Helpless Stupidity

Baseball might be the stupidest thing in my life. Why should a bunch of grown men playing a kid’s game matter so much? Why should another adult–who has three kids, work, and a home to worry about–care so much?

There are lots of ways I could answer that, justify it, explain it, but at the end of the day, none of them really makes the whole thing less stupid. But it is what it is. And, more importantly, I am bonded with millions and millions of other people in my stupidity. It is bigger than any one of us.  It is historic; its cultural.  It is a collective stupidity.

The Dodgers are doing alright at the present moment, and that makes me happy. If they make the playoffs this year, they’ll have to do better than the San Francisco Giants.  That’s pretty much the only way a team from the NL West is making the postseason this year, since both of the Wild Card berths are looking like they’ll go to teams in other divisions.

And that’s why this recent series against the Giants mattered so much.  That’s not logical, of course. Statistically speaking, every game against every team matters as much as the next. Win more than your divisional opponents and you make the playoffs.  But that’s the statistical reality of it. When you incorporate the bigger picture–the big stupid picture–certain games mean so much more than other games.

The Dodgers swept the Giants this week, and with that got one step closer to the playoffs. We went into this series 3.5 games ahead of San Francisco. To exit it 6.5 games ahead of them, in the first week of September, is pretty good. Add that to the fact that the Dodgers aren’t really playing all that well these days, and it makes them seem even better positioned since the team isn’t quite playing at its potential.

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If the Dodgers win the division, it would be easy to write the story hinged around this past series. You’d say that this is when the division was won. After these three games, even if the Dodgers played .500 ball from here on out, the Giants would have to be 21-8 in the remainder f the season just to force a tie. Of course, it’s not beyond this Dodgers team to return to playing at or below .500, and then there’s a nice four-game series against the Giants again in the last week of the season.

See, drama and stupidity. The kind of stupidity that requires stories and the weighing of possibilities to help you deal with the stupidity.

Here’s another level to the stupidity of it all. While sweeping the Giants and pulling ahead to a more comfortable lead in the West makes me irrationally happy, and the fact that we’re doing that with a team not quite firing at full force makes me feel like there is potential for more, another part of me is less enthusiastic because we’re getting close to making the playoffs with a team that isn’t playing the way you need to to win in the postseason.

While I’m always glad to see a Dodgers team make the playoffs, that doesn’t always bring with it the same level of excitement year after year.  Some years–many years–they really don’t have much of a chance.  Of course, every team in the postseason has a chance to win the World Series, and that slight possibility is what keeps me glued to the TV and, often, sends me on an emotional roller coaster.  But if I don’t think they have a chance to make it very far in the postseason, some years I wish (I think?) they’d wouldn’t make it.

I actually think losing in the regular season hurts less than losing in the postseason.  Maybe it’s not really about “hurt” as much as frustration. And lord knows the Dodgers have provided me with a heaping pile of that in my lifetime.

Since I was born, the Los Angeles Dodgers have made the postseason 15 times. That’s not a bad ratio, by any stretch. They won their division thirteen of those times (1974, 1977, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1985, 1988, 1995, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2013, and 2014) and they made it as a Wild Card two more times (1996 and 2006).

The thing that matters more to me, though, is that in that same timeframe they’ve won only two World Series championships, one in 1981 and another in 1988. (LA’s three other championship seasons were in ’59, ’63, and ’65, before I was born).  Two of fifteen. That’s just better than a 13% completion rate for them in the postseason. That kind of sucks by my standards.

This is the stupidity I face over the next month. Excited as all hell that my team has a real shot at winning the World Series and, at the same time, anguished that my team has a real shot at losing in the playoffs or, worse, in the World Series.

At least I’m not alone.

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Dodger Blue(s)

I suppose I should say something about the 2014 baseball season, since it’s now over for the team I love.

Part of me is sad but part of me is relieved that its over. The older I get the harder it is to take the suspense of a Dodgers’ playoff game. Mentally, I think this won’t be the case the next time we get into the postseason and I feel confident about the team’s chances. In this century, however, every time the Dodgers have made the postseason there was always a big chance it wouldn’t work out, and none of those teams possessed anything special to give you faith that they could surmount the odds.

This year’s team was not much different from that. They have an amazing amount of talent, and they were a pleasure to listen to (because of the continuing failure of the organization to get on TV I only “saw” about 10 games). But they consistently lacked anything that really brought the team together. You might think this is inconsequential in baseball, as long as every individual player does his part at the right time. In the long view of a 162-game season I think that is true. In the postseason I think the team that can work as a cohesive unit is always going to be the winner.

This year’s team had a fairly consistent inability to win the big game or to produce in a clutch. We were uneven for most of the season and the timing of that unevenness was really visible to most, even those who don’t follow the NL West. What saved us was that we were in the weakest division of baseball where the only other team that was worth anything was fairly similar to us. That team is still around, of course. Their big difference? Well, Bruce Bochy is the best manager in professional baseball.

