This is where you find out that I’ve never seen “The Godfather” series — don’t even know its quotable characters or the words that made them famous. So when Los Angeles Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said, with credit to Hyman Roth, “This is the life we’ve chosen,” I didn’t realize until later that he had made the sentiment bigger than it originally was.
According to a 24-second clip on YouTube, Roth actually said, “This is the business we’ve chosen.” But, I guess, what is working in the baseball business if not an all-consuming way of life? Especially if you’re Andrew Friedman.
Five months removed from his Dodgers beating the Tampa Bay Rays on a field in Texas to close out the strangest season in the sport’s history as surprisingly predictable victors, I asked Friedman how it feels to be back at square one — citing a conundrum that’s not specific to the Dodgers or even a time beset by COVID-19. Across sports, the goal is always to win a championship — one reward for which is simply the chance to try again. But Friedman and his team know perhaps better than anyone else that you can build a championship-worthy team year after year for nearly a decade and only take home the trophy once, complete with an asterisk you probably don’t deserve.
And now, staring down another six-month climb simply to get back to the postseason — a berth that’s about as guaranteed as anything can be in sports, which is to say it’s not, and besides, have you seen the Padres roster lately? — people call you up to ask about the ultimate goal for 2021. The answer is obvious: Another trophy, another championship — this time with all the pomp and circumstance that normally goes along with it. Consecutive World Series wins, as tough as that is. A championship that he actually gets to enjoy.
But lest you think the first one made Friedman jaded, he laughs a little ruefully and says of that kind of success: “It’s fleeting, it’s precious. We have to treat it with care.”
Throughout the condensed coronavirus season that always felt one more outbreak away from total collapse, the Dodgers had encouraged each other to try to make “COVID lemonade” out of whatever unprecedented weirdness they encountered.
“And we made the ultimate COVID lemonade by winning the World Series,” he said.
But there wasn’t much of a celebration once he got out of the Texas postseason bubble.
“Zero,” Friedman says. “But I did get to experience a lot of relief, which is great.”
For one thing, last fall and into winter wasn’t a very celebratory time in this country, with the pandemic reaching new heights and death tolls ticking steadily upwards.
“So many awful things happened to so many people everywhere,” Friedman says, “And I have a hard time reconciling that that happened while on the other hand, I accomplished my ultimate professional dream.”
And for Friedman in particular there was also the weight of so many years of coming up short in October. The Dodgers were already NL West winners when he got there ahead of the 2015 season, but under Friedman the team became a big-spending, star-studded, perennial powerhouse with an enviable balance between a homegrown core and headline-worthy acquisitions. The model franchise that could tout sustainability without it looking like a euphemism for simply maintaining mediocrity. But even a 106-win team can be booted back to the couch in the first round once the stakes of every series are ratcheted up. To know the recent history of Major League Baseball is to test your sympathies for Sisyphus in modern Dodger blue.
“I think the pressure to win was overwhelming,” Friedman says. “When we have lost in the World Series, in the CS or DS, that night and the next morning, it feels so daunting, to think about getting back to the exact place you were 24 hours prior. All that goes into that.”
So what does it feel like to finally break through?
“I always wondered what the breakdown would be between relief and joy when we won,” Friedman says. “And I think it was like, 99 percent relief and 1 percent joy. So I’m hopeful the next time is the inverse of that.”
Next time: Which brings us back to spring training. AKA Square One.
Friedman says that in prior years he’d been champing at the bit to get back to Camelback Ranch, because it meant the season was just around the corner. The team would get another shot to not fall short.
“Whereas after we won, I was like, ‘Eh, if the season is delayed, that's fine. No problem. Whenever it starts is fine.’”
Which is why Friedman doesn’t shy away from the question about complacency, or whatever it is that makes it so hard to repeat. Just ask the 2019 Boston Red Sox or 2020 Washington Nationals.
What Friedman called the cautionary tales of recent victors were “front of mind for us this offseason.” And so the Dodgers went and made themselves better over the winter, took their laurels and turned them into kindling to build an even bigger bonfire, attracting the talent of reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer and bolstering their bullpen.
Besides, there’s still that elusive joy.
“I don't think that they have in their DNA taking their foot off the pedal, and I haven't seen it at all this spring training in terms of complacency,” Friedman says of his team. “It's something that we're all really mindful of, but I think not getting a chance to celebrate and have the parade and do it in front of our fans helps them in that respect.”
And the only way to get that is to push the boulder back up the mountain, starting at the only place they can: the very bottom. Knowing full well what it’ll feel like if they slip just short of the summit and, finally, having once earned but not experienced all that’s waiting if they don’t.
In not-quite words of Hyman Roth: It’s the life they’ve chosen.
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