ANAHEIM, Calif. – The semi-annual Freeway Series, conducted between franchises separated on weekday afternoons by no more than four or five hours of stop-and-go driving, has again been unkind to the more established of the two.
That would be the Los Angeles Dodgers, who, in spite of consecutive trips to the National League championship series (the kind of prosperity they now count on every 20 years or so), can't seem to get out of their own backyard.
It's first a baseball thing. Wednesday night's 11th-hour train wreck on the basepaths became a one-run loss and, during the last four years, a 7-18 record against the Angels.
That Matt Kemp(notes) (the potential tying run) was picked off second, Reed Johnson(notes) (another potential tying run) eased up on his way home and Russell Martin(notes) (the potential go-ahead run) made the final out leaking toward third illuminated again that the Angels do the little things right and the Dodgers do the big things wrong.
And by "big," I mean very big.
Thursday happens to be the 14th anniversary of Tommy Lasorda's retirement from the field. He didn't know it then, and Thursday actually was the anniversary of the day he drove to the hospital and discovered nagging nausea was brought by a heart attack, but the official announcement would come a month later. The Dodgers, then under owner Peter O'Malley, had played the previous afternoon – "All I know is we won," Lasorda said. "And Mike Piazza hit a home run." – and from there would employ six managers, five general managers and change ownership twice during the next dozen years.
Those who have seen the doors swing open and closed at Chavez Ravine, including some who've held those doors, trace the club's winding path to two organizational decisions, both involving iconic catchers.
On May 14, 1998, the Dodgers – under Fox ownership – saved themselves a few negotiation headaches by trading Mike Piazza to the Florida Marlins.
And on Nov. 18, 1999, while the Dodgers were hiring Davey Johnson as their manager, the Angels appointed Mike Scioscia to be theirs.
More than a decade later, three Angels draft choices – high schoolers Ryan Bolden, Taylor Lindsey and Chevy Clarke – visited Angel Stadium with their parents. They took batting practice in the hours before the Angels would host the Dodgers. Scioscia stood behind the batting cage and shook their hands.
Beforehand, Angels scouting director Eddie Bane told them, "This is going to be your manager in the big leagues. He'll be here when you're here, and he's the best in the game. Say hi to him now. This is not going to be the last time you think about him – or him about you. And, with some help, he's going to be the guy who makes the decision to bring you here."
There is no other organization in baseball that could honestly make the same claim to a high school senior. Scioscia, who in 10 full seasons has won at least 89 games seven times, who has built the previously flighty Angels into something sturdy and sustainable, who accepts nothing less than effort and honesty, is under contract through 2018. Arte Moreno, the club's owner since 2003, made sure of that.
A fawning fellow football coach once said of Bear Bryant, "He can take his'n and beat your'n, and he can take your'n and beat his'n." Say the same for Scioscia. The Angels cast off John Lackey(notes), Vladimir Guerrero(notes) and Chone Figgins(notes), and stand in late June at 41-33. Scioscia's his'n rank 11th in the American League in pitching and fifth in runs and near last in fielding percentage, yet, and with the help of five wins in five games against the Dodgers, remain more than competitive. He's going to need more of your'n – the Angels have set their trading deadline priority at corner infield (Kendry Morales(notes) is done for the season, Maicer Izturis(notes) is again fragile and Brandon Wood(notes) is batting .174), but haven't ruled out leaping into the Cliff Lee(notes)/Roy Oswalt frays. But, for the moment, his'n will do.
Meantime, up the freeway, an organization that set industry standards for stability and civility in an O'Malley era that nevertheless gave birth to two decades of mediocre baseball, the Dodgers generally have returned to winning – but the price in owner's-box dysfunction has proved disproportionately high. And it's weighing on the franchise.
Frank McCourt has lorded over consecutive seasons that came within a breath of the World Series, outcomes that should have earned him the benefit of the doubt, but haven't. He committed another $45 million to Manny Ramirez(notes), which should have answered questions about his financial solvency, but haven't. And as the mid-summer trading deadline approaches, the Dodgers are on a six-game losing streak, are getting thinner in their pitching staff by the inning, are in the precarious position of needing a frontline starter and are running out of time with their own iconic manager, Joe Torre.
While a little dysfunction never hurt anyone, some dysfunction and a lot of debt could do serious damage to the Dodgers in the coming weeks when the likes of Lee and Oswalt are expected to join division races.
McCourt has been fond of pointing out that big payrolls don't win championships. But he'd probably grant that pitching does. As a man who's been thrown a few curveballs in the past year, he likely recognizes the Dodgers can't go another 72 games in which 35 percent of their starts are made by John Ely(notes), Carlos Monasterios(notes), Charlie Haeger(notes) and Ramon Ortiz(notes).
Should they not vastly improve the pitching staff, should the penny-pinching trend of the offseason continue through summer, and should G.M. Ned Colletti be forced to make do with his own his'n, then the momentum of the past two seasons, the uncannily loyal fan base and the manager's future plans could all be collateral damage.
It could be franchise turning.
It's just something to think about, given that the Dodgers have reached another one of those moments. You might even call it a big thing.