier” re­runs, Turner Clas­sic Movies, and go­ing to bed early and an­gry.

“Screw ’em,” he says. “The hell with them.”

‘I feel so help­less. It’s like my team just for­got all about me.’

— JIM BAL­LARD , 94, Dodgers fan

Two years ago the Dodgers formed their own tele­vi­sion chan­nel, Sport­sNet LA, and sold dis­tri­bu­tion rights to Time Warner Ca­ble for $8.3 bil­lion. To cover those costs, TWC is seek­ing nearly $5 a sub­scriber from other pay-TV op­er­a­tors, mak­ing it the third­most ex­pen­sive sports chan­nel in the coun­try. So far, no other ma­jor dis­trib­u­tors have bought the chan­nel, cit­ing con­cerns over the cost.

Merg­ers that were ex­pected to re­solve the is­sue have been put on hold. Ne­go­ti­a­tions have stalled. TWC re­port­edly is los­ing as much as $100 mil­lion a year on the deal, but there is still no res­o­lu­tion in sight.

As un­be­liev­able as it might sound, for a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year it ap­pears the most en­dur­ing sports fran­chise in the na­tion’s sec­ond-largest mar­ket will be avail­able to only 30% of lo­cal tele­vi­sion house­holds.

Jim Bal­lard is part of that other 70%. He is a hu­man face in this ar­gu­ment over dol­lars. He is part of the com­mu­nity the Dodgers con­ve­niently ig­nore when try­ing to ra­tio­nal­ize their re­fusal to re­work the TWC deal and put their prod­uct back into ev­ery­one’s homes.

The Dodgers say fans should be thrilled that they are spend­ing those bil­lions to build a win­ning team while re­fur­bish­ing an aging sta­dium. The Dodgers don’t un­der­stand that many of those folks, for rea­sons rang­ing from phys­i­cal to eco­nomic, will never set foot in­side that sta­dium to watch that win­ning team.

“The Dodgers al­ways brag about sell­ing out ev­ery game, but what about peo­ple like me who can’t come to the games?” says Bal­lard, who has been in a wheel­chair since suf­fer­ing a stroke in Novem­ber.

In this battle of base­ball greed, the war hero is col­lat­eral dam­age, and he knows it.

“Sure, I feel like a sucker,” he says. “Ev­ery Dodger fan should feel like a sucker.”

On a re­cent week­day morn­ing at his long­time Carpin­te­ria home, Bal­lard is wear­ing a faded Dodgers T-shirt that he’s been pulling in and out of his closet for 15 years. It is the only sign that this was once a Dodgers home.

“It’s so sad,” said John McCoy, Bal­lard’s grand­son and care­taker. “The Dodgers were once ev­ery­where around here, and now they’re nowhere.”

Their pay-TV op­er­a­tor is Cox Ca­ble, which does not carry Sport­sNet LA. They have in­quired about switch­ing to TWC, but it is not avail­able in their area. They have tried lis­ten­ing to the games on a por­ta­ble ra­dio, but the re­cep­tion is bad.

“I try to keep fol­low­ing them in the news­pa­per, but I don’t know what some of them even look like any­more,” Bal­lard says.

Last week­end they ac­tu­ally saw the Dodgers when they played the An­gels in a spring ex­hi­bi­tion broad­cast on the An­gels’ Fox Sports West home. But the Dodgers played only two starters, and Bal­lard grew even an­grier.

“The only game we get to watch, and it’s spring-train­ing scrubs,” says Bal­lard. “I said, ‘Those lousy bas­tards.’ ”

Re­cently, when it be­came ap­par­ent that the black­out would ex­tend into this sea­son, Bal­lard threw his pen on top of his news­pa­per and growled.

“I guess I’m go­ing to have to be­come an An­gels fan,” he said.

But he knows that’s not hap­pen­ing. He tried that al­ready. He can’t sud­denly root for an­other team. It’s too dif­fi­cult. Bal­lard has too much Dodgers his­tory.

Af­ter serv­ing in the war as a bridge builder for Com­pany F in the 347th En­gi­neer­ing Reg­i­ment in Europe, Bal­lard set­tled in Los An­ge­les in 1945 with his Bri­tish wife, Mar­garet, and em­braced the Dodgers when they ar­rived 13 years later.

The Dodgers were his fa­vorite pas­time. Then, af­ter Mar­garet died in 2010, the Dodgers be­came his life.

He and grand­son McCoy would watch ev­ery game af­ter her death, rev­el­ing in the con­nec­tion be­tween the team and her mem­o­ries. Mar­garet would al­ways sit on the plaid couch do­ing crossword puzzles and oc­ca­sion­ally cheer­ing. John never for­gets those cheers.

“There’s things that would hap­pen in a game that would re­mind me of a time when I got up and yelled, and she would get up and yell with me,” he says. “That was nice.”

Now that’s gone, and he still can’t be­lieve it, still can’t un­der­stand how the black­out could last an­other sea­son, and his anger has be­come fo­cused and clear.

“I’m mad at the Dodgers, only the Dodgers, and the rea­son is that they formed a damned chan­nel that only 30% of peo­ple in Los An­ge­les can watch, and that’s ridicu­lous,” he says.

The way he sees it, the so­lu­tion is sim­ple.

“It’s easy, the Dodgers can put them on TV right now if they just re­duced the price, right?” he says. “It’s amaz­ing they won’t re­al­ize what they’ve done and re­duce the price.”

He’s right, of course. The Dodgers could solve all of this with one stroke of a pen. They could rene­go­ti­ate the aw­ful deal with TWC and fix the prob­lem im­me­di­ately. But that would re­quire giv­ing back some money.

As this black­out slowly de­fines their le­gacy, the new Dodgers own­er­ship group doesn’t seem to be the sort that would give back money.

Above his tele­vi­sion hangs a photo of 1st Sgt. Jim Bal­lard stand­ing and smil­ing out­side a bar­racks in Ver­dun, France. He was strong enough to build a bridge in the mid­dle of a freez­ing win­ter with Ger­man fire fall­ing around him.

Th­ese days, he can only sit and wait for the chan­nel to change.

“I just wish some­body could tell me how I could fight this,” the war hero says.

Ri­cardo DeAratanha Los An­ge­les Times

PART OF the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion, Jim Bal­lard is also one of Dodgers’ great­est fans, but he rarely gets to see them play. His Carpin­te­ria home is among the 70% of South­land tele­vi­sion house­holds that don’t re­ceive the team’s ded­i­cated ca­ble chan­nel.

Ri­cardo DeAratanha Los An­ge­les Times

JIM BAL­LARD , with grand­son John McCoy, built bridges dur­ing World War II, now thinks Dodgers are burning bridges with fans.

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