LOS ANGELES – So, on Thursday night, three days before the end of March, a ball was kicked around in right-center field and another fell without a challenge in short left field and the Los Angeles Dodgers were booed in their own half-empty ballpark.
It seemed a fair conclusion, then, that the folks of L.A., weaned for two decades from their presumptions of decent, late-into-fall baseball, had experienced a subtle change in expectations.
And, apparently, it is not too early to let everybody know it.
All it took was a couple turnovers in ownership, baseball minds and player rosters. That was a decade right there, gone in the time it took to find a passable replacement for Mike Piazza.
The old fallback of simply looking good when held up against the other franchise in town wasn't working either and, actually, the new owner came in and made enough of a mess of things it was a while before people started paying attention to the baseball again.
But, here are the Dodgers, holding a single playoff-game victory in a generation, having remade themselves into an organization of pitching, of emerging prospects, of veteran attitude, of intelligence and toughness.
It hasn’t been especially seamless or cheap – the payroll is $115 million – but, in General Manager Ned Colletti, owner Frank McCourt has found someone he can trust his money with, meaning Jason Schmidt and Rafael Furcal and Luis Gonzalez and Juan Pierre and Nomar Garciaparra. And, in Manager Grady Little, Colletti has found someone he can trust his old guys with, meaning some of Jeff Kent, Gonzalez, Garciaparra and Schmidt can be expected to make it all the way through September.
The interesting part is that Colletti has put together a team many consider World Series worthy, and with pieces that in other cities and for other franchises were viewed as wholly expendable. Kent, for example, in Houston. Staff ace Derek Lowe in Boston. Schmidt in San Francisco. Gonzalez in Phoenix. Pierre in Chicago. Closer Takashi Saito in, uh, Yokohama. Even Little in Boston. OK, especially Little in Boston.
Colletti loves those guys, the way they look, the way they play, the way they show up and get ready and lead an otherwise young organization. And those guys love being appreciated for what they've got left, for the little parts of the game they can still control and the mistakes they've learned to avoid most of the time.
Yeah, sometimes they move a bit slower and can be a little cranky, but Colletti finds comfort in their been-there, done-that careers.
"I like the makeup of the people, the character of the people," he said an hour before the Dodgers would play the Los Angeles Angels at Dodger Stadium. "We're going to go through struggles as a group. Everybody does. We've got the makeup of people that are going to keep them short. It's about a blend of people and talent.
"They have a track record, a resume that tells you who they are, what they've been through. … These players, they love to win. Better yet, they hate to lose. They figured out somewhere along the way, the best part of the experience is in the journey and the winning. I like who they are."
So, he'll take the guys barreling into their mid-30's or bearing down on 40, the guys thought too fragile or quick-tempered or hard-living. He'll take them for those six hours a day, for those eight months a year, for as long as they play.
Then, he said, "If the young player overtakes the veteran, so be it. If the veteran goes down, we've got it covered."
Chances are, the Dodgers won't have a league MVP or a Cy Young. They had but two All-Stars last season. Their stars aren't necessarily even stars anymore, except in name and past deeds, and their young players still must earn their names with future deeds. Among their everyday players, only Rafael Furcal and Juan Pierre are fully in their primes, with the rest past theirs' or gaining on it. And, still, they are expected to carry the NL West and maybe even win a playoff series or two.
"Over the hill, under the hill, on the hill, whatever," Kent said. "What ultimately outweighs it all is when the player's objective is to win."
That would seem fair to expect. It doesn't always play that way. For a long time, it didn't for the Dodgers. They seem to have made a move on that, however, perhaps while sacrificing a small amount of vigor for the benefit of a broader perspective. Kent called it "the more perfect pace."
Because of that, Gonzalez said, "This is just a great fit for a lot of guys. I like the mix."
Asked if he's ever walked into a clubhouse in the hours before Opening Day and not felt the same way, he smiled and admitted, "Yeah, I've done it before. But, you keep it to yourself."