Rookie Yasiel Puig has given the Dodgers a spark. (USA Today Sports)
LOS ANGELES – There was ice cream Thursday at Dodger Stadium. The choices were three flavors of Baskin-Robbins: Gold Medal Ribbon, World Class Chocolate and Jamoca Almond Fudge. It was self-serve in the executive kitchen, where cups are provided. The most aggressive among them bring coffee mugs. Or perhaps a small fish bowl.
The charming tradition dates to the O'Malley era. When the Dodgers reach first place, or extend their first-place lead, the organization rolls in the tubs of dessert for its employees, and they toast a good day, or a day that got better by another half-game or so. Presumably, the company-wide sugar rush is good for any lingering and unmet sales quotas.
Later on Thursday, they'd open the doors to the place and let in 50-some thousand folks for the fifth consecutive home game. By the end of a homestand that will see the Cincinnati Reds and New York Yankees, the Dodgers expect 10 consecutive crowds of at least 50,000 paid, a first in franchise history.
Beneath a gloaming sky, under Gold Medal Ribbon clouds, the believers and the unconvinced sat Thursday with give-away Vin Scully bobbleheads in their laps. In the middle of the fifth inning they stood and applauded the man himself, and he waved back and held his hands over his heart. The team they came to see, for the first time since some could recall, was not overpaid, or underachieving, or about to fire their manager, or some disappointing knockoff of what had been advertised all winter long. Magic Johnson himself had promised more than some languid, beat-up, self-satisfied ballclub, which is what the Dodgers might have been mistaken for, oh, maybe a month ago. On Thursday night, when he was shown on the big board in his owner's seat near the third-base dugout, wearing a bright yellow shirt, Magic was received with a roar.
The business of baseball is good again here, thanks to a month that was very good to the Dodgers, that hurried them from last place in the NL West and 9½ games down to first place in the West and a buck-and-a-half up before Thursday's loss.
They won 23 games and lost five in a month and three days. In that time, they pitched better and scored more often than every team in the National League. Over the same prosperous period for the Dodgers, the next-best team in the West – the Colorado Rockies – had a record of 12-15. So the division fell down around the Dodgers, and they discovered something like their potential, and L.A. was forgiving enough to have them back.
There's music in the clubhouse. There's laughter in the dugout. And there's Jamoca Almond Fudge in the executive kitchen with free cups.
The Dodgers, for one, had gotten healthier. Hanley Ramirez, according to one among them, became "our sun." Andre Ethier moved to center field and in 34 games there he's batted .322 and slugged .466. In the month of July, nearly over now, Ramirez has batted .375. Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw have each won three games. Kenley Jansen has five saves. Juan Uribe drove in 14 runs. So did Adrian Gonzalez. Matt Kemp wasn't around much, but still hit .368. And Yasiel Puig swung at most pitches, ran into most walls, fell slightly off his pace to hit four-something forever, and still batted .292.
That's a month. Chances are very good the Dodgers won't stack another 23-5 on the last one, but what they've played themselves into is relevancy in their league, their division and their town.
Granted, it's a star-driven arena. That was partially the plan, when a year ago Thursday the Dodgers traded for Ramirez, then a month later traded for Gonzalez, and over the winter signed Greinke. It fell flat last summer. It did the same in the spring. Summer has been different, however, and the interesting part is that Skip Schumaker, for one, has batted .400 for going on four weeks. And A.J. Ellis has 14 RBIs in the same span. And a lefty a year and a month out of college named Paco Rodriguez hasn't allowed a run since June 5, 21 appearances ago.
They're the mortar guys and they've returned to their roles and their places in the lineup, so most things fit again. They've been in the uniform long enough to influence a clubhouse that is talented but, at its worst, lacked leadership. Some have won championships, and it resonates, particularly on a 30-42 team, which is exactly what the Dodgers were a month back.
"When everybody was talking about the Whole New Blue thing, I don't think they predicted me and [Nick] Punto up the middle and, no offense, [Matt] Magill on the mound," Schumaker said, smiling.
Maybe not every day. Schumaker was particularly complimentary of the "spark" that came with Puig's game. And then the Dodgers started to clear the disabled list. And then they started to win.
"I feel like, and Nick and I talk about it, like something really bad has to happen for us to lose the game," he said. "And that's a good thing. Before, we were almost waiting for the bad to happen."
The crowds were thin, as thin as the patience of fans who figured on more. As thin as the NL West would appear to be.
"It was definitely a burden from my standpoint," manager Don Mattingly said of the losing. "It wears you out. It's negative. Now everything is happening here because we're playing well."
The Dodgers lost to the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday night, their first loss of the second half, in their seventh game. The Arizona Diamondbacks gained a game. There's plenty of summer left, time for whatever it will bring.
But for most of a day, the Dodgers were what they themselves had envisioned, what many had, right down to the World Class Chocolate.
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