The Dodgers have ever been with us. East Coast. West Coast. Up and down. Through thick and thin. Oft amusing, most always likeable, and never boring.
The early editions of Patriarch Wilbert Robinson – the beloved “Uncle Robbie” – were fabulously inept and, thereby, great entertainment, although I continue to insist Babe Herman belongs in the Hall of Fame. Then Leo Durocher came along and badgered them into something faintly respectable. Whereupon Branch Rickey, the alternately brilliant and bombastic, self-styled Mahatma – followed-up, giving us “The Boys of Summer.”
It was Rickey’s remarkable post-war creation inspiring the de-segregation of American sport that has sanctified the Dodgers in baseball history, giving them a kind of moral pass that has endured long after they’ve ceased to deserve one. Seven decades later, the importance of Jackie Robinson remains monumental – especially in this town – where once again we’re witnessing its bitter ironies. Seven decades later!
Not even Walter O’Malley’s outrageous avarice in transplanting the erstwhile “Bums” from Brooklyn’s loving embrace to California’s lavish Promised Land could quash the myth, although O’Malley’s mendacity did sully the franchise’s historic charm. For a stretch, amiable Tommy LaSorda softened the sting with a classy club that crash-landed several more times in the Bronx.
That the arch-nemesis Yankees have punched their ticket eight times in post-season festers in the Dodgers craw no matter where they reside. Ducking the Yanks, they last won in ’88, led by lights-out Orel Hershiser and gimpy Kirk Gibson. But that was 29 long years ago, and it has been followed by the longest World Series drought in the franchise’s entire history going back to its origins in the Gay Nineties. It must still amuse Brooklyn to know that however steeped in riches they may otherwise be, the Dodgers of upscale LA have never been loved and honored as when they were Brooklyn’s “Beloved Bums.”
All of which brings interesting texture to this season wherein the Dodgers’ dominance might yet prove unprecedented. With precisely six weeks left in the regular season they’re playing at a .719 clip which, if you do the math, tells us they could finish with precisely 116 wins. That would tie them for the all-time record for most wins with the 2001 Seattle Mariners of Griffey, Martinez, Ichiro, and the Big Unit, and the 1906 Chicago Cubs of Tinker, Evers, Chance, and Three-Finger Brown, although please note those Cubs did it in 152 games, not 162. But, then, what has only happened twice before in Baseball’s near infinite annals automatically qualifies as mind-boggling.
Even more so is the torrid tear they’ve been on the last nine weeks (as of this writing) wherein they’ve been 52-9 (.852); if they sustain that dizzying pace they’ll finish with a 122 wins. It’s highly unlikely, given that they have a ridiculous 20-game lead over forlorn pursuers Colorado and Arizona, thus nothing left to pressure them. The need to ease up, especially in light of recent injuries, and brace for the post-season will likely overcome the urge to smash mere records.
In Seattle, they still blame Manager Lou Piniella for chasing the wins-record too mindlessly in ‘01, thus bringing his Mariners to the playoffs out of breath where they promptly got liquidated by – who else? – the Yankees. It’s unlikely Dave Roberts will make that same mistake.
You remember Dave Roberts. And doubtless fondly, too. Not only the unlikeliest of all-time Red Sox heroes ,but the one who did the least to become one. All he did was steal a single base as a pinch-runner at a moment when the Town Teams’ backs were at the wall and their arch-foes were locked, loaded, and drooling over Boston’s impending demise. Roberts’s immortal swipe of second unnerved Mariano Rivera just enough to turn the epic 2004 playoffs and all of Red Sox history upside down instantaneously. And the joy persists in Mudville.
As Dodger manager, the erudite and well-mannered Roberts is proving a sensation; apparently no surprise to those who know the fellow. The Dodgers, guided by Andrew Friedman, have become regarded the most thoroughly sophisticated of the game’s operations, totally into analytics on some cosmic level. Roberts digs all that stuff, which those of us not like-minded will try not to hold against him.
In any discussion of the brilliant Young Turks who, for better or worse, are revolutionizing the game, Friedman may even out-rank the near deified Theo Epstein, at least among the smart set. In Tampa, he almost created a champion on a shoestring, so it’s hardly surprising he’s running near-amok in LA, where the Dodgers lead all of baseball in hideous payroll by a ludicrous margin and couldn’t care less what you or I think about that.
Young Friedman never sleeps. Even sitting on a 15-game lead at the trade-deadline, he gobbled-up three more quality pitchers, including the stylish and high-priced Yu Darvish, and he’s lately added Curtis Granderson – who also doesn’t come cheap – thereby fortifying a young and brittle outfield, their only perceived weakness. Clearly, after 29 years, these Dodgers intend to take no prisoners.
Scanning the roster you tend not to be overwhelmed. It doesn’t seem staggering, even with prized-phenom Cody Bellinger going Hollywood like another Roy Hobbs. Mainly they’re about pitching, which counts most in the end. Their top two starters, Clayton Kershaw and Alex Woods, are 29-3. Their three-four starters, Brothers Hill and Maeda, are 20-8. And they’ve got three more, including Darvish. On the other hand, both Kershaw and Darvish now reside on the Disabled List. Perchance they’re playing possum.
One raises one more caution on these uppity new Dodgers. In 1906, when Frank Chance’s fabled Cubs were 116-36, they caught the humble cross-town White Sox, winners of 23 fewer games, in the World Series. To be forever known as “The Hitless Wonders,” the Chisox had not a single .300 hitter and just one great pitcher, Big Ed Walsh.
Guess who won, old Sport? Baseball is a funny game!