Returning fans should provide boost to local teams

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SPORTS DIGEST

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

It was a long 13 months for Los Angeles sports fans, probably the longest 13 months of their lives.

When the Dodgers played their home opener April 9 against the Washington Nationals, it marked the first time since March 2020 that sports fans were allowed inside a stadium or arena in Los Angeles for a professional game.

The Lakers welcome fans back to Staples Center April 15 and fans will be allowed in Banc of California Stadium and Dignity Health Sports Park when the Los Angeles Football Club and Los Angeles Galaxy begin play this week.

You won’t see packed houses for a while, as stadiums and arenas are only allowed a certain percentage of fans based on overall capacity.

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said April 12 the county will largely adopt the state rules, but it will impose a stricter capacity limit on indoor venues with 1,501 seats or more.

The state’s guidelines for larger arenas allow for attendance of 10% of the venue’s capacity, or 2,000 people, whichever is smaller. If all attendees are fully vaccinated or have proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the event, the state allows attendance to increase to 35% of capacity.

Los Angeles County, however, will limit attendance at larger venues to 25% of capacity when all guests are vaccinated or tested. That means all sporting events at Staples Center — home to the Lakers, Clippers and Kings — will be limited to 25% capacity instead of the 35% allowed by the state.

Staples Center will require all fans to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to be admitted.

The state and county rules will restrict attendance at large and small arenas to in-state residents only, and attendees must have pre-purchased, digital admission tickets. Masks are required at all times, except when people are eating in designated dining areas, and six feet of physical distancing between groups must be maintained.

All venues must have a weekly worker testing program, and all suites are limited to 25% capacity.

For smaller indoor venues that hold up to 1,500 people, capacity is limited to a maximum of 15%, or 200 people. The capacity can increase to 35% if everyone has proof of a negative COVID test or of being fully vaccinated.

Outdoor venues don’t have the same restrictions, but Dodger Stadium opened April 9 against the Washington Nationals with slightly more than 15,000 fans in the house. Those numbers could increase by the time the next home stand starts April 22.

The players admit that playing in empty stadiums and arenas is a tough assignment as they sometimes feed off the energy a crowd of passionate fans provides.

And there are some sports — baseball, ice hockey and soccer, in particular — that are best seen live.

And the best thing is we no longer have to look at those wooden cutouts that passed for fans during the past year.

Now if the stadiums and arenas can do something about long lines at concession stands and restrooms we will have a superb fan experience.

SO SOON?: Rarely can a three-game series in April be considered meaningful, but the Dodgers three-game series in San Diego starting April 16 might have the energy of a September series between two pennant contenders.

I can guarantee the San Diego Padres will be geared up to play the Dodgers. Whether the Dodgers look at it the same way remains the seen.

The Padres have always considered the Dodgers to be their main rival. The Dodgers consider the Giants their main rival, dating back to when the Dodgers were in Brooklyn and the Giants played in the Polo Grounds in New York.

The Padres were more like a minor league affiliate. In the 1970s, the players looked at a three-game series in San Diego as a vacation.

But that changed this offseason when the Padres made several bold moves on the free agent market and with trades to establish themselves as the Dodgers prime competition in the National League Western Division, which the Dodgers have won for eight straight seasons.

The Padres think they can compete with the Dodgers this year. So far, they are 8-4, a game and a half behind the 9-2 Dodgers.

Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts might have given a sign of what he thinks of the series when he tweeked his starting pitching rotation so that his top three starters — Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw and Trevor Bauer — will pitch the three games against the Padres.

A sweep of the Padres would be a major statement by the Dodgers and vice versa.

Kershaw had a nasty hiccup opening day in Colorado, but has been on the money in his two starts since then. Bauer has been sharp in all three starts and Buehler is 1-0 and has allowed only two runs in 12 innings of his first two starts.

