LOS ANGELES – Shane Victorino was groomed by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yes, groomed. At one point during his frustrating three-year stint at their Double-A affiliate, no less than Tom Lasorda told him to cut his hair.
Matt Stairs wasn't so much groomed as tolerated – then sent packing. He's played for 11 major league teams,
one Japanese team and one in the Mexican League. Oh, and he played for the Canadian Olympic team. Way back, back, back, in 1988.
Now Victorino and Stairs wear the same uniform, that of the Philadelphia Phillies. And their wildly divergent paths reached an identical delirious destination Monday night – home plate at Dodger Stadium.
Victorino's two-run home run into the Phillies' bullpen tied the score in the eighth inning, and three batters later Stairs' two-run, pinch-hit homer deep into the right-field seats gave the Phillies a 7-5 victory and a 3-1 advantage in the National League Championship Series.
For Victorino, there was the sweet redemption of defeating the team that gave up on him not once, but twice, while he watched other players leapfrog him to Chavez Ravine. Not to mention defeating the team that tried to bean him with a pitch 24 hours earlier.
For Stairs, there was the sweet redemption of staving off Father Time with one swing, driving away whispers that he was too old, too fat, too one-dimensional to belong. He's 40, nearing the end of a nomadic career that has endured because he can still turn on a fastball, even a 95-mph smoker by young gun Jonathan Broxton.
For the Phillies, the outcome put to rest the question of whether they could beat the Dodgers on the road. The home team had won all 11 games
between the clubs this season. The Phillies could have won the series even had they lost three in Los Angeles. But the pattern was broken, smashed to bits by two swings, and the Phillies will be better for it should they be fortunate enough to open a World Series in Tampa Bay or Boston.
The first swing was Victorino's, from the left side against reliever Cory Wade. One of the few players ever drafted off the island of Maui, Victorino wouldn't know how to hit left-handed if it weren't for his tenure with the Dodgers. Minor league hitting coach Gene Richards taught him to switch-hit before he was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft by two general managers who didn't believe he had the power to play every day in the big leagues.
Dan Evans let the San Diego Padres take him before the 2003 season, but because Victorino couldn't stick on the major league roster, the Padres were obliged to return him to the Dodgers. A year later it was GM Paul DePodesta who left Victorino unprotected, and the Phillies snapped him up. He didn't make the Phillies' roster, but the Dodgers told the Phillies to just go ahead and keep him. It took him another year to stick, and now he's a vital cog who hit a grand slam in Game 1 of the NL Division Series, shined in Game 2 of the NLCS before learning of the death of his grandmother and found himself in the midst of the maelstrom Sunday when Hiroki Kuroda barely missed his head and the benches cleared.
So, how about those Dodgers?
Victorino took the high road, saying, "I have no grudges. I thank them for the opportunity." Then he paused, and added, "I definitely would have loved to be in that uniform. It just doesn't always work out that way."
Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth, himself a Dodgers castoff, said what Victorino wouldn't: "After what he went through with that organization, he's absolutely thrilled to do this against them. They sent him packing. They didn't want him. I couldn't be happier for him."
The same sentiment was expressed throughout the Phillies' clubhouse for Stairs as well. He was acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays after clearing waivers Aug. 30 and had a grand total of 17 at-bats
in a Phillies uniform in September.
"I have three daughters, so I've developed a lot of patience," he said breezily. "I can adjust to pinch-hitting. If I want to stay in the big leagues, this is what I have to do. I could have retired, but I know I can still play."
Stairs is outgoing, a self-described "clown." So he had no problem fitting in. The fact that he has 254 career home runs didn't hurt.
"He's like a player-coach," first baseman Ryan Howard said. "You listen to him because he's a professional hitter. He's somebody who has done this a long time."
Part of baseball's charm is that rank-and-file players such as Victorino and Stairs can be rewarded for their perseverance, for their willingness to believe in themselves even when those around them don't.
And on a cloudless night in the biggest game of their lives – until the next one – that belief was transformed into production, into something no one can take away from them.
"It's all about working all your life to reach the ultimate goal," Victorino said. "I'm not counting myself in yet. We still have one more to win. You can never get too satisfied playing this game."
He looked over to Stairs, who was holding court with a mass of media a few lockers away. "He knows that. That's why he's lasted as long as he has. That's the guy I really feel good about."