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.

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


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

Dodgers in the 2nd 40

I love baseball.  One of the things I love the most about it is that it has such a long regular season.  162 games.  Almost 6 full months.

Growing up, one the most anticipated times of year for me was the April start of the baseball season, when my beloved boys in blue would take the field “for reals.”  As a kid, I would live and die on any given day depending on how the Dodgers did.  When they won, I felt like all was right in the universe.  And when they didn’t, well, to put it mildly, I was crushed.

I got in the habit of following the numbers on a daily basis.  I would actually begin most seasons by clipping out the standings and box scores, game by game, and gluing them in a special notebook I kept.  When the Dodgers hit a slump–or worse–the pain became too unbearable for me to keep up with my record keeping effort.  Even on a good season, I might make it only to mid-May, the ups and downs often being to much to cope with in a portable notebook.

Likewise, for me, the baseball season didn’t end until the Dodgers lost in the playoffs or until all mathematical possibility had been exhausted for them to make it to the postseason.  After that point, I would briefly fantasize about all the teams ahead of the Dodgers becoming impaired in horrible traveling accidents.  Once the postseason began, if the Dodgers weren’t in it, I was looking toward the next April again.

As I grew up, I began to better appreciate the rhythm of the game.  I began to realize baseball, as much as anything, is a game of momentum.  There are key times in the season when it is imperative that your team clicks on the field.  If they don’t, nothing else will really matter in the end.

This is hard for a numbers kid to grasp.  When you’re up at the top, you’re always following the number 2 or 3, almost as much as you follow your own.  When you are the number 2 or 3, you want that number 1 to lose as much as anything.  It all gives the impression that it’s all connected.  And in most sports, it probably is.  But in baseball, well…the only standings that really matter, are the ones at the end of the season.  All you got to do is win more games than the other guys and, while that only happens when you beat the other guys more than they beat you, it’s not as direct a thing as it appears.

That’s when I started to think of the baseball season in quarters rather than in halves.  162 doesn’t breakdown evenly into 4 parts, but I think of it as four groups of 40 games.  As baseball fans, we spend so much time waiting for the first 40 that it’s hard not to give it too much attention.  There are few things more satisfying than a strong start in the first 40.  (For that matter, there are few things more annoying than a weak start.) But, for almost all of us almost every season, the first 40 is still warm-up.  People are finding their groove; teams are finding their formula.  It’s like the first mile of a race: what happens here is less important than what happens later on.

Instinctively, we also pay a lot of attention to the final 40.  It is, after all, the lead in to the big show.  We have a sense of its importance because we know it is the final stretch.  But even more important than winning this sprint to the finish line is what condition you’re in at the end.  Remember, beyond it is the postseason.

And that’s where momentum comes in.  You don’t just want to win more games than the number 2 team, you want to finish the final 40 while playing well.  You want your strongest players to be playing as well as they can, all the magical things that make a winning team to be happening on a regular basis, and all the intangibles to be, well, almost tangible.

I can’t tell you how many times the Dodgers have made it to the end of the season when you know they have the cards stacked against them in the postseason, not because of who they might face but because they’re not playing in that magical zone.  When your team is there?  Well, no matter how good the competition is on paper, they better get out the way.

This momentum thing is important in the rest of the season too.  For me–and this is my childhood brain talking now–the second most critical time for momentum is in the 2nd 40.  Around mid-May up until the All-Star break, when the Dodgers play like champs, it usually has meant a great season.  I can’t think of a time they have done well in the postseason when they didn’t turn in a solid May and June.

Baseball is a long season.  Any team in a season that long is going to have its ups and downs.  The trick to becoming champs is for those ups to be at just the right times so that they expand on themselves rather than implode.

I’m feeling good this season, wishing I had a notebook and a glue stick lying around.  But I also know it’s a long time until July.

Walter Alston is Still Dead…

Walter Emmons Alston died 25 years ago today, eight years after having retired as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He passed away on October 1, 1984, at the age of 72.

Alston managed the Dodgers for 23 seasons, four in Brooklyn and nineteen in Los Angeles (where they played for four years at the Coliseum and for fifteen at Chavez Ravine).  In that time he and the Dodgers won seven National League titles and four World Series championships.  His first World Series ring came in 1955 against the Yankees, Brooklyn’s only victory in the big show and the franchise’s first of six (1955, 1959, 1963, 1965, 1981, 1988; not counting the Bridegroom’s 1890 championship).

He was emblematic of a period in baseball’s history when the commercial hype of it all wasn’t yet the daily, unending norm.  He was quiet and matter of fact in his managing style, as the LA Times described him, “conservative and colorless.”  But he was also one of the most successful managers in baseball history.  Dodger pitching-legend Carl Erskine remembered Alston’s first season as manager.  “We weren’t playing too well, so Walt got us together and said: ‘If you expect me to be a rah-rah manager, you’re wrong. You’re all good players.  You know the price you have to pay.  Now go out and do it.'”

Alston retired when I was four, but he remained a revered figure among fans, including Dodger announcer Vin Scully, who for all practical purposes was my baseball history book growing up.  I honestly haven’t one actual memory of Alston as a living person, but I also can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know who he was.

