LOS ANGELES – Twenty years might not sound like much next to 100, but sometimes they played like a century in L.A.
A place in the National League Championship Series might not look like much for a franchise that once stood with the signature teams in baseball, but, well, the name had become far bigger than the game, so it was with great relief and more than a little pride that the Los Angeles Dodgers rushed the field on Saturday night.
While the Chicago Cubs drifted into Year of Ignominy 101, bowing out gently at the end of a 97-win season that was supposed to free them finally, the Dodgers took a small but not insignificant step toward their former stature.
When it was done and the Dodgers had secured a semifinal series against either the Philadelphia Phillies or Milwaukee Brewers, when veterans such as Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra leapt and laughed alongside youngsters such as Matt Kemp and Russell Martin, the Cubs dropped their heads and towed Lou Piniella from another lost baseball season.
"We were expecting more," Piniella said on his way out of town.
For those 20 years, since Gibson and Hershiser and Scioscia and Lasorda, the Dodgers hadn't won so much as a playoff series. They'd won a single postseason game. New owners came, followed by new philosophies and new managers and new players. So many new players. And all those seasons would end the same way.
No, 20 years isn't 100 (and a World Series is still forever away), but they were plenty in these parts, and so they celebrated this sweep of the Cubs, and they celebrated Joe Torre and Manny Ramirez as though they were Dodger lifers, and, hey, maybe it's a start.
They beat the Cubs 3-1 on Saturday night, finishing them with a lot of starting pitching and a little bit of Manny, a little bit of James Loney, and finally when Jonathan Broxton pumped a slider past Alfonso Soriano, who'd tried to check his swing. These are the Cubs, still, so of course he went around. Just like that, the game's forlorn franchise had been swallowed again by a century of bad baseball, unlucky baseball and good baseball gone bad.
The Dodgers, meantime, remade themselves over the course of a calendar year and then amid another sideways season. So, in the face of standing strategies and appeals for patience that seemed beneath them, Torre stood at the top step, and Manny (delivered by Scott Boras) batted third, and Hiroki Kuroda pitched them into the seventh inning and Blake DeWitt manned second base and Casey Blake stood at third base and Cory Wade got the critical outs between Kuroda and Broxton. Rafael Furcal hurriedly returned from back surgery. The Dodgers are going to the NLCS and Andruw Jones has not a drop of champagne on him.
Yes, the Dodgers persevered, and some of the kids grew up, but they're grounded enough to know they fell into a few puddles of good fortune along the way, among them Torre and Manny overstaying their welcomes in the AL East within nine months of each other. They rethought and retooled and labored against mediocre results and, yeah, then they drew the Cubs in the first round. They won 84 games, which was a lot in the NL West, or at least plenty.
Then, given a chance to play on, they played their best ball of the season, just as the Cubs were playing some of their worst. As the party raged in the Dodgers clubhouse, Cubs GM Jim Hendry trudged by the open double doors, just out of spray range, his eyes ringed in red. Inside, Manny and Nomar, Red Sox ex-pats, laughed together. Derek Lowe and Greg Maddux stood to the side, bottles in their hands, holding a conversation that could have been poolside. In a small room off the clubhouse, Torre and Larry Bowa toasted. They were in the wrong ballpark, wearing the wrong clothes, enjoying it all the more.
"Hey, you never know, man," Ramirez said. "The key is to get into the playoffs. Then anything can happen."
James Loney could hit a grand slam in Game 1. The other guy's defense could melt down in Game 2. Kuroda could outpitch Rich Harden in Game 3. And the NLCS could be next.
"There were days it looked like it was insurmountable to fall into place," said Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, a Chicago guy who attended his first Cubs game in 1961. "There's not a ton of expectations. Suddenly, you find yourselves in the LCS."
Yeah, an OK team in a so-so league is four wins from the World Series, a long time since it has even been that close. Maybe it's a coincidence, maybe this would have happened under other managers, but the New York Yankees missed the playoffs this season, and the Dodgers will play to go to the World Series.
On a cool night that began with the tarp stretched across the infield, it didn't look like a coincidence. It looked like a mistake by the Yankees. It looked like the Dodgers had a calm hand, an unquestioned leader, a manager who repaired a fractured clubhouse and soothed bruised egos and drew more out of less. It looked like two decades had run their course.
"Well," Torre said, "I wasn't part of that history either. But, it's very satisfying. Very satisfying. We had a lot of people doubting us all year. And … we weren't resentful about it. It was just the fact we hadn't played well enough to get anybody's attention.
"But, they started having fun. I can't thank the veterans on this club enough for stepping aside. Jeff and Nomar and Juan [Pierre], I mean, they made my life a lot easier to write a lineup without their names in it."
Well, you know what he meant.
"Joe kept everything steady when we were going through all kinds of different things," Colletti said.
A few minutes earlier, Manny had stood outside the clubhouse, sipping on a juice box. It was passion fruit.
"I gotta drive," he said.
Yeah, the Dodgers have a ways to go still. Or maybe they don't. But, they aren't the Cubs. Sometimes, it only seemed like it.