PHOENIX – Young men and grown men, the vibrant and the weary, so many of them had stood together before in this very party, thick with satisfaction and hope. They’d not yet attained all they could, or all they’d want, but it’s all they could possess in the moment, and that would have to do.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have covered this ground. They have toasted this time. They have swarmed clubhouses familiar and foreign, leaving them soaked and, in time, forgotten.
So it was on Monday night, the Dodgers, winners again in a division series that was all they could think about for just as long as was required of them, turned again to the National League Championship Series, the doorstep of the World Series. They’d swept the Arizona Diamondbacks in three games, and as they gathered on the field, ace Clayton Kershaw among the first into closer Kenley Jansen’s arms, policemen on foot and on horseback circled them dutifully. Two horses, one white and one gray, posed before the pool beyond the outfield fence at Chase Field, their riders alert, and the gray one left its mound of evidence on the warning track, signaling the end for the home team.
The Dodgers had pitched with precision and hit often enough, befitting a team that won 104 games and a fifth consecutive NL West title and, it could be argued, is overdue for a World Series appearance. They’re going on three decades without one, a lot for a franchise so decorated.
This time, they’d leaned on Yu Darvish at the front end, the likes of Brandon Morrow and Kenta Maeda close behind, and Kenley Jansen for the final 16 pitches, the last of which struck out Paul Goldschmidt, the very spirit of the Diamondbacks. Rookie Cody Bellinger and backup catcher Austin Barnes homered. They won 3-1, and that was that. The Diamondbacks shook each other’s hands and promised to stay in touch. The Dodgers went off to another NLCS, what will be their second in two seasons, their third in five, their fifth in a decade, once again believing this one will be different, this one will be glorious, this one will have the party at the end of it.
Kershaw watched his young daughter stomp through the clubhouse puddles. He was happy. They all were. He knows the rigors of what is coming perhaps better than any of them. He also knows why that is a reason to laugh today, and to cheer the giggles and the biggest splashes by those tiny little feet today, and to honor the 11 months and two weeks of effort to return to the very spot that beat them a year ago.
“The only way I can explain it,” he said, “is baseball is so hard. There’s so many failures. Me, more than anybody, knows you’re going to fail. It’s easy to rest. But that means you have to celebrate too.”
He looked across a clubhouse cloaked in protective plastic and doused in goofy grins. He pointed. Look at what Kenta Maeda had done tonight, he said. And Brandon Morrow. And Yasiel Puig. And Yu Darvish.
“Just recognizing,” he said, “guys that are out of their comfort zones.”
In a moment of alarm, he whisked up his daughter, shouted, “Nature calls,” and returned a few minutes later, the crisis averted.
“Guys that rose to the occasion for this series,” he said, “it’s special.”
They had been the best team in baseball for months. And then they weren’t. And then it was time to play again, in October, which meant no net, and no excuses, and if others expected them to win or demanded that they win, it was they who had to stand in against Robbie Ray and Zack Greinke, and they who must avoid the bat barrels of Goldschmidt and J.D. Martinez, and they who’d have to answer for the outcome.
“You know the ‘Man in the Mirror’ quote, right?” Kershaw said. “By Teddy Roosevelt? You’ve heard of it.”
It begins, “It is not the critic who counts,” and concludes, “… so that this place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
One of the great ballplayers of his generation, along with many other generations, Kershaw, who will take the ball in Game 1 of the NLCS on Saturday night at Dodger Stadium whether the opponent be the Chicago Cubs (again) or the Washington Nationals (again), offers up parts of himself only by the ounce. The rest he saves for the little girl skittering through the puddles, his family, his pals back home in Dallas, and the men in this very room.
In that moment, Puig, who’d made the final out in last year’s NLCS, bounced through the room, fairly skittering himself. Just this summer he’d announced to a full Dodger Stadium that he’d see them all in the World Series.
“Two more,” he said, meaning series. “Eight more wins. To be what everybody wants us to be. I promised that. Everybody promised that. And everybody is waiting.”
And Jansen pushed his goggles back on his forehead and said, “We know how good we are, man. … Eight wins. Just eight wins. That’s all we care about.”
And Andre Ethier slowed as he walked by and wondered if anyone currently in the game had been a part of so many postseason series – the coming NLCS will be his 13th – without sniffing the World Series. “A long road,” he said. “Eight games to win after this doesn’t seem like a lot. I know better. I know it’s a long road.”
It’ll have to do, this season they had to play, the division they had to dominate, the series they had to win, this celebration that had to roar. All of it to return to where it all began, to a ball field in late October, to a ball in their hand or a bat on their shoulder, a win or two or four from where they’d not gone before. So the party wound down and the clubbies gathered up the plastic, rivers of beer being urged toward buckets and drains and mops, and the music stopped, and grown men squished toward the showers carrying toothbrushes.
“This was a lot of fun,” Kershaw said. “The next one I’ve never done before, and it’ll be bigger. And the next one, the one after that, I might not sleep for 10 days, I don’t know.”