LOS ANGELES – Bad baseball, bad management and bad luck, maladies that can sneak up and stick to an organization over a couple decades, maybe – just maybe – have been chased from Dodger Stadium.
Admittedly, there lies a risky (and so entirely couched) premise.
These are still the Dodgers, a once august and now wonderfully mercurial franchise that started taking on water a generation ago and hasn’t stopped bailing since.
It still has a front office that continuously treadmills from the mistakes – real and perceived – of whatever regime preceded it, and so they're patching and not creating, sighing and not singing.
But, hey, the air over Chavez Ravine is clearing. You know, figuratively speaking. There’s life here.
How else to explain the slightly puffy man who showed up Tuesday night, wearing No. 36, carrying 353 wins, scheduled to pitch Friday, having arrived earlier in the day from the division rival down south?
How else to describe the bearded man at third base, playing a thoroughly professional game, arriving just as the kids who came before him had run their course?
Encumbered by age and injury, yet granted the most vulnerable division in the game and therefore certifiable postseason contention, the Dodgers in the last three weeks had Greg Maddux and Manny Ramirez fall into their laps and found Casey Blake in time to drag some offense from that corner of the infield.
And a pitching staff that is statistically the best in the game just dropped Maddux into the fourth spot in the rotation, the future Hall of Famer passing injured Brad Penny on his way through the door.
As fortune would have it, Maddux, Ramirez and Blake will be free agents after the season, Ramirez forcing his with the pointy end of agent Scott Boras’ bare-knuckle tactics. None would be here otherwise.
This is where luck turned for the Dodgers. This is how 20 years of misery begins to lighten. You know, maybe.
Ramirez and Maddux had no-trade rights. Ramirez could have gone to the Phillies or the Florida Marlins. The Padres were reasonably close on a deal that would have sent Maddux to the Phillies.
They’d only come to Los Angeles.
The Red Sox kept calling the Dodgers, softening their demands. First they wanted Andre Ethier. Then they’d underwrite all of Ramirez’s salary. Then, well, Andy LaRoche would do, so they could get Jason Bay from Pittsburgh. Eventually, general manager Ned Colletti got the idea the Red Sox had nowhere else to put Ramirez, and that’s why Ramirez is in L.A.
The Padres, according to sources, had promised Maddux he’d go to a contender rather than play out the season on a bad team. He deserved that. They owed him that. Except, well, Maddux wanted to stay on the coast and, as the National League goes, there is exactly one team that will play for anything in September. Kevin Towers pushed Maddux through waivers, sighed, handed him over to the Dodgers and kept his word.
Asked Tuesday evening if the Dodgers were the only team he would have accepted a trade, Maddux grinned and admitted, “Pretty much.”
It’s good to be standing in the right place at the right time, better when the floor is strewn with Jones and Jason Schmidt, big-money mistakes, better when the disabled list holds Rafael Furcal and Penny, cornerstones who might not be much help anymore, and better still when you are paying a fraction of the player’s salary (Maddux) or none at all (Ramirez and Blake).
And don’t think Colletti and owner Frank McCourt haven’t heard about the last part. In the 4½ years since he purchased the club, or since the day the term “highly-leveraged” first appeared as a regular modifier to that transaction, McCourt has worn a reputation for being in a little over his checking account. It didn’t matter when the Dodgers’ payroll nudged up against $120 million, or that he was the guy bankrolling the big contracts, good and bad.
Even as the future Hall of Famers came to town, the prospects-over-cash transactions have fed speculation McCourt is running short of dollars for players or trust in Colletti. Or both. Neither appears to be true. One theory running in baseball circles is McCourt wouldn’t have agreed to pony up for even a portion of Maddux’s salary before Ramirez started taxing the turnstiles, but that seems farfetched as well. The Dodgers needed a pitcher. They got one.
And the notion that McCourt trampled Colletti to meddle in the negotiations to acquire Ramirez? Colletti asked him to make those calls to Theo Epstein.
In the sixth inning of Tuesday night's 8-3 loss to the Rockies, McCourt turned a hard stare away from the batters box.
“I think it’s really a little odd we’re sitting here playing our best baseball of the year, just landed Blake, Ramirez and Maddux, and you’re asking me about our GM,” he said. “I think it’s very, very strange. The team is playing great right now. There’s a lot of enthusiasm. Everybody’s having fun; players, fans, everybody.
“I feel we’re in a good place right now. You’ve got to give credit where credit is due. Ned and his people have worked very hard to get us where we are.”
Several hours earlier, Colletti shrugged.
“I don’t worry about those perceptions,” he said. “We’ve been able to get Maddux. We’ve been able to get Manny Ramirez. We’ve been able to get Casey Blake. We were able to get those three players.”
Sources who ought to know don’t seem to believe Colletti, who is under contract through next season, is in imminent danger of losing his job.
So, and for now, these are the Dodgers. New, improved, slightly couched.