Manny Ramirez and Baseball’s Soul

Today is a scandalous day in Los Angeles, but not a surprising one. Fan-favorite Manny Ramirez, the cornerstone of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the resident “star” of the team, has been suspended for 50 games for testing positive for a banned substance.

The profound lack of surprise in this matter has little to do with the Dodgers or with Ramirez. Really, it has everything to do with the reality of baseball. You can only be truly surprised at today’s news if you continue to hold on to some fantasy image of the sport as being untainted from drugs and money and “business.” At the risk of sounding too pessimistic, let me paraphrase a Jim Rome analysis: just assume EVERYONE did it and then be surprised when you learn one of them did not.

This isn’t an apology for Ramirez. Not at all. As a fan, as a Latino, and as somebody with a small obsession for popular culture, I got as excited as anybody last year when he arrived. I was both pleased and moved by his ability to turn to the Spanish-language press and become a bona fide “Latino Dodger,” like one we haven’t seen since the days of Fernando. L.A. loves cultural movements and fads, especially when it is tied to wining, and Manny didn’t let us down. Now, we have to share in the burden of his failure because we, as fans, don’t get to see him play for fifty days.

Still, my disappointment is tempered by the way I see the sport now versus the way I see it as a fan, as a historian, or “as it was.” I don’t pretend to think the game of baseball was “pure” or more “wholesome” in an era long since passed. There were addictions, immoralities, and just plain bad shit that followed the game. You see, baseball—like any enterprise involving people—is human. Ty Cobb was an asshole. Mickey Mantle an alcoholic. Babe Ruth was an asshole and an alcoholic. I’m sure it wasn’t just fans who threatened to kill or hurt Jackie Robinson. And these are just the easy ones!

Baseball was and probably always has been all-too human. The Ramirez controversy, perhaps, is a reflection of that. But I think it is something more, too.

Steven Rubio, a friend of mine who maintains one of the most interesting and diverse blogs out there, wrote an interesting piece yesterday. As an avid fan of the SF Giants (the Dooku to my Yoda) he wondered whether or not professional players are more fans of their team or of the game they play. You can read my comment to his piece, where I probably gave in to the romance and sentimentality of the sport more than anything else. Because, my dear friends, I fear most professional players today are fans of themselves before their team or the game itself.

Again, I don’t mean to sound overly pessimistic, but this is the “business” of baseball. High contracts are but infinitesimal slices of the big pie of money that comes with modern-day baseball. The business side of the sport has been fucking up the human side of it for a long time now. You can see the small instances of it just in my lifetime, from the players’ union fights of the 1970s up to the drug scandals of today.

For the Dodgers, that change came quickly but much later than it did for almost everybody else.  When the O’Malley family finally reliquished control and sold the team in 1998, the era of the family-owned team came to an end.  For goodness sakes, from 1954 to 1996 we had only two managers!  How many popes were there in that period?  Dodger stadium–with it signature colors and blank spaces free from advertising–changed.  The team culture changed.  The ways decisions about who stayed and who went also changed.  The Dodgers went corporate.

The business of it all nurtures players’ self-conceptions as products which need to increase their market values. Drug use is but one part of that. Organized baseball’s avoidance to dealing with the drugs is another. Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, and the whole lot of them are worse for it. So are we. In some ways, so is the game.

I remember Don Drysdale very fondly. One of the finest pitchers in Dodger and baseball history, I knew him best as one of the regular Dodgers’ broadcast commentators until his unexpected death in July 1993. One of the truly wonderful things about the man was that he was a Dodger fan, through and through. Every once in awhile, when a player got hit by a pitch, Drysdale would explain the way it worked in his time. If one of yours got hit, one of theirs—on the very first pitch the next inning—got hit harder. If they got his mid section, you got the head. If your player had to leave the game, well, you get the picture. (By the way, Drysdale ended up #15 on the pitchers all-time list of most “Hit By Pitches” with 154 in only 13 seasons and a bit over 3400 innings pitched.)

There’s nothing “pure” or “wholesome” about Drysdale’s baseball strategy. Frankly, there’s nothing even tactically smart about it from the perspective of the game. But, if you think about it, in doing what he did, Don Drysdale was being a loyal fan.  He was protecting his team and taking the emotional and even childish aspect of play to its natural adult extreme.  This wasn’t “business.”  This was business.

And that’s what I’m left with today.  Not surprise, not sorrow, not even loss.  Just the same.  Wishing the game of baseball I get to share with my two kids was a little more human and a lot less of everything else.


Obama Talks Some Trash

All presidents have to hear the public chide them, often belittle them.  But not like this!

From the Washington Post comes this article about Obama’s recent visit to see the Washington Wizards play his hometown Chicago Bulls.  The Prez sat next to Miles Rawls–avid Wizard’s fan and all-around trash-talker–and managed to dish it out as well as he got.

“We were up by 15,” Rawls remembered in a phone conversation this afternoon. “I told [Obama], ‘You can tell them to warm up the limo, Sir, because this is a wrap here.’ “