It’s an odd postseason now, and not just because the Dodgers are out of it. In August, I was fairly confident the Dodgers would have what it takes to top the Giants for the season. But I didn’t think they’d go far in the playoffs. We were a weak road team and we were a weak team against all the major players in the East. Milwaukee was the surprise for me. In August I was fearing having to face them, the Nationals, or the Cardinals in the postseason. No matter how you cut it, we were bound to face one of them.

And now where are we? Milwaukee–who held on the first place from something like the 3rd game of the season until late summer–faded away and didn’t make the postseason. The best team in the NL is done. And the hands down favorite in the AL is done. Who is there in the NL are two teams with some experience in the postseason, experience that goes a long way. I think St. Louis is the stronger team by players but Bochy the better skipper in these situations. It’ll be interesting. Kansas City seems to be the Cinderella team everybody’s getting behind. I’ll probably join that train. At least the color’s right.

The Dodgers will make some changes over the break. Mattingly is definitely done. He’s never been the manager I wanted and he’s rarely been the manager they needed. This will be a good change. The Dodgers have some holes in the bullpen and and some other aging parts of the starting squad to think about. One hopes the starting rotation will be in a better position next year with the return of Chad Billingsly.

The best part about the Dodgers is the future. The farm system is stacked with an assortment of future superstars. Any weakness on the field right now has one to two players in the hopper who will soon be ready to jump in. That’s something to look forward to. We also have plenty of bats. They just need to work better together and find the secret of consistency when it comes to the clutch.

When I was a kid, the baseball season lasted as long as the Dodgers were in it. I remember keeping all hope alive until that final game when they would be mathematically eliminated. Even after that, I’d think “Well what if _____ get in a plane crash?” thinking there might still be hope, even after it was logical. In the postseason it was the same kind of focus and investment. I remember the 1981 World Series victory. My mom got home after the game had ended and I rushed to tell her what happened. She said “Congratulations,” like I had something to do with it. In my mind I did.

Part of me is still that kid. Maybe I’m better about tucking him away every fall and winter and bringing him back every spring. This year didn’t go the way he would have hoped, but it did go about as well as the grown up me expected.

But next year is a whole new season.

It’s time for Dodgers’ baseball!

Well, sort of.

Even though most teams don’t get going until a week from now, the Dodgers’ 2014 baseball season gets underway in just a few hours. The boys in blue go head-to-head against the Arizona Diamondbacks in a pair of games being played in Australia.

It’s an interesting change for the start of the season, despite the fact that “change” of any sort often seems a bit out of place in a game drowning in tradition. It shouldn’t be surprising to those who know me, but “tradition” is one of the things that keeps me close to the game. Or maybe it’s habit, I’m not sure. But I got used to inter-league play, so I’ll be fine with two games down under.

The more disturbing change for the season ahead is related to the way I and millions of other Dodgers’ fans will have to go without watching our team play much. The Dodgers sold their broadcast rights to Time Warner for billions of dollars and now Time Warner has created a dedicated Dodgers cable channel that more than 70% of the LA market does not have access to.

Steve Dilbeck broke it down well in his piece for the LA Times. I don’t really care about a 24/7 Dodgers channel. Frankly, I am pretty damn close to being done with cable altogether. Even though I love the team, and wish I had the station, I completely understand why all the other providers won’t pony up to pay the asking price for the channel.

Even with my love of the team, whether or not this channel is on my TV is not at the top of the list of factors that is determining how I pick a provider, or whether or not I actually have cable.

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Baseball is a slow sport. A season is 162 games stretched out over half a year. It’s not really something that works as an “event” by today’s cultural standards. The best thing baseball had going for it–especially Dodgers’ baseball–was that you could always turn it on to make it part of your daily life.

The fact that we are about to go from having the most games on local broadcast (free) TV to having none is just sad. It means I won’t get to see Vin Scully in what might be his last season. It means I won’t get to follow the team as closely as a result. Coupled with the ticket prices (which aren’t too high but still make it a big financial commitment to take the family) it probably means I won’t get to see much of the Dodgers at all.

Of course, I’ll still be a fan. And I’ll still follow the team. I have a radio and I listen to games using the MLB app quite a bit. But what about my kids?

I think this TV mess is going to do long term damage to baseball in LA. While I can enjoy a radio broadcast almost as much as a televised one, for my kids–and the millions of other LA kids who are just learning to like the game–it’s all about the visuals. The majority of them will never step foot into the stadium. And now a majority of them won’t get to even see the Dodgers play with their own eyes.

There is a race/class dimension to all of this, of course. The ones who will really suffer are a generation of working-class, Latino kids growing up without the Dodgers on their TV.

However this resolves itself in the coming months (or years), the Dodgers aren’t losing anything with me. I’m here loving them no matter what, and they got their billions from the deal.

But even one season off the TV screen is going to do something to my kids. They’re just learning the game, largely, by learning to watch it. They’re just starting to develop their love of the sport and, by extension, the team. The inability to watch is going to affect the level of love my kids develop for the team. And that’s a problem for the Dodgers’ future.

Anyways…enough complaining. As the title of this post suggests, I’m going to go now and fire up the radio for some early morning baseball from the other side of the globe. The start of my new tradition.