The Dodgers are hitting the ball as expected, maybe better than expected considering that two-thirds of their starting outfield missed the three-game series against the Nationals last weekend and the Dodgers still swept the series, outscoring Washington 13-5 in the process.

Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger have been hurt, but rookie utility player Zach McKinstry is exceeding expectations by hitting .310 with two home runs and a team-leading 10 runs batted in. Naturally a second baseman, McKinstry is fulfilling the utility role Kike Hernandez used to and, like Hernandez, is becoming a fan favorite.

Roberts made him the ultimate compliment by calling him “a baseball player, he just knows how to play the game.”

As expected, the bullpen is the Dodgers weakest link. Starting pitchers have given up 21 runs in 63 innings of 11 games. Relief pitchers have yielded 15 runs in 29 innings.

Kenley Jansen blew his first save of the season in only his third appearance and fans were calling for his release (or worse). But he mowed down three hitters on eight pitches in his most recent appearance, although Roberts steps lightly around the question of who his closer is.

Look for Jansen to rarely be used in back-to-back games this season, especially with Corey Knebel pitching so well. Knebel, who had 55 saves over two seasons for Milwaukee in 2017 and 2018, hasn’t given up a hit yet in five appearances.

Second-year player Victor Gonzalez is the best lefty out of the bullpen so far and the Dodgers have enough hitting to overcome a weak bullpen as long as the starters continue their good work.

We’ll see how the series with the Padres goes.

TREADING WATER: That’s about what the Lakers and Clippers are doing, five weeks before the end of the regular season.

Both teams are trying to stay healthy and get their injured players well for the stretch run.

As of April 14, the Clippers are in third place in the NBA Western Conference, 3 ½ games behind Utah and two games behind Phoenix.

The Lakers are in fifth place, 3 ½ games behind the Clippers and half a game behind the Denver Nuggets for fourth place. And the Nuggets just lost their second-best player for the rest of the season. Point guard Jamal Murray tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee April 12 and is out for the year.

That should allow the Lakers to climb past Denver for the fourth spot in the conference, which would give them home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

For the Lakers, it’s a waiting game until Anthony Davis and LeBron James can play again. Davis remains out with a sore Achilles tendon. James has a sprained ankle. The Lakers don’t intend to rush either player back, although they would like to get them back in sync with their teammates before the playoffs start.

The Clippers are 14-4 since the all-star break, the best record in the NBA in that time. They are load managing Kawhi Leonard again as he nurses a sore foot and guard Patrick Beverly is injured against with a broken hand. Center Serge Ibaka remains out with a bad back but Ivica Zubac may have supplanted him as the starting center.

Even with Lou Williams gone, the Clippers still have a deep bench with six players scoring in double figures against the Indiana Pacers April 13 with Leonard sitting on the sidelines.

The Lakers still need more consistency from role players like Kyle Kuzma and Kentavius Caldwell-Pope, but Andre Drummond is an improvement over Marc Gasol at center and as long as James can walk the Lakers will be favored to win most playoff series.

There isn’t a team in the league with enough firepower to beat the Lakers four times in two weeks, which is what it takes to win a seven-game playoff series.

As long as that remains true — and providing that Anthony Davis is able to return, it will — the Lakers remain the team to beat in the NBA.

REMEMBERING JACKIE: South Los Angeles community activist and Wave columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson is releasing on YouTube April 18 a short film on the life of Jackie Robinson. “I Never Had It Made — The Forgotten Jackie Robinson” examines Robinson’s ferocious, relentless fight against racial and economic injustice with footage of his speeches, talks, marches and writings.

It is being released on April 18, the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s appearance with the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ top minor league affiliate, a year before Robinson broke the Major League color barrier.

Fanon Hutchinson wrote and directed the piece, which includes commentary by Earl Ofari Hutchinson and film footage from the public domain. No members of the Robinson family are featured, but Hutchinson dedicated the project to the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

It is available for viewing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FD5xczjHjuk&t=57s.

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