LOS ANGELES – Sit at Dodger Stadium on a late-September night, so mild that fall seems forever away.
You'd hardly know there was a division race, or half of one anyway, going on here, not with the pre-game clubhouse music, the serene manager, the fact the out-of-town scoreboard doesn't even carry the Arizona Diamondbacks score most of the time.
An hour before the Dodgers would move to the brink of their first division title in four years, Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake sat side-by-side, watching the Cleveland Indians play the Boston Red Sox. On the only other television in the room, the Diamondbacks were falling two runs behind the St. Louis Cardinals, a game watched intently by nearly a dozen baseball writers. And closer Jonathan Broxton.
Later, with the Diamondbacks trying to rally in the ninth inning, Dodgers fans were treated to all the scores from … the American League.
When the scoreboard did eventually get around to the National League, an F went up beside the Cardinals' win. Inside the old ballpark in the hills, no one stirred.
It's like nobody wants to spook the kids.
So Joe Torre tells them to forget the mistakes that will come and smiles like he's been here a thousand times, which he has. And Nomar Garciaparra turns on a fastball and plants it in the left-field bleachers, and turns on another and runs it into the gap. And Blake lays out for a couple balls at third base. And Manny hits one more home run and gets another curtain call. And the Diamondbacks lose again.
By the fourth inning, the Dodgers' magic number was 2.
By the fifth inning, they were working it toward 1.
And today they may clinch the division title on their drive to the ballpark, leading potentially to some of the greatest batting-practice grins of all time.
The Diamondbacks play an early-afternoon game in the Midwest, the Dodgers a night game on the West Coast, and the NL West could be decided before Greg Maddux changes out of his golf shirt. And, well, that wouldn't be a bad thing for the boys in blue.
"Whichever way it happens," Torre said. "As long as it happens."
Sitting on 83 wins, with four days left in the season, as ridiculous as it sounds, the Dodgers are all but in. With a remade roster, they are all but in. With Brad Penny shut down for good, with Rafael Furcal and Jeff Kent hoping to heal in time to make the postseason roster, with Andruw Jones convalescing at home, with Takashi Saito pitching the ninth with sixth-inning stuff, with Juan Pierre forgotten, with Hank Steinbrenner stewing, they are all but in.
They really aren't very good. But, they are, you know, all but in. And that counts.
Come next week, they'll go to Philadelphia or New York or Chicago, push Derek Lowe out in front of the rotation, try to put a few runners on base for Manny and see what happens. Twenty years after they had no chance against the Mets, they'll have little chance again. They haven't played a decent team in a month, when the Phillies swept them over four games. But against a schedule of less-than-decent teams, they have won 18 and lost five.
Hey, Kent came up in the seventh inning, received a standing ovation for his first at-bat in four weeks (since knee surgery), slammed a single to right, and got another ovation while crossing paths with his pinch-runner. And Furcal came off the DL and got an at-bat and an inning at shortstop. And the Dodgers won 12-4.
Everybody loves everybody now.
A postcard hangs above Manny's locker. On it, there is a small dog wearing pink goggles. It reads, "THE SKY'S THE LIMIT."
Ramirez has won a couple of World Series, granted on far deeper and more talented teams, granted on teams that pitched you tough from the first inning to the last. He looked around his own clubhouse, at the uniforms and faces still new to him.
"It was our pitching," he said of those Red Sox teams. "It's all about pitching in the playoffs. But, when it comes to the playoffs, anything can happen. Hey, the sky's the limit."
He laughed and plucked the postcard from its clip.
"A fan sent it to me," he said. "I love it."
Well, the sky is a long way off. And the Dodgers are still living off that single playoff game victory since the series of Kirk Gibson's home run 20 years ago, the video of which they show every night at the ballpark. In L.A. anymore, they've got that home run and Vin Scully. Everything from there is murky.
They have kids, flashy and athletic, and still kids. They have Manny, but maybe only for a couple more weeks. They have Torre, and he's a fine manager, but not that good of a player anymore.
Meantime, today, maybe we'll get a Diamondbacks score.
- the Dodgers