October 15, 1988

Today is the 25th anniversary of Kirk Gibson’s game-winning home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

Gibson’s dinger is one of the most memorable home runs in baseball history, and certainly the greatest in Dodgers’ history. It came in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, when the Dodgers faced the Oakland A’s.  (The boys in blue would win the series 4 games to 1.)

Gibson came up in the bottom of the ninth, two outs, with the tying run (Mike Davis) on first. The count went 3-2 before he lifted one over the right field fence.

A lot of folks might forget that Game 1 also included a grand slam by Jose Canseco, the source of the A’s 4 runs in that game (and, incidentally, his only hit in the series).  I never forget that. It was a trauma I lived with for hours waiting for the end result of that game to unfold.

I bring that up because that made the home run all the sweeter. Of course, Gibson wasn’t even in the line up that night, the stalwart workhorse sidelined by leg injuries that left him hobbling. As Vin Scully said that night, if he had hit it anywhere in the park they might have thrown him out at first.

The call by Scully–who was broadcasting for NBC at the time–is so familiar to baseball fans. But I didn’t get to hear it until the replay.

On October 15, 1988, I was 16 years old and I was working the night shift at my first job, Taco Bell (on Colima Rd., just past Azuza Ave.). I brought my walkman along and listened when I could, usually running off to a supply closet to check in. I listened to the entire 9th inning in that supply closet–alone, in the dark, with a walkman.

This is what I heard: Don Drysdale calling the play-by-play.

I started screaming when Gibby hit the home run. I was a little more excited I think than Drysdale! I went out to tell everybody what happened, but they didn’t understand baseball enough to get it. I mean, a scenario that every kid who has ever played imagines him or herself being in just transpired. In real life!

It’s one of my fondest memories. That night, I felt like Don Drysdale and I shared something special.

Playoffs

The 2013 Major League Baseball season is over. My Los Angeles Dodgers are the 2013 National League-West Division champs which means we get to keep playing baseball this week.

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I am excited, but I’m not pouring the proverbial champagne over my head quite yet. The Dodgers have won the West 12 times in my lifetime (’74, ’77, ’78, ’81, ’83, ’85, ’88, ’95, ’04, ’08, ’09, and ’13).

That distinction has taken them to the World Series 5 times in my lifetime (’74, ’77, ’78, ’81, and ’88). And, of course, they’ve gone home champs twice in that same span of time, in 1981 and again in 1988.

That’s not bad, but that does mean that 7 times in my life the Dodgers have won the West but lost in the playoffs before making it to the World Series. I remember each of those losses well (especially ’85).

We’ve done a great thing this year, and that makes me happy. We have great pitching and an offense that has shown themselves capable of producing. We also have no shortage of exciting examples of the magical, the kinds of things that make many a baseball fan into a hopeless romantic. But we’ve still got quite a road ahead of us.

I’m optimistic. But I also know we’ve still got some work to do before its time to celebrate.

I’m just glad we get a chance to do that work.

The Kemp-Kershaw Combo

Despite their run into third place in the NL West, the Dodgers have had a rather dismal 2011 season.  Among the shiny bright spots, however, have been center fielder Matt Kemp and pitcher Clayton Kershaw.  While both are long shots, both re being discussed as possible candidates for postseason accolades: Kemp for MVP and Kershaw for the Cy Young.

In a casual conversation today with a friend, he wondered out loud how many times had the Dodgers had both the MVP and Cy Young award winner in the same year.  The Kirk Gibson/Orel Hershiser combo of 1988 he knew, but beyond that we only guessed.  I couldn’t get the thought out of my head so when I had a free moment, I looked it up.

It turns out, EVERY single time the LA Dodgers have had the National League MVP they have also had that year’s NL Cy Young Award winner.  This also happened once for Brooklyn.  Rather impressively, twice, the Dodger who won the MVP also won the Cy Young.  This was even more noteworthy at the time since when it happened (‘56 and ‘63) there was only one Cy Young winner for the whole of baseball.

Down below are the years the Dodgers won either award.  In red are the years they won both.

DODGER MVP WINNERS
1988: Kirk Gibson, Los Angeles Dodgers
1974: Steve Garvey, Los Angeles Dodgers
1963: Sandy Koufax, Los Angeles Dodgers
1962: Maury Wills, Los Angeles Dodgers
1956: Don Newcombe, Brooklyn Dodgers
1955: Roy Campanella, Brooklyn Dodgers
1953: Roy Campanella, Brooklyn Dodgers
1951: Roy Campanella, Brooklyn Dodgers
1949: Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers
1941: Dolph Camilli, Brooklyn Dodgers

DODGER CY YOUNG WINNERS

2003: Eric Gagne, Los Angeles Dodgers
1988: Orel Hershiser, Los Angeles Dodgers
1981: Fernando Valenzuela, Los Angeles Dodgers
1974: Mike Marshall, Los Angeles Dodgers
1966: Sandy Koufax, Los Angeles Dodgers
1965: Sandy Koufax, Los Angeles Dodgers
1963: Sandy Koufax, Los Angeles Dodgers
1962: Don Drysdale, Los Angeles Dodgers
1956: Don Newcombe, Brooklyn Dodgers